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Mikey and Nicky (1976)
Elaine May makes a Cassavetes film
Viewers familiar with John Cassavetes' directing style will see his influence in this film, but Elaine May wrote and directed it. It is an engaging, highly unusual drama about two childhood pals mixed up with the mob. Don't expect Martin Scorsese or Francis Coppola glitz here---this movie is different. There is a real, uncinematic edge to it. It almost plays like a documentary, or a "reality movie." And the actors--Falk and Cassevetes were good friends and frequently worked together--allow for unique male-bonding (and a dissection of the male sex) that rarely occurs in modern film (another characteristic of a Cassavetes-directed film). Women are basically throwaway characters in many of his films, and that is the case here. This movie will either be an endurance test for audiences, or a fascinating experience. It was the latter for me.
Bad Santa (2003)
What a disappointing black comedy this is. I think Billy Bob can be hilarious when he wants to be (check out his performance in "Bandits"), and thought the movie would be a stab at the ridiculous commercialization of Christmas. It crosses the line from black comedy to downright offensive a number of times, especially in its treatment of Christian symbols. With all of the uproar about The Passion of the Christ, no one seemed to mind that Miramax put this movie out, which trashes Christian ideals and symbols during their most sacred of times. Now I'm not a religious fanatic by any means, and love a good black comedy (I was one of the few, it seems, who really liked Death to Smoochy). But this movie didn't make me crack a smile once. Billy Bob's foul mood and constant vulgarity got old after five minutes. One of the worst movies I've seen in years.
The Ladies Man (2000)
I'm probably one of the few who thought this movie was hilarious. I mean, how can you NOT laugh at Will Ferrell and Lee Evans breaking into a song about how they're going to beat up the title character ("the bastard's going to pay!") The movie gets funnier and stranger in the second hour, when anything resembling a plot was apparently tossed out the window. Leon Phelps is a unique Saturday Night Live creation. If you don't expect much (as I did going in), you may just find yourself in stitches. Granted, this is not the stuff of classic comedy, but it's not the "one star" comedy that most critics called it.
There are only a handful of films that have a distinct polarizing affect on the audience--A Clockwork Orange, The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover, and I would even lump in American Beauty--these are movies you either get, or you don't. And if you don't get it, you will hate it. Open minded viewers need only apply, and that's certainly the case with "Happiness." I remember leaving the theater absolutely shocked, and not just because of the events on screen. I was shocked that I found the movie so intelligent and oddly entertaining. The actors surely must have felt that, after reading the screenplay. And there are some big actors in this--veterans like Ben Gazzara, Louise Lasser, Elizabeth Ashley, mixing with new talent like Philip Seymour Hoffman, Camryn Manheim, Dylan Baker, Lara Flynn Boyle, etc.
The subject matter is truly unsettling--a parental figure, respected in his community, does some horrible things, and this is the main reason why so many people have a hard time with this movie. Did this material really need to be examined in modern cinema? Well, yes--in the same way that David Lynch had to explore it in Blue Velvet. Happiness is a masterpiece of irony (even in the title), and finds humor in the most unusual and downright bizarre circumstances. You will not see another movie like it. Guaranteed. And fair warning--you could very well despise it. And it's probably a fair estimate that its writer/director, Todd Solondz, doesn't give a damn.
When Havoc Struck (1978)
Reality TV, '70s Style
I am surprised by how much I remember about this short-lived TV show. It was a half-hour series that dissected several different disasters, and not just the really famous ones (Titanic, Hindenburg). There were some bridge disasters examined as well, and I believe an entire episode on the Johnstown, PA flood. With the current reality TV craze, that features people eating bull testicles to win money, a show like this could not compete on the airwaves (how our tastes have plummeted since the '70s!) But I for one would like to see this on DVD-a sure fire purchase for me.
Has not aged too well.....
....but I loved this show as a kid. Heck, I even had the board game, which would be a real collector's item had I not lost the pieces at age 10. I saw an episode on TV Land recently and its age shows. Randoph Mantooth's character Gage was some sort of ladies man, something I didn't notice when I watched the show as a kid. I remember the realistic emergency calls--some really unusual, like a woman being caught in a huge cactus. And the show usually ended with a spectacular (for '70s TV, at least) fire.
Its influence can be felt in the current reality TV craze, not to mention a little show called "ER." But this was the first of its kind, and despite its corniness, we must praise it. The DVD release must be inevitable. I may just pick up a copy.
Sweet and Lowdown (1999)
Proof that Sean Penn can really act
The two movies that come to mind when I think about Sean Penn and his acting ability are not Mystic River and Fast Times at Ridgemont High. They are Carlito's Way and Sweet & Lowdown. In both of these movies, he immerses himself in the characters, while in most of his other movies, including the art house hits like 21 Grams and Hurly Burly, he plays more or less the same type of person. Sweet and Lowdown has Penn playing a self-absorbed classical guitarist who obsesses over a world-renowned guitarist much in the way Woody Allen obsesses over things in his other movies. Woody himself shows up as a commentator (this, like Zelig, is presented in mock documentary fashion). It is amusing, if slight (and a sign of things to come in 2000-2002, with Small Time Crooks, Curse of the Jade Scorpion and Hollywood Ending). Samantha Morton won a justified Oscar nomination, but Uma Thurman and Gretchen Mol are wasted (Uma got second billing over Sean Penn, and is hardly in the movie!) Not a Woody Allen masterpiece, but fans could do worse.
So you wanna be a celebrity....
As Woody Allen is too old for the lead, Kenneth Branagh literally steps into his shoes and does such an effective job at playing Woody that he must have watched every Allen movie at least six times. The film is hilarious but deep--like his best films. It explores our obsession with celebrities and the media's obsession with them, and I wonder how much "acting" Leonardo DiCaprio did for this film. But the more I thought about it afterwards, the more I realized how sad the movie is at its core--the word "help" being written in the sky may be what Allen is thinking--is this what we have become? So obsessed with fortune and fame that we literally prostitute ourselves and become someone we aren't (i.e. Judy Davis' character)?
The movie seems more timely now than in 1998. Americans seem to be more interested in what Paris Hilton does on TV, or what J-Lo and Affleck are up to, than what's going on in the world. "Celebrity" nails it, and like Deconstructing Harry, does it in a rather vulgar manner. But you have to wonder how much of this is based on real events (again, I cite Di Caprio). This was the second movie (after 2 Days in the Valley) that made me aware of the statuesque beauty of Charlize Theron. I didn't think she could act worth a hoot (that opinion recently changed), but she sure looked like a rich runway model to me. This movie is one of my favorite Woody films of the '90s, and one of his most underrated. It's also visually beautiful, in black & white that recalls the photography of Manhattan.
Deconstructing Harry (1997)
Woody Allen by way of QT
A lot has been said about the vulgarity of Deconstructing Harry, but I have to mention it again, as a long-time Woody Allen fan. It is by far his most profane film, with Woody himself spouting off profanities and mixtures of profanities that would make even Quentin Tarantino blush. If you can get past the nonstop cussing of most of the characters (Allen, as well as Kirstie Alley, Billy Crystal and Judy Davis, in her second of three hysterical characters in Woody films), you will find a lot to like here. The story is inventive (the mixing of real characters and the ones invented by Harry/Woody in his books), the direction is definitely unique (the sudden and frequent edits), and there are lots of belly laughs (I especially liked the story about the old Jewish husband with the "dark secret"). It's like watching Woody Allen in a porn film. This is because most of his films contain little to no profanity, but Husbands & Wives in 1992 started somewhat of a trend, and Mighty Aphrodite continued it (although in the latter movie, the profanity was just a part of Mira Sorvino's character, and Woody didn't swear). I realize I'm going off on a tangent with the profanity, but it will shock Woody fans and non-fans alike.
This film seemed to "exorcise" some of his demons, but a few would haunt his next movie, in which Kenneth Branagh played the Woody type.
These are not Woody masterpieces, but they are entertaining, in somewhat of a deranged way.
B.J. and the Bear: The Foundlings (1978)
They should remake this as a movie
I'm only half joking. This show as a mixture of Smokey & the Bandit, Dukes of Hazzard (which was probably a bigger influence), and Clint Eastwood's Every Which Way but Loose. NBC probably thought they had a real blockbuster on their hands, but I don't remember this being on for very long (maybe one season?) But as an eleven year old, I loved it. Greg Evigan, from what I remember, was appealing in an everyman, Kurt Russell type of way. I think he made some B movies after this, but never became a household name.
Hollywood take note: Mission Impossible. Charlie's Angels. Mod Squad. The Hulk. Starsky & Hutch. The Dukes of Hazzard. BJ and the Bear! "Bear is family."
Hollywood Ending (2002)
Woody Allen's disdain for things Hollywood could have made for a winning, sarcastic masterpiece, but this ain't it. It's too sunny and good-natured (following in the footsteps of Small Time Crooks and Curse of the Jade Scorpion). Woody has said that he found the screenplays for these three movies stuffed away in his desk, but he didn't mention when he wrote them. My guess is they were written in the early stages of his career, and perhaps "spiced up" a bit for modern audiences. As was the case with Curse of the Jade Scorpion, I have no idea why this movie got a PG-13 rating (the MPAA seems to be harsh on his films, maybe just because he's Woody Allen--Everyone Says I Love You is a case in point). His supporting cast is good (Tea Leoni, in the typical "Woody Heroine" role; George Hamilton; Debra Messing, playing a good ditz; and especially Treat Williams). And the film has more sight gags than his previous two movies. Woody's character is able to direct a movie with psychosomatic blindness--and that's about as biting as this movie gets towards Hollywood.
Good for a rainy day but not required viewing in the Woody canon.
Funny but instantly forgettable
This movie came a year after his return to lightweight stuff (Small Time Crooks), and as was the case with that movie, this one has some funny lines but is probably the only "two star" movie in his catalog (at least in my non-professional opinion). Helen Hunt does a nice job playing the Rosalind Russell character, but Woody is a little too old now for the Cary Grant part. This movie reminded me of His Girl Friday, right down to the period. That was probably his intention. There were bits and pieces from his other movies here and there (particularly Manhattan Murder Mystery, Shadows and Fog and his segment of New York Stories), and it's clean (I have no idea why this got a PG-13 rating). Good supporting cast as well. The trend continues.......
Small Time Crooks (2000)
Take the Money and Run 2000
The Blues Brothers had their "2000" sequel, so why not Woody Allen? This movie has been hailed as a return to screwball form and many Woody fans really enjoy it. I found the humor to be a little familiar but refreshingly clean (it was his first "PG" movie since Manhattan Murder Mystery), and I really liked the way the plot completely switched gears midway through. Tracey Ullman was actually funnier than anyone else in the cast (including Allen), and created one of Woody Allen's best female heroines with her Frenchie. This was his first movie of the "oughts," and paved the way for his next wave of films, each one sillier than the previous one. Maybe it's a sign of his age--although I for one still feel he has another masterpiece in him. Only time will tell.
Wild Man Blues (1997)
A disconcerting experience
I would not recommend this to even die-hard fans...unless you love jazz. There is a lot of jazz, some nice footage of Woody playing. But don't expect him to discuss his films. And then you have the glimpses into his personal life, with Soon Yi. More than I really cared to know. There are a few comments he makes that solidify his reputation as being reclusive, and not a particularly nice person. I thought of Kathleen Turner's infamous (and possibly career-killing) quote: "Fans, who needs these people?" Watching this movie is like eavesdropping--I can understand why this is not on DVD. Unlike Madonna, this documentary is not meant to boost sales or exposure. He has some big fans overseas (more overseas than in the States, it would seem). So this movie plays to them, and to jazz fans perhaps. But not to anyone else. And this is coming from a real fan of his work. You can skip this.
Everyone Says I Love You (1996)
Kind of out there, but wonderful
I didn't really know what to expect when I heard this was an all-stops-out Woody Allen musical, featuring the REAL voices of his stars. Some of them should definitely not quit their day jobs--Julia Roberts and Ed Norton in particular. Others, like Goldie Hawn, Alan Alda and Tim Roth, fare much better. I shudder to think what Drew Barrymore sounds like--she has said her voice is SO bad, she insisted on someone dubbing it. I can't imagine how she could top Julia Roberts on the "tone deaf" meter.
There really isn't much of a plot here. It's basically about upper-class New Yorkers struggling with their love lives, but the plot gives Woody an excuse to film in Venice and Paris and mimic his hero, Groucho Marx. Some of the musical interludes are really creative and funny--dare I say as good as some of the numbers in the classic MGM musicals. And some of the numbers, in places like hospitals, funeral homes, and jewelry stores, are a little on the bizarre side. Woody Allen fans will most definitely appreciate this more than the average viewer. And on another note, I have no idea why this movie is rated R. There is no profanity, no nudity, no sex, no violence---I think the MPAA was on drugs when they saw this.
Mighty Aphrodite (1995)
A fun one
I remember the critics were kind of hard on this movie. I'm not sure why--it's a lot of fun, and has a happy ending (a rarity in a Woody Allen comedy). It contains some really rude humor, another rarity for a Woody film. Mira Sorvino was wonderful and hilarious, but I'm not sure if her performance was worthy of an Oscar. I suppose having a famous father helps. The scene in her apartment, when she meets Woody for the first time, is classic Woody comedy. After the build-up of her character and the little boy, and Woody's reaction to her when he meets her, is as funny as anything in his earlier "wild era" movies. The musical interludes were a little surprising, but a nice touch. The music in the movie must have been a warm-up for his next effort. Good supporting cast too--the only movie besides RoboCop that makes good use of Peter Weller's deadpan style. This is one of my favorite Allen films of the '90s.
If Ed Wood had made Psycho
This movie is just plain bizarre--not scary, not disturbing--just weird. Envision the actor who played the "Snow Shovel Killer" in Home Alone as Norman Bates, and that more or less says it all. The story of Ed Gein was the inspiration for Psycho, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (the original movie came out the same year as this one), and Silence of the Lambs. Seeing how the story influenced the other, superior movies is perhaps the only reason to see Deranged. I knew we were in trouble when the voice-over narration (a same device used at the beginning of Chainsaw Massacre) turned into a bona fide crime TV reporter, who makes frequent appearances in the film while the events unfold. This is pure camp, although it's not a particularly good or scary film. It was released on DVD with Motel Hell, and the two movies have some things in common (cannibalism, rural settings), but Motel Hell is slightly better because the filmmakers were in on the gag. In this movie, I don't know what they were thinking.
The Dead Zone (1983)
I guess I am not much of a David Cronnenberg fan as I rate this, his only really mainstream movie (to date) as his best. It is restrained, elegant, and contains no sexual overtones and minimal blood and gore. It was the movie that made me really appreciate Christopher Walken. This came out the same time as another film featuring him as a sympathetic, tortured individual (Brainstorm). In that movie, he played a scientist; in Dead Zone, he's a school teacher, but they are more or less the same character. The film is not particularly scary, but it is extremely suspenseful, and seeing Martin Sheen as an evil Presidential candidate may be hard to take for his "West Wing" fans. The book was episodic, and the film has a tendency to be that way too (no surprise that the book was adapted again for a cable TV series a few years ago). But the performances--Walken, Sheen, Tom Skerrit, Brooke Adams, Herbert Lom, Anthony Zerbe--make up for this minor fault. It's interesting to note that both Walken and Zerbe would play James Bond villains later in the decade, and Walken would play the Headless Horseman in Tim Burton's Sleepy Hollow, which is the book he assigns to his class in "Dead Zone," before his tragic accident. A rare thriller worth repeated viewings.
The Crazies (1973)
This is bad
I can't get over some of the positive comments on the message board for this one. The most accurate comment I read was from the person who said "everyone has to start somewhere." But this movie came AFTER his low budget landmark "Night of the Living Dean," so maybe we should call this one a flub, plain and simple. The idea is good--and has been redone in later, slicker and slightly better films such as Outbreak, Warning Sign and Impulse (the Meg Tilly movie, not the Theresa Russell one). Actually "The Crazies" has more in common with an Ed Wood production--the hysterical, awful acting; the cardboard, dated characters (one character keeps using the word "MAN" before and after every sentence--he's a Vietnam vet, you see); horrible (and I mean HORRIBLE) sound effects (the spring peeper frogs actually drown out the dialogue in many scenes); over-the-top direction; and ketchup for blood (well, it was filmed in Pittsburgh--maybe Romero had a deal with Heinz). I wouldn't even watch this movie for laughs. I will repeat--this movie is bad.
Dressed to Kill (1980)
A Cautionary Thriller
Much has been said about this movie as a homage (or slick rip-off) of Hitchcock's Psycho. Basically DePalma changes the various plot devices and set pieces in that classic (although the film has two shower scenes, the big murder occurs in an elevator), ups the ante in the violence, sex and perverseness categories, and drops a "whodunit" plot into the mix. POSSIBLE SPOILER: I found it to be more of a cautionary tale, as Marion Crane in this movie is not a troubled woman who rips off her bank, but a middle-aged, seemingly happily married, successful but sexually frustrated woman who flirts with her psychiatrist, tries to pick up a complete stranger at a New York museum, makes out with him in the backseat of a taxi (this is set in New York, after all) and winds up in his apartment. Is she asking for it in the elevator? You have to remember the film came out in 1980, four years before AIDS made the headlines. It came out the same year as Cruising, another New York set thriller that would probably have a hard time finding an audience today. In a way, these two films make a good double feature.
Seen today, Dressed to Kill has its moments (including a bravura sequence set on a subway--years before DePalma would master train and train-station set pieces in The Untouchables and Carlito's Way). Angie Dickinson does a wonderful job. Unfortunately I can't say the same for Nancy Allen, who DePalma employed in several films (she had the luck of being married to the man), but was better as a tough cop in RoboCop vs. scared, wise-cracking hooker in this film. Michael Caine also just seems to be going through the motions. The music is haunting, and all in all it's a tight, slick thriller, that frequently asks the audience to suspend their disbelief. The second in DePalma's non-consecutive series of Hitchcock tributes (and I'll call them tributes over rip-offs).
The Shape of Things (2003)
Another unapologetic mini-masterpiece from Neil LaBute
After two slick Hollywood films (well, maybe not---this is Neil LaBute we're talking about, and Nurse Betty is certainly not your typical Hollywood film), LaBute returns to the territory of his first films with this, another squirm-inducing drama about relationships. I mean squirm-inducing as a compliment; only one other movie made me pause the DVD player and walk around my living room during the running time--John Cassavette's "Faces." In this film, which is rather stagy (understandable as this was a play before a movie), the four main characters seem to be the ONLY people in the movie. The other people (at the museum, in Starbucks, and finally at the "art exhibit" at the end) seem to be frozen in space. No one else talks or moves. If that was not really the case, and the other people did move around, I certainly did not notice it, because the four main characters were so engrossing. All four were seriously flawed and LaBute, as he did in "Your Friends and Neighbors," digs into them. We see more than we want to see. But I found it fascinating. What's even more interesting to me is LaBute's background--brought up as a Mormon in Fort Wayne, Indiana, of all places. And the interviews I've read present him as an easy-going, dryly humorous and optimistic individual. But you certainly would not expect that after watching this movie, "In the Company of Men" or "Your Friends & Neighbors." POSSIBLE SPOILERS: Is what Evelyn does really art? That seems to be the main subject on the story board. Absolutely no. Everything has its limits, even art. Is Adam totally innocent? No. Most guys would have walked away the minute their girlfriend insisted on a nose job. And that final scene--I hate the term, but the guy has taken it to an extreme new level: "Whipped."
Henry + Heathers = May
This is one distressing film. Any film that mixes elements from high school-set black comedies (Heathers, Ghost World) and blood-drenched dramas (Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, American Psycho) is not going to be a commercial blockbuster. I usually enjoy these types of movies but "May" was a little too much, even for my taste. SPOILER ALERT: The fact that May was just a little on the dysfunctional side, but rather appealing, at the beginning of the movie (she worked as a vet's assistance, so she could not have been THAT screwed up), and just goes over the edge completely by the end (to the point of stabbing herself in the eyeball, for God's sake), was just too extreme. I must admit that I found May to be on the cute side at the beginning, which makes her descent into absolute madness all the more troubling. Is it a bad movie? No. Would I recommend it? Yes, but only to those with absolutely open minds. It is a movie that cannot be categorized, although comments that it is a twisted update of "Frankenstein" are not too far-fetched.
Bullets Over Broadway (1994)
Forced, sometimes amusing
This is not one of my favorite Woody Allen films, maybe because it's missing Woody himself. John Cusack just didn't cut it for me as his alter ego in this movie (and I actually liked Kenneth Branagh better, when he become Woody a few years later in "Celebrity"). The movie is too over-the-top and loud, and also a bit stagy; the latter is understandable because this is a movie about producing a Broadway show. But I've always felt that Woody could have made a better, funnier movie here. Dianne Wiest won an Oscar (I think) for her performance, but what's the big deal? She just turned herself into Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard. Maybe that is Oscar worthy in itself. There are some laughs to be had (this is a Woody Allen movie, after all). And I thought Chazz Palminteri, Jim Broadbent and Jennifer Tilly did great jobs (having Broadbent a compulsive eater was a nice touch). All in all, this is not one of his deep films, and led the way for his triple whammy of light comedies from 2000-2002 (Small Time Crooks, Curse of the Jade Scorpion, Hollywood Ending).
The Dream Team (1989)
Peter Boyle is a comic genius
I mean it. After seeing him in this movie, and Young Frankensteeen, and the occasional episode of Everybody Loves Raymond, I can't take him seriously in movies like Joe, Outland and even as Wizard in Taxi Driver. His performance in this movie is absolutely hilarious. I've always had a soft spot for this underrated gem. It's basically a screwball version of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," using that movie's famous baseball game scene as its starting point: An easy-going doctor takes his patients to a Yankees game, and runs into trouble on the way there. And I don't really mind the crime subplot here as much as I did in Three Men and a Baby. Everyone shines here--Michael Keaton (his reference to the World Trade Center was funny then, bittersweet now); Christopher Lloyd; Boyle; even Lorraine Bracco, in a small role. And it's full of memorable quotes. This movie never fails to put a smile on my face.
Mystic River (2003)
Somehand please hand me a revolver
I just would not know whether to use it on myself, or on the characters on the screen. This movie is awful. It is poorly written, badly acted and unbelievable from the get-go. It seems that our friends in South America may agree with me, based on some of the comments I've read. I really wanted to like this movie--some of the best reviews of the year, I think Tim Robbins is great, I enjoy most of Clint Eastwood's films as director (with the exception of another overrated pile of rubbish, Unforgiven). POSSIBLE SPOILERS: Sean Penn and Robbins' characters are supposed to be as close as brothers, so the finale by the river was just not believable. And what exactly was Laura Linney's character cause for her sudden amount of hatred towards Robbins' character? The inclusion of Kevin Bacon's and Lawrence Fishburn's characters were distractions, at best, and did not do anything for the story. Now I have no problems with downbeat movies that require an amount of thinking by the viewers (examples of recent movies in this category that I really enjoyed are Requiem for a Dream, The Ice Storm, and Happiness). But I don't enjoy movies that shamelessly manipulate the audience into caring about characters with no appealing attributes and are unconvincingly portrayed and caricatures at best. The "great" acting in this movie consists of the actors breaking down in tears every five minutes or so. And the Boston accents--just ridiculous. Especially Laura Linney's. So I'll close this by saying that, on the plus side, the direction is rather good (although I still prefer the understated direction Eastwood used in his recent movies like Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and older ones like Play Misty for Me). I still have a lot of respect for the actors, despite their performances in this movie--but I'd like to see Sean Penn get nominated for something totally out of character for him (heck, I preferred him in I Am Sam over this). Save your money.