Monday, June 19, 2017

The Princess Bride (1987)


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Yup, I’m at it again. Since the big gap between 1980 and ’85, I now feel the need to keep remediating Fox’s oversights in their 75th Anniversary DVD collection. And so now, even though they’ve well represented 1987 with two titles (the two previous blog entries), I think they missed a couple more. Okay, three more, but who’s counting?

The first one is The Princess Bride, which, despite tepid box office and moderate critical acclaim, has grown into one of the biggest cult films of the ‘80s. It was sort of a harbinger of sorts too: 1987 was the year of the alternative fairy tale. Sure, now they’re all over the place, but the genre truly began 30 years ago, when The Charmings debuted on ABC, Shelly Duvall’s Faerie Tale Theater was still going strong on Showtime, Deadtime Stories came out in the movies and Steven Sondheim’s Into the Woods ruled the roost on Broadway.

And there was The Princess Bride, released to theaters in October, and the fourth film from director Rob Reiner, whose previous three works were unqualified successes. Actually, Bride had been long in the works; William Goldman’s screenplay, based on his children’s book, was floating around Hollywood for the better part of ten years, and only a few brave souls dared consider it as a viable project. But Reiner must have detected something special about the script, and indeed the dialogue does bristle with the sort of cheeky wit the man who penned Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was renowned for.

We begin, not during the Middle Ages, but in a child’s bedroom: a boy (Fred Savage), sick and home from school, gets a visit from granddad (Peter Falk), who proceeds to lift his spirits by reading a classic storybook “The Princess Bride.” The film whisks us away into the tale, as a fair maiden, Buttercup (Robin Wright), falls in love with the family farmhand, Westley (Carey Elwes). But their love is to be short-lived; he goes off to sail the world, only to be abducted and ostensibly killed by pirates, while she is engaged to marry a somewhat sketch royal prince named Humperdinck. Resolved to locate he true love, she escapes her betrothed, only to be kidnapped by a trio of circus performers: the nebbish ringleader, Vizzini; the soft-hearted giant Fezzik; and the Spanish swordsman Inigo Montoya. But lookout, the Man in Black is on their trail, and he fends them off one by one (in different manners of battle) to rescue his beloved.

Buttercup learns that the Man in Black is one other than Westley, and together they survive the perils of the Fire Swamp before getting captured by Humperdinck, who takes back his bride and sends Westley to an agonizing death in the pit of despair. Meanwhile, Inigo realizes that Rugen, Humperdinck’s right-hand man, is his father’s murderer, a man whom he is conducting a lifelong quest to search out and kill. Inigo allies with Vizzini and Westley (brought back to life courtesy a wisecracking medicine man) to rescue the damsel in distress. In the end, Inigo exacts his revenge, Westley is finally betrothed to his beloved, and Grandpa finishes his story. The boy, evidently feeling better, requests a rereading.

I’d seen Bride years ago, upon its release on home vid as I was then working at the West Coast Video nearest my grandmom’s (it was my summer job). And my opinion now, having seen it again for this blog, is pretty much the same as it was then.

Meh.

And it pains me to say it too – I’m a big fan of all talent involved, from director Rob Reiner to writer William Goldman to executive producer Norman Lear. And Robin Wright, in her film debut, has never looked more beautiful. But the problem here is that I told find the movie particularly funny. Sure, it’s cute (I know, the worst praise you can give), and yes, the entire production is handsomely mounted. But it just doesn’t have the giant guffaws of a parody like This Is Spinal Tap, Reiner’s first film.

And perhaps that’s the problem: Bride just doesn’t know which tone to take. It has far too soft a touch to be a raucous comedy. And it’s really too lighthearted to be a dramatic exercise, and there are several intense sequences that put much of it in the latter category. The final result is something of a mishmash, with some many genre shifts it actually winds up being boring. I found myself checking the time remaining quite a bit for a 98-minute movie.

Of course, I ‘d be remiss in failing to acknowledge what a huge cult favorite it has become, and I think it has a great deal to do with the general public hunger for modern-day fairy tales. They were willing to overlook the flaws so they could embrace this generally irony-free fantasy. No historical baggage, very little “gritty” violence, just a sweeping medieval romance, with some Billy Crystal wisecracks thrown in for modernity. Every once in a while we get something like this, from Drew Barrymore’s Ever After to Heath Ledger’s A Knight’s Tale. And they always tend to do well, critically and commercially.

But it just doesn’t work for me. It didn’t then, and it still doesn’t really now.

But there’s far worse out there, especially now. So I’ll still give it….


Rating:  ***

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps (2010)


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Not a full-length review on this one – I just wanted to catch the sequel to Wall Street (not part of the 75th Anniversary Collection), which I never saw, while the original was still fresh in my mind. It certainly helped: now that I’m more fluent in financial lingo (at least of the movies), I could better understand the events and actions with which Oliver Stone’s follow-up concerns itself.

But of course, I didn’t need a crash-course in economics to appreciate the return of Gordon Gecko, by now an archetypal character, and seeing him played by Michael Douglas, 23 years later, was a thrill that makes Wall Street 2 worth watching, even if it’s nowhere near as good as its predecessor.

In 2008, Gordon Gecko has just been released from prison. Insider trading, sure, but he got the most time – eight years – for far more nefarious dealings, busted by a now-wildly successful investor, Bretton James (Josh Brolin), the head of a firm named Churchill Schwartz. When he decides to crush a rival firm, Keller Zabel, by spreading false rumors about toxic debt, its director, Louis Zabel (Fank Langella) commits suicide. One of Zabel’s investors, a young upstart named Jake Moore (Shia LeBouf), takes the especially hard: he’d always been a protégée to Louis, and now he’s looking to get back at the one responsible.

Enter Gecko, now revealed as the father of Jake’s fiancé, Winnie (Carey Mulligan). Gecko and Winnie’s relationship is strained, to say the least: he blames her for not meeting him after jail and she blames him for her brother’s drug overdose death. But Jake arranges a deal – he’ll help repair their relations if Gecko can help him bring Bretton down. Jake does indeed get the word out on the firm’s illegal oil holdings, resulting in a 120 million dollar loss, but rather than fume Bretton offers the boy a job, which he takes, hoping in part to use his leverage to persuade the Chinese to invest in his pet project of alternative energy.

But then – the Crash of 2008 – and Bretton nixes the Chinese deal, firing Jake in the process. It looks as though Gecko will pony up the money, but he reneges last minute, flees to England and sets up a hedge-fund business. Meanwhile, Jake gets the skinny on Bretton’s double-dealings, exposes them on Winnie’s website, and costs the tycoon any chance of a government bailout. Gecko reconsiders his actions and wires his future son-in-law the money, reconciling with his daughter (the mother of his grandchild) in the process.

Wall Street 2 is a perfectly serviceable sequel. It brings back Douglas as Gecko, and the fact that the actor was battling cancer at the time just makes his effort that much more admirable. He delivers a speech early on that resembles his classic “Greed is Good” oration from the original, and it reflects the same, albeit for the post-Recession times. “It seems that now, not only is greed good, but it’s also illegal.”

But he delivers the speech somewhat ironically, and that’s because Gecko is now a reformed man. Sure, he still knows how to play the market, and his thirst for the good life is quite very much intact, but he plays it cool these days, prefeering to watch and analyze the market rather than participate in it. And he’s even written a book about it, somewhat of a cautionary tome, presumably to exhort others not to make the same mistakes he did. In fact, aside from one third-act plot twist, Gecko is, for al intents and purposes, a nice guy.

Perhaps that may be what the man should do, but it also robs Wall Street 2 of its theme. The original was not simply a rollicking financial drama, but it had something vita to say – that modern businesses are now being run, and destroyed, by profiteering investors and shareholders, who care not a thing about their holdings, and would sell everything right away if they had to. The pint was so vtal, in fact, that it was prescient. That same year was the Crash of 1987, and then later the Internet Bubble of 2000, and still later…

The surrogate baddie this time is James Brolin, but his takedown isn’t nearly as satisfying as Gecko’s was in the original. And also, Jake, an alt-energy idealist, doesn’t quite seem credible as a trader. Why is he one? I suppose one could argue he needs the money for his Fusion project, but aren’t there other ways short of selling your soul? And again, we don’t get really get the theme of high-level corruption, and perhaps one reason is the absence of a Martin Sheen character, who represents he nuts-and-bolts, albeit less glamorous, side of things.

But still, even though Wall Street 2’s language gets a bit thick (it doesn’t explain things in quite the same, engaging way as the original), it’s still good to see this character again, and even director Stone uses some restraint from his usual indulgences to tell the story. (Oh, and don’t miss the Charlie Sheen cameo, reprising Bud Fox; this scene alone is worth the price of admission.)

No, it’s not a necessary sequel, but it is entertaining, and it doesn’t diminish the original in any way. For those reasons alone, I can recommend it.


Rating:  ***


Monday, June 5, 2017

Wall Street (1987)


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As Wall Street director Oliver Stone notes in the audio commentary for the film, not many films about big business as the central topic have ever been made. It’s a tough nut to crack, to be sure: most films either go overboard with the nomenclature of the trade, shooting way over the audience’s heads (Rollover), or they just deal with it peripherally, as window dressing for easier-to-grasp (and write) subjects like love (Trading Places, Working Girl). And some movies, like he much overrated Inside Job, pretend to examine it, but actually just pay lip service. And then, even if it works, there’s no guarantee the audiences will agree.

But Wall Street is the exception, practically the lone exception in my opinion. It straddles the balance between tight, smart accuracy and immensely satisfying entertainment. With a razor sharp screenplay by its director, Oliver Stone, and Staney Weiser, it darts from scene to scene, character to character, in a flurry of deals, mergers, breakups, valuations, buying, selling, acquisitions and liquidations. It really all does feel like you’re on the floor of the NY Stock Market, and Stone’s human story is in keeping with his usual recurrent, archetypal theme of a neophyte who must chose between good and bad, and grow regardless of which path he chooses.

Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen) is a Wall St. stockbroker, working like a dog but loving the rush of buying and selling – and making money. Opposite him is his dad, Carl (Martin Sheen), a union foreman for the airline Bluestar. But restless Bud wants to meet with multi-millionaire corporate raider Gordon Gecko (Michael Douglas), and lures him in with the inside scoop (learned from dad) that Bluestar stocks will rise after a favorable court ruling. They do, and now an impressed Gecko takes Bud under his wing, showing him the in’s and out’s of the trade, and a few tricks that might not necessarily be legal. He has the boy trail his British archrival, Larry Wildman, and learns as a result that a steel company is a comer. Wildman fumes, sensing foul play, but for Gecko it’s all in the game – nothing is right or wrong, only what you can get away with.

Now immersed in the world of insider-trading, Bud’s wealth grows staggeringly, He hooks up with Darien (Daryl Hannah), an upscale interior designer, and buys a posh new apartment on the Upper East Side. But he also starts to understand the insidious side of Gecko’s machinations, and what he does to companies after he acquires then. When Gecko outlines a “restructuring” of Bluestar, Carl sees it for the ruse that it really is; only too late does Bud realize what he has allowed when he learns of plans to liquidate the company, selling off planes, busting unions, firing scores and eliminating pensions. But Bud isn’t defeated yet – he hatches a plan to get the airline back by leaking the liquidating plans, causing a mass buyout of its stocks followed by a mass sellout when they peak. He then has the unions tell Gecko they’re pulling out, compelling him to sell his shares, but no one wants to buy. Before long, he dumps everything, at a huge loss only to learn his rival Wildman had scooped everything up, promising to retain unions and company integrity.

As revenge, Gecko calls the SEC and the feds on Bud, who goes to jail, but not before wearing a wire to final talk with Gecko. His fate is now sealed as well.

Douglas, of course, won an Oscar for his portrayal of Gecko, the unctuous profiteer whose “Greed Is Good” speech has by now become just as famous as its orator, but for me the real star is the screenplay. Loaded with sharp, knowing dialogue, it transcends the genre to become not just one f the best scripts about high finance ever written but one of the best scripts period. (Only major flaw: overuse of folksy metaphors to convey points; a little goes a long way – best kept to Hal Holbrook’s character.) David Mamet tends to get more credit – particularly with his Glengarry Glen Ross play and screenplay, creative wordplay and all – but Stones is just as good at handling the mechanics of his fiscal language.

But I mustn’t overlook his direction, either, which allows his thick dialogue breathing room (something few wordy films do nowadays), while offering some kinetically charged visuals to go along with them (thanks in part to Robert Richardson’s fantastic camerawork). And I got a little nostalgic too, seeing something by Oliver Stone back when the director could still make a coherent film. Clearly things changed for him by the mid-90s, but during this period he was on a epic roll, starting with 1986’s Salvador and ending with JFK in 1991. Can’t think of another director with a roll like that.

And then, of course, seeing Wall Street in 2017 is a thoroughly different experience than it was for me back in 1987. I remember I saw it in theaters first, then worked at a video store the following summer when it was a heavy rental. I loved it because it felt like an “adult” film to me, and I was a big Charlie Sheen fan too (second only to Michael J. Fox). It was one of my first movie reviews too.

But now, it has fresh resonance, and not exactly more positive. By now we have a different outlook on its time period – the moneygrubbing frenzy of Reagan 80s, Black Monday and all – left us a legacy of joblessness, poverty and lack of accountability by those corporate raiders (see Roger and Me). And then, Enron, and later, the Recession of ’08, caused by those corporations “too big to fail,” gave me a different perspective of those stylish, tie-wearing smoothies who bragged about “bagging the elephant.” Or maybe I’m just smarter now about what they were doing.

And, of course, now we have a Gordon Gecko in the White House. The leader of the free world is also conniving wheeler-dealer, whose avarice, and the duplicity with which he uses to trounce his opponents into the ground, knows no bounds. So now seeing Wall Street makes me angry, because I can’t just be angry at the characters ike Gecko; I’m angry with whom they represent as well.

But I’m sure that’s what Stone would have wanted.

A classic, and my favorite Stone film. See it. Get mad too.
 

Rating:  ****


P.S: More prescient than I thought. Keep your eyes peeled for a hand-held TV (Early iPhone), an immersion blender and sushi. Gecko should’ve invested in these.

Friday, June 2, 2017

Raising Arizona (1987)


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Raising Arizona may be a 20th Century Fox film, but there can be no doubt that it paved the way for the indie comedy as we know it today – you know the type: quirky, smart, fast and loaded with irony. There were times during he film, in fact, when I couldn’t believe this came out in 1987; it pioneered such an archetype for contemporary filmmakers, primarily Wes Anderson and the Coen brothers themselves (who made Arizona), that for this reason alone it should be considered a American classic.

But it as marked the end of an era too. Gone were the broad, raucous comedies of the early 80s, films like Airplane!, Stripes, Caddyshack and Ghostbusters, now replaced by gentle, often more intellectual fare like Crocodile Dundee, Big and When Harry Met Sally. (In fact, two of the biggest bombs of the late-80s were the sequels to Caddyshack and Ghostbusters.) Arizona wasn’t exactly the biggest hit in the world but it’s hard to imagine ever getting released during the SNL-era; by ’87 the waters had cooled, and the time was ripe for edgier humor.

And yet, Raising Arizona was ridiculously funny – just as uproarious as those other films I mentioned. From its 11-minute, pre-credit opening, which sets up the entire plot, to the final, elegiac coda, which offers us a fitting meditation on its theme, the film is loaded with mile-a-minute laughs, thanks to the Coen brothers’ trademark droll dialogue, their trademark kinetic camerawork and trademark tight-as-a-drum editing, which packages everything together in a flurry of charged energy, a work of such wit and imagination that it was small wonder the Coens would go on to a career in film that continues to this day.

Nicholas Cage plays “Hi” McDunnough, a serial robber (who uses unloaded guns) that just can’t stay out of jail, until he falls in love with a cop, Edwina, whom he nicknames “Ed” (Holly Hunter). They marry, but Ed discovers she’s barren, and with Hi’s criminal history adopting is out of the question. The solution? Kidnap one of the Arizona quintuplets (babies of Nathan Arizona, of Unpainted Arizona, the area’s largest distributor of furniture) because they have “more than they need.” It all goes mostly according to plan, and it loosk like the McDonnough’s have they own progeny at last, but trouble soon starts when the Snoats brothers break out of jail, and decide to crash with Hi and Ed. And then Ed’s friends, Glen and Dot, start some trouble with the former’s suggestion they swap spouses. Finally, the mean mother to end all mean mothers, Leonard Smalls, bullies Arizona into paying him an inflated ransom for the return of his baby. Ultimately, everyone seems to want collect the ransom for the tyke, but the McDunnough’s do the right thing and return their erstwhile babe to his rightful owners, but finding their own relationship potentially salvageable.

I already mentioned how funny Arizona is – idiosyncratic dialogue, yokels using heightened vocabulary, over-analysis of minor things, ironic cuts, visual jokes, etc. – but I was surprised this time by its serious side. There are several scenes that reveal the emotions and deep-seated desires of its characters – something fellow ironist Wes Anderson was never able to completely accomplish. You can feel Ed’s achy turmoil over not being able to bear a child, then having one, the making the hard choice to give it. And through Hi’s dreams we emphasize with him too, particular in his final, heartbreaking dream of the future. And then there’s the scene in which the McDonnough’s return the child to Arizona – completely jokeless – but heartwarming in a way unexpected in a film this rambunctious. But then, that’s the way the Coens operate: all of their comedies are tinged with drama and all of their dramas are tinged with comedy.

And I mustn’t exit this review lest I forget to praise Holly Hunter’s performance. She is pitch-perfect here, using her Southern drawl for idiosyncratic effect (one is reminded of Carol Burnett in those Eunice sketches), and shuffling comfortably between irony and heartfelt emotion. One could easily see her as the Coens’ female actress of choice were it not for their selection of Francis McDormand (it helped that she married Joel).

If you’ve never seen it, see it, and if you have, see it again. You’ll amazed at how dateless it is.


Rating:  ****



Wednesday, May 31, 2017

The Fly (1986)


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So now I’m ready to start the third and final volume of the Fox 75th Anniversary box set, covering the years 1986-2010, and I notice the first title is 1987’s Raising Arizona. Sure, a good choice, but that means they completely skipped 1986. I can understand no Aliens – according to their unofficial ground rules only one film per franchise – and smaller titles like Big Trouble In Little China and Lucas just don’t merit inclusion, cult status notwithstanding. But wait, where’s The Fly? Now there’s a bona fide classic, and so I decided to include it in my blog to make up for Fox’s oversight.

Yes, I know: Here we go again! Sorry, I know I was going to hang it up after bridging the 80-85 gap but I can’t help it; now I’m on roll. And besides, I can’t bear to partake in a retrospective series with such glaring omissions. If I’m gonna devote this much time to something, it’d better be complete. If it’s not, I’m making it so.

The Fly was part of Fox’s Sumner of ’86 lineup, in which they clearly focused on science fiction as its primary genre. (I can still remember the double-page ad for it in Starlog magazine.) In addition to the aforementioned Aliens, we also got Spacecamp, The Manhattan Project and Big Trouble in Little China. And then, dumped in late-August, was The Fly, cult-horror director David Cronenberg’s second studio film, after proving his mainstream mettle with the successful, subdued The Dead Zone.

The Dead Zone so was subdued, in fact, that many wondered if Cronenberg, noted for his extreme gore in the context of bio-horror, had given up his blood ad guts altogether. And indeed, he does show great restraint in The Fly’s first act. But once Jeff Goldbloom begins his metamorphosis, look out!

Yet that restraint is also what gives the film its dramatic power. Cloaked in the guise of sci-fi, Goldbloom’s Seth Brundle could easily be suffering from any degenerative disease, like cancer or, as many liked to speculate as it was ’86, AIDS. And so building up his character as a normal human who just so happens to get his genes spliced with those of a housefly is what allows us a profound empathy for the man – impossible to take were it not for he fantastical element of the fly (although the film, particularly the ending, is pretty heart-wrenching as it is).

But it al starts out pretty innocuous. Seth Brundle’s teleportation machine could be the invention that “changes the world as we know it,” but journalist Veronica (Geena Davis), wants the scoop right away. Seth works out an arrangement: document him working on the project – with all its ups and downs – culminating with the ultimate goal: teleportation of a human. She agrees, even if her magazine boss/ex-boyfriend (John Getz) has a few reservations, but so far the downs outweigh the ups; sure, inanimate objects are no problem, but somehow the computer can’t understand life. Seth does a bit of reprogramming, and it seems to work on a baboon, and then he uses it on himself, with ostensible success. But we know something he doesn’t: there was a fly in the teleporter with him. That can’t be good.

Before long, Brundle starts developing characteristics of a fly: addiction to sugar, sexual stamina, ability to crawl walls and, much to the regret of an arm-wrestling challenger, superhuman strength. When things get really hairy, literally, Veronica realizes she’s pregnant with Seth’s child, and wants an abortion – pronto – but the now-mostly-fly scientist has other plans. He needs her to teleport with so that his human genes can be fused with those of two other humans (Ronnie and child). She obviously wants no part of such a desperate act, but he abducts her and puts her in the pod, only to be stopped by Getz (but not before getting his hand and foot melted off by fly vomit). Brundle is now fully fly, but his attempts at recovery are catastrophically futile, resulting in his tragic fusion with the teleporter itself. Veronica attempts to shoot and kill him but can’t – only after Brundle gesturing for her to do it can she bring herself to pull the trigger.

I first saw The Fly at the Towne 16 movie theater at the Shore Mall. I think I saw it opening weekend – not surprising since I was with my friend at the time, a cinematic omnivore who saw everything immediately upon release. We both loved it – which said something as we both fancied ourselves discriminating critics. But  I was definitely drawn to the science aspect of the film – I loved the notion of a scientist working by himself, using a cool-looking computer, conducting this groundbreaking experiment that could change the world. The whole fly thing? Sad, but just how it goes, right?

Now, seeing it 30 years later, I responded more to the tragic love story aspects of it. I have a greater attraction to Geena Davis now (what a smoking babe; how did I miss that before?), and I got totally into their relationship. But now I got more emotional when their love deteriorated on account of his deterioration, and jut found the whole thing sad and tragic.

And I think that’s really what the film is all about. Sure it’s sci-fi/horror by genre, but beyond the latex and special effects, it really tears your heart out. That’s not only due to the deliberate, straightforward yet dramatic direction, but also to the lead performances of Davis and Goldbloom, an offbeat looking pair just right for this kind of techno-geek story, but skilled enough as actors to give it an emotionally broad scope.

But Cronenberg still knows he has to deliver the horror goods at he end of the picture, in other words, give us a full-bodied fly. Yeah, you can have Goldbloom with goop on his face for the better part of an hour, but we’ll riot the screen if we don’t see that fly. And show us the fly her does…. and then some.

A simple yet intensely moving picture. This is what real horror should be all about.


Rating:  ****



Friday, May 26, 2017

Cocoon (1985)

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Ok, NOW we can do Cocoon.

That’s right, we’re done with my five supplementary movies, to make up for the Fox collection’s astonishing gap between 1980 and 85, and so now we can proceed to the next official entry in the set, Ron Howard’s surprise smash hit from the summer of 1985. (Interestingly, it’s also the final film on Vol. II – two down, one to go!)

So I have several prefatory memories of this film growing up. I was 15 when I saw it at the Vineland 4 theater, on a Saturday night, along with both parents. We all loved it, but I was just beginning my career as amateur film critic (having just written all of two reviews), and had several critical comments for Mr. Howard, not the least of which was his plagiarism of Spielberg for the grand meeting-up-with-the-mothership finale. My parents no doubt rolled their eyes at my critique (which would not be the first time), but I went home and put all my notes into some semblance of a written review. The verdict: three stars, out of four. I probably sent it in somewhere (there were a few publications that took unsolicited movie reviews back then), but naturally got no response. Ah, well; the life of a writer.

Cocoon was also the kickoff of my first “Movie Summer” (see separate blog on this topic). It sort of whetted my appetite for the banquet of cinematic delicacies that was waiting for me within just a few short weeks. I think I saw The Goonies after this, followed shortly by Back to the Future, and then that was all she wrote. So it wasn’t just a good movie on its own, but it was also tied in with so many other wonderful concurrent offerings that helped make those dog days the pinnacle of my lifetime moviegoing experience. To use the title of a pop-song that went #1 that summer, it was “Heaven.”

And now?  It hasn’t lost a single bit of appeal for me; in fact I may even love it more than I did before as its themes of aging and revitalization touch a greater nerve for me now that I can more acutely recognize my own mortality. Howard, in his audio commentary, discussed how his wife, a psychologist specializing in geriatrics, encouraged him to focus on the human elements of the script – emphasizing the senior citizens’ spouses as well as their own individual lives. Howard, of course, is an actors’ director, and he was the perfect choice to helm the project – his understanding of he fears and foibles of the old aren’t al that different from those of the young, particularly when he get to be young courtesy the powers of some visiting aliens. And Howard also had an early knack for handling special effects, weaving the science-fiction elements into the human story without compromising either.

And, as we all know, it went on the gross well over 75 million – a surprise to many, but not to me. As William Goldman noticed in his book Adventures in the Screen Trade, there’s a huge population out there who want to see movies about people over 50. It’s that demographic that made On Golden Pond and equally surprising hit just a few years earlier. And when a great film is made about them – hell, how about just a very good film that’s made about them – fireworks happens. And people go back and see it again, and tell their friends. And before long, it becomes a classic, ready to be enjoyed by future audiences, who also want to see quality film about older people.

Cocoon opens with a boy’s telescope, innocent eyes peering at he heavens, the same heavens that open up to allow some extraterrestrial entities to alight near a lost underwater colony. But now, we shift to a senior citizens home near St. Petersburg, Florida, and follow Art (Don Ameche) and Ben (Wilford Brimley), navigating their insular community with friend Joe (Hume Cronyn), his wife Alma (Jessica Tandy), Ben’s wife Mary (Maureen Stapleton), and Don’s potential love interest Bess (Gwen Verdon). Ben’s grandson, David, gives him comfort, along with his octogenarian friends, but when one of his co-tenants dies, the reminder of his maturity looms large. His only real solace – sneaking off to swim at a luxury club pool with friends Art and Joe.

Meanwhile, captain of a charter fishing boat Jack Bonner gets hired by a man named Walter (Brian Dennehy). He, along with two guys and a beauty named Kitty (Tahnee Welch), need the vessel to pick up some cocoons far offshore. They furtively place the cocoons in a pool, that pool, and the next time our grey-haired boys take a dip, they become immediately rejuvenated. The get their libidos back, go out dancing all night, and Joe’s cancer goes into remission. They feel young al right, but maybe too young – Joe’s wife suspects infidelity, and Art gets somewhat drunk with power. Maybe the Fountain of Youth isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Before long, Jack discovers his current employers’ true identities (Kitty strips naked, removing her clothes and skin), and so do the old boys, when one of their pool trips gets interrupted. Ben bargains with Walter to let them keep swimming, but his promise not to let anyone else partake gets broke when the entire home leads a mass exodus to get some of that pool water themselves, leading to a dehydration of two of the cocoons, along with their alien inhabitants. Enraged Walter suddenly becomes mournful over the loss of two friends, but he offers the elders a deal – come back with them to their home planet of Antarea, where no one gets sick or dies. All of them, along with 20 friends, accept the offer. After tearful goodbyes, and hot pursuit by the Coast Guard and local police, they meet of with the Antrean mothership, who takes them skyward. Believed to be lost at sea, they are mourned at a funeral. Only grandson David knows the truth.

As I mentioned, Cocoon affected me more viscerally this time. For one thing, I’m more familiar with these veteran actors’ oeuvres, and I certainly got more involved in their matured characters. But if I had to pick one aspect of he film that really jazzed me, and probably accounted for its public appeal, it had to be their rejuvenation – specifically the scenes where they shoot hoops, seduce their wives and generally get a new lease on life: in essence, the money shots. There’s something inherently so satisfying about seeing Don Ameche breakdance (that’s why he got the Oscar in this de facto ensemble work). But equally affecting are the scenes involving elder heartbreak – like the brief shot of anonymous nursing-home death, and the wrenching scene where Art and Mary say goodbye to their grandson for the last time, unbeknownst to his mom. This is one of the most emotional movie scenes I’ve ever seen in a movie, and I’m not exaggerating.

And therein lies the key to Cocoon’s continued appeal, even after 30 years. Howard made these characters real – not blue-haired stereotypes but living, breathing human beings, warts and all. And even if their dialogue isn’t always cracker-jack, or their direction on the same, authentic level as Altman, the tone rings just right. Howard is a sentimentalist, to be sure, but he keeps the proceedings crisp enough not to get too sugary. And even so he’s got a tight plot to rescue him if need be, particularly in the second act we things get more dramatic, not Howard’s forte.

How was my initial assessment of the finale being too Spielbergian? Accurate, surely, but forgivable, particularly by modern standards, when the ending would’ve been three times more hyped up and involved a few dozen CGI effects. I don’t really mind the rip off now because at least he’s stealing from the best, or at least the best back then. And again, it hold up well in modern times because the emphasis is on careful, methodical character development. Would any modern studio even approach such an idea? With veteran actors? Or even a character actor like Brian Dennehy in the lead? No way, hose?

My initial rating of three stars? Okay, but I’ll up it by a half-star, still hesitant for the full four because of its broad direction, particularly in the second half.

Wait, fuck that! What am I saying? If it works, it works. Cocoon gets…


Rating:  ****




Monday, May 15, 2017

Romancing the Stone (1984)


We’re skipping 1983; Fox’s Mr. Mom is a bit too trivial, and To Be or Not To Be redundant as Mel Brooks is already represented. I would’ve considered Silkwood but it’s out of print on DVD, and so we’re up to 1984, and my selection from that year is obvious: Romancing the Stone.

I mean, c’mon! This absolutely needs to be in this collection – it was a commercial ad critical huge hit, spawned a sequel the following year, kickstarted the careers of stars Michael Douglas, Kathleen Turner, Danny Devito and director Robert Zemeckis, and was just simply a freaking entertaining movie! Easily a classic in every sense of the word.

But it didn’t start out that way. It all began when Michael Douglas, who, despite having received lead billing in several films from 1978 to 1983 but was never a major movie star, was approached by a waitress at a café in Los Angeles. Her name was Diane Thomas, an aspiring screenwriter with just one script under her belt, but when she showed it to Douglas, he just knew had to make it. He and Columbia pictures bought it, but when they got cold feet, he took it to Fox, where it would be helmed by a neophyte director by the name of Robert Zemeckis.

But Fox was nervous, and with no real stars, a green-lit budget of 10 million but steadily rising due to remote location shoots in Mexico, an untried director and the worst movie title in Hollywood history, they soon lost all faith in the project. Zemeckis was fired from his next Fox assignment, Cocoon, and their accountants were all set t write it off as a colossal bomb.

But it wasn’t, even though they dumped it for a March release – word of mouth made it the must-see film of that spring. (Back then, movies had staying power; it played in theaters all the way up through the summer.) I remember seeing it for the first time at the Depford Mall – loving it, clearly, and responding, I think to its freshness; it was an old-fashioned, serial inspired adventure film, sure, but it looked crisp and vibrant, with a cool-jazz, modern-sounding score, and an exotic up-to-date setting of drug-war-ravaged South America. I loved Raiders of the Lost Ark, don’t get me wrong, but Romancing felt more adult to me, with more mature concepts and themes, still then a distant concept but one for which I had an insatiable curiosity. I saw it as second time, with my mother, and, as I expected she loved it too. It sort of validated my own appreciation of it.

And, in keeping with the early 80s, it was all filtered through a female sensibility, specifically, that of Joan Wilder (Kathleen Turner), Stone’s protagonist. She’s a best-selling adventure-romance novelist, desperately wishing her real life could match her fantastical exploits, until one day she gets a call from a Colombian druglord, Ira.  He, and his henchman, Ralph (Danny DeVito), is holding her sister for ransom, demanding the map that was sent to her by sister’s now-dead husband. Off she goes to the Amazonian rainforests, carting along the map but unaware that a far more sinister threat is on her trail: Zolo, the bloodthirsty head of a local militia, the one responsible for her brother-in-law’s murder. Zolo successfully sidetracks her from Ira by mismarking her bus, and soon she is stranded in the jungle.

Zolo almost gets the map, but along comes an American ne’er do well, a lone mercenary named Jack Colton (Douglas), whose recent livelihood of bird-raising has just gone kaput. He accepts her offer of $375 to direct her to a phone, a well-earned sum considering he now has to evade two parties after Joan’s coveted map. But Jack may be considering finding the map’s treasure first, before anyone – after all, he can use the priceless gem to fulfill his dream of sailing around the world. When Joan learns of the plan, he convinces her that it would make a great bargaining chip for her sister’s life, but she (and we) isn’t so sure, particularly after Jack separates from her with the jewel in his possession. Joan brings the map to the kidnappers, she and sis are free to go, but Zolo has already gotten to Jack, demanding the goods (Jack, apparently, was good to his word). But when the renegade general clutches the gem in the grubby little palm of his hands, an even hungrier crocodile rips that hand (and jewel) right off, and it’s just a matter of time before the rest of Zolo is fed to those reptilian maneaters. Back at home, Joan uses the experience for her newest bestseller, but longs to see Jack again. Conveniently, on the city street, she finds her long-lost beloved, with his boat, bought by the gem he retrieved, and they “sail” down 5th Avenue together.

I literally hadn’t seen the film in 32-odd years since seeing it now, and it holds up remarkably well. The reasons for its freshness back then – updated adventurism, coolly adult tone – are what make its so resonant (and nostalgic) nowadays. At the time, some critics called it derivative of Raiders of the Lost Ark, but its screenplay was actually written before that film’s release. And despite their comradeship, I don’t think Zemeckis had Spielberg’s classic on his radar – Stone is actually more akin to The African Queen than The Perils of Pauline, and all the other serials that are Raiders’ inspiration. Its focus is more on the est of female longing – the possibility that the Harlequin dream can co-exist in the nascent era of female empowerment.

And somehow, Douglass made it fresh, too. His Jack Colton is a loner, a not-entirely-chivalrous hero but not really Steve McQueen either. He has a sensitive side to him, but that may yet be his fault. Thereafter, Douglass made a career of playing the confused, postfeminist male – working between concepts of manhood and masculinity, and the ever-increasing hegemony of the female presence in society, for better or worse (usually worse). Turner, too paved her own archetype too: the mousy turned stalwart adventure heroine, and one which she herself would mine in future roles as well.

My only complaint: the ending. It sort of squeaks by, given the fairy-tale tone, but it feels all too easy – maybe the hint that she’ll meet up with him someday, or should it take place long after her Colton-inspired book? Again, it’s all in the tone – same reason Pretty Woman’s uber-happy ending worked too.
But it’s a nitpick. This is grand-slam entertainment of the highest order. A favorite from my childhood, and a classic for the ages.


Rating:  ****


Friday, May 12, 2017

The Verdict (1982)




It’s a complete shock to me that Fox didn’t include my next selection, The Verdict, in their 75th Anniversary box set. Ok, I can understand the omission of Porky’s, Taps, and even 9 to 5, but The Verdict? It’s a bona fide classic, in every sense of the word. It garned five Oscar nominations, unanimous critical praise, and took in a decent take at the BO too.

And looking at it now, some 35 years later, I just can’t believe how f**cking good it is, mostly because of its brilliant screenplay, doubtlessly one of the greatest ever written. It’s tight and taut, without a single superfluous scene, and craftfully structured so as to keep you absolutely riveted for its complete two-hour-plus running time. And the dialogue is also top-notch, sharp and witty without being overrwrittren. Who’s to credit? None other than David Mament, potentially the greatest screenwriter of modern times.

And no, I shouldn’t undermine Sidney Lumet’s role as director – ho knows enough to let the lines breathe, without excess direction. (The film, in fact, does more with silence than I initially remembered: a lost art these days.) And he knows he enough to let his actors act, notably his lead, Paul Newman, who is allowed so much free, uninterrupted reign in his performance that at times I felt like I was watching live theater. It’s easily a career achievement – it’s a shame he didn’t get the Best Actor Oscar for it – that year Ben Kingsley was a slight upset with Gandhi - instead winning for his reprise of Eddie Felson in The Color of Money, four years later.

But seeing the film also made me nostalgic for its era, roughly the years 1977 through 1983, when so many mainstream films were literate and well-crafted, handling serious-minded topics like crime, courtrooms and corruption, and tackling head-on social concerns like labor reform, environmentalism and racial/gender equality. (Newman himself appeared in some of them, like Absence of Malice, and examination of journalistic ethics, and Fort Apache, The Bronx, about the plight of urban law-enforcement.) At the time, I think, we took thee films for granted; now they come off looking like classics, what with the current, worrisome state of studio filmmaking.

Paul Newman is Frank Gavin, a Boston lawyer who, after a history of career missteps, has become a pathetic, boozing ambulance chaser. His partner, Mickey (Jack Warden), has found a promising case for him: a pregnant woman went into a hospital to deliver, was given the wrong anesthetic, and is now in a vegetative state after suffering cardiac arrest. Frank takes the case – his clients are the woman’s sister and her husband – but realizes he’s up against a goliath, as the hospital is owned by a rich and powerful Catholic archdiocese, represented by a prestigious law firm headed by Ed Concannon (James Mason). They offer Frank a settlement of $210,000; at one time he would’ve accepted, but now, especially after discussing he case with a doctor who’s convinced his colleagues in question were negligent, he’s ready to go to trial.

But Concannon plays hardball: the doctor Frank talked to and was hoping to call as a witness, has mysteriously “disappeared,” and the judge has also denied Frank’s request for extension, clearly angered that the lawyer is going to trial in the first place. His only comfort of late seems to come in the form of a woman he’d met at a bar – Laura Fischer – and things in general seem to be looking up when he finds another doctor to testify. But the MD isn’t so great under fire, and now it appears that Laura is a stoolie for Concannon. Frank’s only hope comes in the form of the admitting nurse, who testifies that the pregnant woman had eaten too soon before the procedure, a fact covered up by the defense. Despite Concannon’s best efforts to strike the nurse’s testimony from the record, it’s enough to convince the jury of the hospital’s guilt, and Frank wins the case, against all odds.

Perhaps The Verdict’s greatest asset is in how completely and totally sympathetic its protagonist is. I mean, you really want this guy to win, no matter what. (He may be the most likeable movie lawyer since Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird.) This is, in essence, a more cerebral Rocky, and like Rocky, much of that has to do with the delineation of Frank’s character, complete with hard-luck backstory. But yet, there’s still a spark in his eye – the feeling that he has one more case left in him, even if it is buried deep under layers of despair and self-defeatism. There’s a great scene, early on, in which we can see this spark: he goes to the hospital to look at his comatose client, taking Polaroid shots of her as evidence. And as the pictures develop and images appear (in a long take), Frank gets his epiphany – we can tell by his eyes – and his resolution is palpable.

Why are we so drawn to films such as these, courtroom dramas in which lawyers rise to the occasion to uphold justice? Perhaps we’re so jaded by the legal system, besieged by news stories in which money-hungry lawyers defend the patently guilty (even though it’s their job), or accept easy, windfall payoffs without fighting for their convictions. As a society, we know we need lawyers, we know we need cops, politicians, etc., but we also ten to foster a damaging mistrust of them, one that seems to get worse with each passing year. So when we get a film about a noble politician (Mr. Smith Goes To Washington) or a noble cop (Serpico), we celebrate it, and it becomes a hit, then a classic.

I tend to see movies in parts these days, given my time constraints, but when I started The Verdict, I would up seeing the whole thing in one shot. It’s just that gripping. And that doesn’t happen to me much.



Rating:  ****



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