Thursday, August 31, 2017

Grand Canyon (1991)

[Another supplemental choice – I picked this one because, although not a hit, it was a critical darling, and certainly a film I’ve thought much of since I first saw it all those years ago…]

Although he didn’t know it yet, Lawrence Kasdan, in 1991, began a subgenre. His Grand Canyon, which he wrote and directed, alongside Steve Martin’s L.A. Story earlier that year, sought out to explore the frailty of life, ad how the random ways we interact with each other, often as strangers, are sometimes only the things that can offer us salvation, physically, psychologically and spiritually. It’s no accident the films of this ilk take place in Los Angeles – the home of most of these filmmakers but also a discordant brew of various races, ethnicities and generations in which harmony does not always come easy. Later films, like Short Cuts, Magnolia and Crash continued up this theme – all feature ensemble casts, too, showing us those lives that bounce around the room, and somehow give us the meaning to it all we so desperately lack in solitude.

But I think it all started with Grand Canyon, and it’s a worthy progenitor. It doesn’t have the distinctive style of an Altman or an Anderson, but it’s got a style nonetheless – a glassy, straightforward and often jarring timepiece of he early 90s, with B&W basketball scenes for the opening credits and a synth-beat score that gives the film just the dreamy ether it needs for such an examination. But, more importantly, it depicts a group of people just on the verge of a shattering chasm – the 80s just recently ended, a few months before the L.A. riots, nine years before the new millennium and and ten before 9/11, it so perfectly depicts the collective anxiety of America culture on the precipice. Sure, it’s L.A., but it could happen here, or there. We all feel it coming.

But yet, Grand Canyon is a hopeful film. Its players all yearn to find fulfillment in one way or anther, despite the likelihood that, as the Danny Glover character puts it, “we’ll all have at least a few truly terrible things happen to us in our lifetimes.” He oughta know – as Simon, a tow-trucker driver in the bad part of town, he’s got a thankless beat. But one night, he must give a lift to an upper-class immigration lawyer named Mack, lost and broken down, and about to be mugged – or worse – by a street gang. The two start up a friendship, and Mack, vowing not to let a savior’s good deed go unrewarded, buys Simon breakfast, sets him up with a date with a woman named Jane (Alfre Woodard), and arranges a better-located apartment for his sister and her family, currently struggling in a crime-riddled neighborhood.

Perhaps Mack’s benevolence has something to do with the uncertainty of his own life. His wife, Claire (Mary McDonnell), while jogging, had discovered an abandoned baby, and now wants to adopt it, possibly relating to the anxiety of her upcoming empty-nest syndrome. Their marriage may be on the rocks as well; Mack had an affair with a co-worker named Dee (Mary Louise-Parker), and her story is told too – through the tears of a young woman who just wants love, and knows she will never get it out of infidelity. And last we have Davis (Steve Martin), a violent-action movie producer (based on Joel Silver, of Die Hard and Letha Weapon), who, who after getting shot in the leg by a robber, gets an epiphany – no more glorification of blood. No matter that his change is to be short-lived; he’s changed nonetheless, as is everyone in this story. In he end, Simon takes them all on a trip to the Grand Canyon, as a measure of their own insignificance in the grand scheme of things.

Kasdan, of course, is mining the same territory that he did with his 1983 masterpiece The Big Chill – coming to grips with one’s own mortality while at the same time relying on each other to make sense of it all. Chill was a work clearly borne of the director’s post-collegiate existentialist dillema, and his antipathy with those outside his generation who couldn’t understand what all the “love-in” nonsense was all about. It was a loving picture, as loving as the people who inhabited it, about a pack of baby-boomers who get together after the suicide of a colleague, and, although each of them have individualized feelings, it’s soundly structured around that weekend together – on a crisp, fall day, when the sanctity of their sanctum is all that makes sense.

Canyon is sort of a follow-up – it’s characters don’t all share the same graduation date but they’re all experiencing the same ennui. But the film lacks the focus of Chill; it doesn’t have that anchoring timeframe; rather, it circulates in and out of the characters’ lives like a new-age music video, and we’re sort of left to find a connecting thread. It’s not terribly difficult, and to make our lives easier Kasdan uses the symbol of the Grand Canyon, quite literally, to rope it all together (like Altman did with the earthquake and Anderson did with the frogs). In the end, we feel beaten up by the black strife and the gang warfare and the shooting and Mack’s cut finger, but we somehow feel an affinity with these characters because they’re all talking about their experiences, as if we’re a fly on the wall of their therapy sessions. And that’s what ultimately lifts Canyon above and beyond others of its kind.

This is nothing to sneeze at, either – how often do you hear discourse about the infinitesimalness of life in a major studio picture? Never, I’ll bet, but Kasdan wisely cloaks it as a social satire of modern L.A. life. Yes, it is that, but it’s so much more. Watch the film, and glean for yourself its messages. (I found it enormously ahead of its time in its chronicle of race relations; far superior to the later, heavy-handed Crash). That’s because I applaud its “we’re all in this together” bottom line. When Kevin Kline and Danny Glover share a beer, not as blacks or whites but as people, I was gladdened. I had a similar conversation with a black man not too long ago. We didn’t talk about racial differences – we talked about life. And maybe that’s what we all need to start doing.

Grand Canyon has some intense moments – too intense perhaps – and some of it is a bit indulgent (Kevin Kline flying over L.A.? to spy on his mistress?). But on balance I admired the reach of this film. It’s a film of ideas.

And we just don’t get that too often.

Rating:  ****

Thursday, August 17, 2017

The Commitments (1991)

[Okay, I’ll be honest – this is barely a Fox release. Produced by Beacon Pictures (their first), it was only distributed by Fox; even the home video rights was handled by MGM/UA. But I couldn’t help including it. You’ll see why in this review.]

The Commitments was given the unfortunate release date of August 14th when it came out in 1991. But then, it wasn’t exactly supposed to be a blockbuster, just a modest crowd-pleaser about an Irish R&B band, directed by no stranger to musicals, Alan Parker. The low-profile approach worked: though by no means a commercial hit, word of mouth turned it into a cult favorite, and helped launch a genre. You know, flicks about small town, blue collar workers somewhere over the pond, who get out of their doldrums by stripping (The Full Monty), dancing (Billy Elliot), designing ladies wear (Kinky Boots) or supporting gay rights/labor unions (Pride). These films nearly always work because the verisimilitude is so authentic, and the characters so immensely likeable. This last item says a lot for The Commitments, where part of the problem with the band is that its members are always at each other’s throats.

But The Commitments’ greatest asset is its music. We have absolutely no problem believing their success, short-lived that it is, because they’re so damned good. Director Parker knows that’s what we came for, and he doesn’t waste time with the obligatory, boring set up scenes of rehearsals, starting out bad and then gradually getting better. He gives us one rehearsal scene, period, and ends the film with nearly a solid half-hour of music, including Wilson Pickett’s “Mustang Sally” and “Midnight Hour.” And knowing that these essentially concert scenes need to be cinematic, he makes them eye-catching without being flashy. It’s a nearly perfect movie musical.

But this is not to say there’s no plot – it’s there all right, but it’s mostly character driven, essentially about the highs and lows of putting together a blues/R&B band in the age of metal and punk, with musicians struggling to make ends meets 24/7. It all starts with Jimmy Rannitte, young entrepreneur with his sites set on creating a band. No, not a boring old R&R band, or even a jazz band, but a great, old-school R&B group in the rough, raw tradition of BB King, Aretha Franklin and Marvin Gaye. Of course, collecting up all the talent he needs for such a project ain’t easy – a lot of people want the fame associated with taking the stage, but Jimmy has high standards. (His auditions for a lead singer – the lynchpin of the band – are a tedious process indeed.) But, after all is said and done, he gets his band – a pianist, a sax player, a trumpet player, a drummer, a lead and bas guitarist, three backup singers and a lead singer (clearly modeled after the intensely strained vocal style of Joe Cocker). They are the Commitments.

But it’s not long before friction ensues. The self-spiritual sax player has a proclivity for the women, promptly bedding all three of them, successively, inciting tension amongst the girls and with his bandmates. The lead singer can’t seem to get along with the drummer, the pianist has a Catholic-induced crisis of conscience with his involvement, and the manager has money problems with just about everyone. The only time, it seems, that the band gets along is on stage – when they focus on nothing else but the unifying, driving beat of the music. They get a shot at the big time one night at a local bar where Wilson Pickett is expected to show up – everyone sings ad plays their heart out. But Pickett never shows, and Jimmy disregards a potential record deal when he sees his band infighting yet again. It’s not worth it, he thinks, until he realizes the hope in instilled in his band members’ lives, and in an epilogue we realize how each one of them took that hope on to future endeavors.

I have to say that I loved this film. Everything felt so immediate, so real – the music the dialogue, the setting. As I mentioned, this is a perfect example of a British blue-collar drama  - a film so knowing, honest and loving of its characters. They drink with each other, swear at each other and fight with each other, but somehow it all feels so innocuous. (The film gets its R rating from abundant use of the “F word,” yet the Brits use it so freely, so inoffensively.) Americans can’t do this kind of film. It either turns out to be overwritten, so you think there’s no way in hell these salt-of-the-earth types could possibly speak in this kind of lofty language. Or it plays it broad and sanctimonious, tagging at your heartstrings that these poor are so noble, and just need a break to wipe the soot off their s shoes. The Commitments never grandstands – it just is.

I was particularly moved by the ending – Wilson Pickett does eventually show up, too late. But it wouldn’t have mattered. It would’ve just extended the Commitments’ dream that much longer – their die was cast from the minute they formed. What the film tells us is that wish-fulfillment never really lasts, but aren’t we fortunate to have those wishes fulfilled in the first place? Jimmy tells us this in so many words as he fake-interviews himself in a mirror – a brilliant device that runs throughout the film and acts as a sort of Greek Chorus. It lets us know his dreams, his goals, as well as his disappointments. It gauges the ebbs and flows of the film’s narrative.

And then, once again, there’s the music. I bought the soundtrack, and haven’t stopped listening to it. These actors play the group, but I had no trouble believing that they were the group themselves (not unlike This Is Spinal Tap). I’d easily see them in concert.

This was a film that I caught up with on video, probably in ’92 after the word of mouth. At the time, young film snob that I was, I admired the technique but was ho hum about the “lack of plot” and “oldie” music. I couldn’t disagree more, young Chris, with your critique.

This is a musical film for the ages.

See it, on a TV with a good sound system.

Rating:  ****

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Sleeping With the Enemy (1991)

In 1991 Julia Roberts was huge. Probably the biggest movie star of the year, certainly the biggest female star.

But how do we know it was her who was big, and not just someone lucky enough to star in good movies? Sleeping with the Enemy.

A film like this is sort of a rite of passage for a rising star. Michael J. Fox had his, with the incredibly mediocre yet surprise hit The Secret of My Success; ditto Sandra Bullock’s mega-cutesy While You Were Sleeping.

I mean, you could argue that Roberts’ smash Pretty Woman owed at least part of its success to its modern-day fairy tale script and steadying performance by Richard Gere. Steel Magnolias was based on an acclaimed play, with fine work by a stellar cast. Flatliners had a pretty nifty concept; it too was more of an ensemble.

But in Sleeping With the Enemy, she’s on her own. She has no support from the two male drips with whom she co-stars, and the story is merely a well-mounted Lifetime Movie-of-the-Week. There is literally nothing else in the movie that can account for its success. And it was a success – to the tune of 170 million dollars – ironically the movie that knocked Home Alone off its number-one perch after nearly three months (both are Fox films). And it’s for this reason that I’m including it as my own personal choice for this collection.

And goddamned it if it doesn’t actually work – barely. It’s all due to Julia: she keeps the whole thing afloat (pun intended; you’ll see what I mean) with her incomparably empathic performance – you really feel for her and, most importantly, you just want her to be happy. In every scene she’s in, every fiber of your investment is in her; she bends fragility and vulnerability with just the right amount of spark and spunk. Women want to be her best gal friend and men want to fall in love with her – everyone wants to rescue her. Few, if any, modern movie starts possess this innate screen quality; you’d probably have to go all the way back to Marilyn Monroe for the last time we’ve seen it.

The plot? It’s just a vehicle, pure and simple. Julia’s in a woefully abusive marriage with a real scumbucket (Patrick Bergin); one night they go sailing off the coast, and she falls into the water, assumed dead since she can’t swim. But wait! She’d been waiting for this moment for a long time – because she’d been taking swim lessons at the Y, and managed to get to shore, where she can now start a new life, in Iowa! She rents a house that looks like it was furnished by Restoration Hardware, and forges a friendship in the form of a chic-mullet sporting local college drama teacher (Kevin Anderson). Romance inevitably follows, but not so fast – Bergin’s in town, having tracked her down through location of her ailing mother. He sneaks into her house, knocks her new beau out and prepares to kill her, but not before she kills him first. She shoots him a few times, but that still doesn’t keep him from getting up one last time in a post-fake-death attack.

Sleeping came out during of wave of films that fit in the “Don’t rust your lover” subgenre, essentially begun by the surprise success of 1987’s Fatal Attraction. You know the type – everything seems normal, but then, the One You Trusted turns out to be a real whacko, all leading up to the inevitable gunplay, and the aforementioned fake-death. But Sleeping cuts to the chase early on – the husband is revealed as the whack within the first ten minutes. That’s because the film follows another subgenre popular in the early 90s: the “Go to a rustic, pastoral place and you’ll find true love and happiness” subgenre. (Doc Hollywood, City Slickers) Well, she does, and then we get those associated clichés: the carnival scene, the first-date dinner scene, the music montage, etc. Sleeping couldn’t be more commercially cobbled – it plays like a perfect early 90s timepiece what with its timely tropes.

 But despite many dated elements (including the men’s hair and Bergin’s villainous moustache), it holds up as well as it could, again due to Roberts. In fact, there’s not a whole lot of difference between the sensationalism in this as compared to that in the recent release The Girl on the Train, with both films sharing a rescuing, lead female performance. It just shows how a healthy dose of star power can equal any number of screenwriters, any amount of special effects, any budget.

And in the case of Roberts, I’m not kidding. Her salary throughout the nineties kept increasing until, in 2000, she became the first woman to net 20 million for the film Erin Brokovich. Clearly, Hollywood figured out she was worth her weight in gold.

But her work in Sleeping notwithstanding, the film wasn’t exactly a critical darling, and it hasn’t turned into much of a classic over the years either. But if you’re so inclined, and want to see Julia Roberts at the top of her game, check it out.

As a postscript, I’ve got a story to share. I was given the chance to see the film with my parents, at the Shore Mall Towne 16, during my Spring Break from college. But I instead opted for the DeNiro film Guilty By Suspicion, which I enjoyed very much. And as a college student and Film major, I couldn’t be bothered with pop-Hollywood tripe (even though they were both studio pics). But my folks liked their choice, and secretly I always wondered if I had missed something. Now I finally realize that I didn’t.

Rating:  **1/2

Monday, August 7, 2017

Edward Scissorhands (1990)

(Another personal selection, what I consider a modern-day classic.)

By the time Tim Burton released Edward Scissorhands for Christmas of 1990, he was at the top of his game. With Batman a bona fide success the previous year, and his Beetlejuice fast becoming a cult hit and now a Saturday morning cartoon, Burton had made his way up to the list of A-list directors in just under four years. And if Scissorhands isn’t his best film, then it certainly best typifies his signature style – the one that helped set him apart from other directors of his generation.

And, of course, we all know what style that comprises: taking classic elements like Grimm and gothic horror, mixing it with a little Roald Dahl and serving it up for the MTV generation; embracing an outcast protagonist who marches to his own beat ad revealing the inner wisdom of the pariah; and setting everything in a small town stuck in the 50s as a metaphor for brain-addled conformity. All these traits are in perfect display in Scissorhands.

And yes, there’s another one: Johnny Depp. This was Depp’s first film with Burton, obviously not his last, and you can see why the director was drawn to the star. He plays the title role with a quizzical simplicity, the embodiment of all things innocent yet just complex enough to wonder what’s going on behind that pasty-pale face and wild, snaky hair (his appearance feels inspired by the band The Cure). And his scissors? The story explains that he was created by an eccentric inventor (Vincent Price), who had died just as he was ready to replace Ed’s steely fingers with real ones. Now alone in the castle, the malconstructed boy lives as a recluse, bothering no one so long as no one bothers him.

Switch to – an idyllic suburb, circa present day but culturally a page out of Peyton Place. Peg Boggs (Dianne Weist) finds Edward as she attempts to make a Avon call at his castle, and winds up taking the waif home as a live-in guest. Before long he becomes the small town’s cause célèbre, as his dexterity with knives come in mighty handy with topiary, ice sculptures, barbeques and setting the local ladies up with some pretty funky avant garde hairdos. But when Peg’s teenage daughter, Kim (Winona Ryder), returns home from a camping outing, things change. Edward is smitten with her, even following shameless her order to break into her boyfriend’s parents’ home to steal money. The boyfriend, Jim (Anthony Michael Hall), is a real crumball, and pushes Edward to the point that he loses it completely, putting the local police on his tail and riling the whole town up (except he Boggs’) against him. After dishes out just desserts to Jim – permanently – he retreats back to his castle, and to the storybook pages from whence he came.

Of course, there are a great number of logical inconsistencies and lapses of credibility in Edward, starting with notion that an inventor would put knives on his creation until the hands were ready (why not just stubs?). But such queries are foolish – because Burton’s film is a music-box myth, a haunting, ethereal tale filled with snowflakes and choral voices, and its tone prohibits any kind of heady analysis. And no one does it better than Burton, perhaps because he never forgets to tell a clear story amidst all the snow. At no point does style overcome substance – both work in perfect tandem to deliver a work that in stimulating for the eyes and the mind.

And despite some critics and naysayers’ opinions, I believe Burton has a point to make. Unlike other eye-candy directors like Wes Anderson, there’s usually a salient theme in a Burton flick. Here, he’s saying something about an outcast, specifically a physically flawed outcast, and how that individual might somehow benefit society, even one that shuns or oppresses him or her. Like the greatest fantasy or horror works, Scissorhands purveys meaning in metaphor – Edward could have a more realistic deformity, the film could have a more realistic setting, and it would make the exact same point. But it wouldn’t be as palatable an entertainment.

My only quibble with the film has to do with its ending – as Edward is confronted by his nemesis, Kim’s boyfriend, Jim, he stabs his assailant in the gut. Ed receives absolution only through Kim’s lie – that Edward and Jim both killed each other, and that the whole thing is over. The scuffle, and the tension leading up to it, is unnecessarily violent and mean-spirited, and tonally out of sync with the rest of the movie. Burton is no stranger to heavy action and suspense, as evidenced by Batman, but here it just feels out of place.

As we all know, Burton would go on to use Depp in several more of his films – the actor’s innate chameleon-like ability to depict eccentrics with empathy was a perfect for the director’s oddball agenda. (My personal fave was always Ed Wood.) But Scissorhands was where it all began, and it represented the best of both men, and their deliciously off-center perception of the world.

Oh, and let’s not forget Winona Ryder, playing someone relatively “normal” here but still typically fragile and vulnerable. Great work.

And great work all around.

Rating:  ****

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Home Alone (1990)

Back to what the Fox Collection picked, and they had no choice but to pick this one, right?

Fox didn’t necessarily have a banner year in 1990 – their big hit was the summer release Die Hard 2 (which probably would’ve been a pick were it not for the Collection’s “one film per franchise” rule). Most of their energy was spent on TV that year; the Fox network had a little show called The Simpsons; perhaps you’ve heard. And so expectations were mighty low for a modest little holiday comedy with a cast of largely unknowns, helmed by a novice director and written by a man not yet known for his family fare. But when Home Alone came out in November it went on to gross an astounding 476 million against a budget of a mere 18. That’s an unheard-of profit margin, the likes of which are pretty rare in today’s movie climate.

Of course, back then movies stayed in theaters long enough to build up word of mouth. In fact, the other two megahits that year, Pretty Woman and Ghost, both achieved their success the same way. I caught Home Alone at a NYC theater on Broadway on the Upper West Side – in January after the winter break. By this time it was January, so I wanted to see what all the hype was about. I liked it, didn’t love it, but couldn’t exactly understand its popularly beyond the Road Runner antics that dominate the film’s second half.

But I would sure look like Ebenezer Scrooge if I badmouthed the film that has since become a perennial staple, shown countless times across the country every year from Thanksgiving to New Year’s. And so I’m happy to report that I was being a little harsh on Home Alone back then, in the throes of my highfalutin’ film-school haught, and not able to truly discern what a marvelous job writer John Hughes does of getting in touch with his inner child – knowing what it’s like for a nine-year-old, the baby of the family, to feel neglected. And the euphoria he might experience if, somehow, he gets his wish of making his family disappear, but in turn experiencing the regret over having made such a wish in the first place.

The boy in question, Kevin McCallister (Macauley Culkin), gets his wish courtesy of his family’s (and uncle’s family’s) manic, hectic, chaotic departure for a trip to France. Thanks to the expected melee of his oversized brood, along with an unexpected overnight power-outage that knocks out all the alarm clocks, he’s left behind, and gets the whole house to himself (and it’s a damned fine house, I do have to add). After overcoming his initial fear of abandonment, he settles in to a life of Riley, only to discover there’s a threat looming around the neighborhood. Harry (Joe Pesci) and Marv (Daniel Stern) are on the prowl, robbing the homes of residents away on vacation, and that includes the McCallister’s. But Kevin’ got a few tricks up his sleeves to thwart their plans, including hitting them in the head with swinging irons, burning their scalp with a blowtorch, setting up an assortment of toy cars, Christmas ornaments, nails and ice for them to slip on many, many times.

Most, if not all, of these booby traps would cause instant death to their hapless victims. But by the time Kevin sets them up in the third act of Home Alone, we’re so invested in the character that we gleefully go along with the ride. And you laugh in spite of yourself too; writer Hughes knows that this stuff is funny – just as funny for us a it would be for a nine-year-old – and this affords us just the cathartic regression we need to get in touch with our inner child. And that, in essence, is the salient theme of the film.

As I mentioned earlier, this was new territory for John Hughes – his protagonists had mostly been teenagers in such films as Sixteen Candles and The Breakfast Club. But the line between childhood and adolescence is so often a fine one – Hughes likes theme of wish fulfillment because it removes the strictures of the governing adult world from the freedom-seeking confines of youth. As Kevin gets his wish in Alone, so too did Ferris get his day off, and the hormone-driven teens of Weird Science got to create their own female. But, in all three cases, Hughes reminds us that getting your wish isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. For Kevin, being an adult for the first time in his life means contending with loneliness and vulnerability…. oh, and having to fend off burglars with a series of traps that would ordinarily require the engineering skills of an MIT graduate.

But John Hughes did not direct this film; that credit must go to Chris Columbus, and he’s a fitting surrogate. He’s got the same chops for slapstick that Hughes possesses, but he also knows how to switch gears and sling out the pathos in a way that’s neither too cloying nor cynical. A perfect example can be found in the subplot involving Kevin’s relationship with the neighborhood kook. Inside a church, the man confides in Kevin why he’s misunderstood – he’s estranged from his son and his family and can’t make the first move toward reconciliation. It’s a touching moment, and character Roberts Blossoms performs the role to sheer perfection. You’d think such a moment would be tonally incongruous with the rest of the picture, but it’s not. Columbus, like Hughes, somehow makes it all work together.

I was also impressed with Catherine O’Hara’s performance as the mother – something I had apparently always overlooked. He has a witty irony about her, but she, to, can switch to heartfelt drama, and she does in her tearful reunion scene with Kevin in the end. And what a delight to see her and fellow SCTV alum John Candy as a polka musician she must hitch a ride with. They’re both great to watch, but it got me wondering: is this a recurring inside joke that all any former SCTV member must share at least one scene in his or her movie with one or more other SCTV members? It happened in Sesame Street Follow That Bird with Candy, Dave Thomas and Joe Flaherty, and again in Innerspace with Martin Short (the star), Andrea Martin and Eugene Levy. I think it’s pretty cool, and if anybody has some other examples let me know.

More Christmassy than I thought, too, which would explain why it gets shown so often during the holidays. I was initially against it being considered a “Christmas” movie but I guess it really is.

This is the part where I’d say go see it, but everyone already has.

Rating:  ***1/2

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