Films You May Not Have Seen
But Really Ought to Consider

(click on a film title to go it directly,
or scroll down the screen to read them all)

The Nightmare Before Christmas
Pinocchio
Betsy’s Wedding
29th Street
Forbidden Planet
Starman
The Dead Zone
The Twelve Chairs
Raising Arizona
My Blue Heaven
The In-Laws
Three Days of the Condor
Somewhere in Time
Pumping Iron
Saving Grace
Threshold
Jackknife
Big Night
What's Eating Gilbert Grape?
Insignificance
Here Comes Mr. Jordan
Intermezzo
Smoke

Recommended but not reviewed:
The Man Who Would be King
A Slight Case of Murder
Glengarry Glen Ross
Dogma

 

Introduction

We all have our favorite little movies. "Little" not necessarily in the sense of low-budget (for all I know, you liked Waterworld) but in terms of box office popularity. These are the kinds of movies about which we think: How is it possible that more people didn't  flock to see them? And we wish we had a way to convince our friends to give them a shot.

Well, here’s my way. Presented for your amusement are 22+ films I think got unfairly bypassed in the stampede to be the first on the block to see the latest studio blockbuster. My guess (my hope, really) is that anybody who reads these little reviews and rents these films will find at least a third of them worth the trouble, although not necessarily the same third as someone else. That’s the experience I had when I wrote more in-depth reviews for a house organ in my previous (business) life.

First, however, let me urge you to read my short essay, "On Critics" (click here). This is vitally important, and will explain why I think every critic ought to provide a brief statement prior to presuming to act as an arbiter of taste. If you have no awareness of a critic’s biases and baseline tastes, you can derive little real benefit from his or her reviews.

On that note, here are some things about my taste you should be armed with:

First, I’ll tell you that my likes and dislikes regarding la cinema are, to say the least, unconventional. I tend to like films that are complex and wordy (The Lion in Winter) and those which don’t serve up a purely linear story on a platter (Glengarry Glen Ross). I find it a rare occasion in which even a transcendent performance can transcend a bad script (it didn’t in Donnie Brasco). I admire filmmakers who step outside the bounds of studio formula (Uncle Vanya on 42nd Street, Angel Heart), and I have keen radar for those in which it’s evident that the makers either didn’t much care about their craft or were so cynical about what audiences would pay to see that they treated the film as they would a weekend lawn-mowing project (Ghostbusters II, City Slickers II).

I don’t feel compelled to deride a movie just because it appealed to millions of people (Titanic), and I also don’t feel the need to praise a film because it was the personal statement of an eccentric filmmaker whom the cognoscenti are supposed to admire (Blue Velvet) or is a darling of the oh-so-with-it cinema crowd (Blue Velvet, again). But if the oh-so-with-it crowd is right, I won’t hesitate to say so (Citizen Kane), and I might as well tell you that I believe Casablanca really is one of the best movies ever made. And while we’re at it, same goes for The Godfather…both I and II, but I hated III.

I thought Terms of Endearment was one of the worst major pictures ever made, and I loved The Missouri Breaks, which most everybody else thought was one of the worst major pictures ever made. I didn’t like Phenomenon because I thought a terrific premise was completely abandoned in favor of a sloppily sentimental manipulation of emotion. But I liked Ghost, because I thought its expression of heartbreak and loss was well-handled.  I abhor the fad of films that glorify the mentally ill as the only truly sane and wise people among us, which is why What's Eating Gilbert Grape? is such an honest. albeit upsetting, movie.

Among current, popular actors I admire Robert DeNiro, Jeff Bridges, Anthony Hopkins, Meryl Streep, Al Pacino, Kate Nelligan, Dustin Hoffman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Harvey Keitel, Robert Duvall and Holly Hunter.  Same goes for Leonardo DiCaprio (see What's Eating Gilbert Grape?, further down), if he doesn't lose his soul by not continuing to stretch. I’ve had enough of Whoopi Goldberg, who really isn’t so cool and hip that she can carry a movie simply by showing up, and I’ll continue to think Jack Nicholson is over-rated until he decides to play a different character again, as he did in Batman. Same goes for William Hurt, Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau. If I had to pick the best of all time, it would be Lawrence Olivier (before the remake of The Jazz Singer).

There. Now you have some idea of the baseline whence my opinions spring. On with the films.

Clicking on the film titles just below each category will take you to that film’s entry in a massive Internet movie data base that is crammed full of useful information. If you want to send me some feedback, click here.

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KID STUFF…OR SO YOU THOUGHT
The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)
Pinocchio (1940)

I only own two store-bought movie videos, and Nightmare is one of them. I’ve long been puzzled as to why this extraordinary movie wasn’t the smash hit it should have been, and now I think I know: everybody thought it was for kids or, because of the title and the advertising art, that it was some schlocky, Stephen King-ish version of the Clement Moore Poem. And, as it turned out, even their kids weren’t watching it, so why should adults give it a try?

Their kids didn’t watch it because it’s not for kids. It’s a super-sophisticated fantasy in which the incredible animation is exploited solely as a vehicle to support the story and music, not as a technical tour de force to dazzle the audience. It has an intricately presented plot that evolves with great subtlety, richly detailed main and supporting characters, a unique and endlessly-creative visual style and an overall cohesion of tone and mood that is totally lost on the kinds of moviegoers who think "Mighty Morphin Power Rangers" should have won Best Picture.

The movie is set in the town of Halloween, whose ghoulish denizens are responsible for producing that holiday each year. Their leader, Jack the Pumpkin King, is clinically depressed at the banal repetitiveness of the job, as he tells us in a soulful lament. During this soliloquy, Jack accidentally discovers Christmastown, whose inhabitants are the ones who put on Christmas each year. Jack is flabbergasted by this heretofore hidden land ("What’s this! What’s this! There’s music everywhere! What’s this! What’s this! There’s white stuff in the air!"), and tries to explain it to the inhabitants of Halloween. They are incapable of grasping the concept, however, so Jack resolves to kidnap Christmastown’s leader, Santa Claus, and bring him to Halloween. In order to sell his fellow citizens on the idea, however, he refers to him as Sandy Claws and portrays him as some kind of terrifying, lobster-like monster. Jack puts the town ruffian, the Oogie Boogie man (Tim Page), in charge of guarding him and, in one of the movie’s most rousing numbers, Oogie Boogie sings a song of hip-hop contempt ("You’re joking! You’re joking! I can’t believe my eyes! You’re kidding me, you gotta be, this can’t be the right guy!") that is reminiscent of Sebastian the Crab’s incredible turn in The Little Mermaid.

Wait a second: Did I mention that this is a musical? Because that, to me, is the entire point of this movie. I kid you not when I tell you that the music in "Nightmare" is an easy rival for the very best Broadway musicals you’ve ever heard, bar none. The songs are by turns achingly beautiful, eerily evocative and hysterically funny. It is said you can’t wear out a compact disk, but I do believe I’m on the verge of doing so with the soundtrack of Nightmare.

While the film is attributed to Tim Burton, the real genius behind it is Danny Elfman, who wrote all the words and endlessly creative music and is the voice of Jack.

The only other store-bought movie video I own is Pinocchio. Quite simply, this early Disney effort ranks with the greatest films of all time. Every frame drips with heartfelt artistry and craft. It has everything: a terrific story, wonderful good guys, despicable bad guys, a hauntingly beautiful visual style, memorable songs (e.g., "When You Wish Upon a Star"), suspense, action, pathos…the only thing it doesn’t have is human actors. More movies should be so lucky. And, unlike The Nightmare Before Christmas, kids adore this one, because there’s something in it for every level of sophistication. An out and out gem, the likes of which they truly don’t make anymore. One viewing of Pinocchio, and you’ll begin to appreciate what real movie-making is all about.

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TWO BY LaPAGLIA
Betsy’s Wedding (1990)
29th Street (1991)

An otherwise light and frothy farce, Betsy’s Wedding is elevated by the presence of one Stevie Dee, one of those incredible characters you’ll find yourself imitating, to the great annoyance of your acquaintances, as soon as you leave the theatre and probably for years afterward. As brought to life by Anthony LaPaglia, whom you might recognize as Daniel Benzali’s replacement on the television series Murder One, Stevie Dee (one never calls him just Stevie) is a mob wannabe with a sense of decorum and inter-gender proprietary so over-developed that even the simplest sentences come laden with numerous protestations of respect and restraint. His wooing of the lead character’s sister, played by Ally Sheedy, is howlingly funny as LaPaglia unrelentingly pursues her but spends most of their time together insisting he’s not applying any pressure.

There are wonderful bits contributed by Burt Young as Stevie Dee’s mob uncle, Joe Pesci as a developer so cheap he offers the newlyweds one of his worst slum apartments at a good discount, Madeline Kahn as Betsy’s mother trying to cope with the new, upper crust in-laws, and Sheedy as a female cop. ("I like arresting people," she answers when asked why she wanted to be a cop. "I put ‘em up against the car, kick their legs apart…I’m high for the rest of the day.") Molly Ringwald is perfect as Betsy, a clothes designer with the taste of an 8-year old, especially in a scene where she bargains with the rabbi who is going to perform the ceremony to keep God out of it.

But it’s Stevie Dee’s picture all the way. Hard to describe, really: he has to be seen.

I confess to a strong bias for movies portraying slices of Jewish or Italian middle-class life in New York City, and 29th Street is an over-the-top example of the latter. It’s based on a true story of a cop, Frank Pesce, Jr., who hit it big in the first New York lottery. LaPaglia plays him brilliantly, especially in scenes opposite Danny Aiello as his father with big ideas but small vision. The two go at it as only a pair of Italian males can, with unrestrained gusto, explosive venom and an undercurrent of love that becomes ever more obscured as the events surrounding the lottery itself tentacle their way through their relationship.

The plot is wonderfully clever and revolves around Frank Jr. being the luckiest man alive, the kind of guy who doesn’t even need to watch the finish to know for certain his horse won. Even when he gets stabbed, he’s lucky: a potentially fatal tumor is discovered in the process and removed in time.

The film starts out with Frank walking the streets of New York on a snowy Christmas Eve, cursing the city, his family, his life…even the local church, at which he hurls snowballs until the priest has him arrested. Once inside the station, we discover that this forlorn, misbegotten soul has just won the jackpot in the New York lottery. So what could his problem possibly be? The story develops deliciously in flashback until we discover that there really is a perfectly logical reason why someone would be depressed over hitting it big. Thankfully, a beautiful twist at the end resolves it all, not just the matter of the lottery but Frank’s relationship with his father.

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SCI-FI, MY OH MY
Forbidden Planet (1956)
Starman (1984)
The Dead Zone (1983)

Wait!  Come back here!

What is it about science fiction that gives it such a bad rap, to the point that mere mention of that label will prevent otherwise open-minded people from sampling any of it? Is it that the genre has a reputation for forgoing characterization, subtlety and meaning in favor of technical minutiae of dubious merit? Is it that this reputation is largely deserved? What a shame, especially when an occasional effort rises high above the pool of mediocrity and aspires to real art, as do these two wonderful movies.

Forbidden Planet is one of the best sci-fi movies ever (the best being 2001: A Space Odyssey, not reviewed here because it’s hardly a "lesser known"). I’m still haunted by the extraordinary premise, which unfolds slowly, eerily, until the awe-inspiring truth is at last revealed.

A spaceship captain (Leslie Nielsen) and his crew travel to a planet where, years before, another ship crashed, leaving only passenger Dr. Morbius (Walter Pidgeon) and his daughter (Ann Francis) alive. In the intervening years, Morbius has made a life for himself and his daughter, utilizing machinery left behind by the vanished native race of the planet, the Krell. Theirs was a culture so advanced that they had essentially transformed the entire planet into one great, self-sustaining machine, designed to do their bidding and free them from the constraints of their physical bodies.

But somehow, on the very eve of the initiation of this epic phase of their culture, the entire race disappeared, in a single night. Despite his mastery of the machines they left behind and the knowledge of Krell history he acquired from them, the reason for this catastrophe remains a complete mystery to Morbius.

Meanwhile, mysteries abound even in the present. As Morbius becomes increasingly agitated by what he perceives to be the disruptive presence of the visitors from Earth, an unseen force is stalking the visiting spaceship, terrorizing the crewmembers and killing them off one by one.

How these seemingly disparate elements eventually collide provides a stunner of a revelation that explains everything, one of those take-your-breath-away twists that makes you re-think everything you’ve seen since the film began. In fact, Forbidden Planet is even better the second time around, because then you realize the relevance of all the details that seemed incidental at first, from the Krell "image machine" that almost killed Morbius the first time he tried to use it, to a heretofore tame pet tiger that inexplicably threatens the visiting crew.

I saw this film for the first time when I was very young; later in life, after formally studying psychology for several years, I went back and saw it again, and only then did I understand the full set of Freudian implications represented. This intellectual tour de force is definitely wasted on young kids who just won’t get it.

The special effects are beautiful rather than technically impressive, incorporating a lot of deep Technicolor reds and blues that enhance the overall tone of otherworldly strangeness that is at once frightening and compelling. The film is also notable for the debut of Robby the Robot, who provides most of the film’s comic relief, and an eerie score by Bebe and Louis Barron.

Where Forbidden Planet finds its center in the brain, Starman is strictly from the heart. It is a profoundly sad movie, unoriginal in conception but striking in execution, containing no new revelations or insights but presenting old ones with special conviction and power.

Jeff Bridges, one of the best actors working today (and who gives what might very well be the least-seen Academy Award-nominated performance since Judy Densch's for Mrs. Brown), is a non-corporeal visitor from an unnamed planet who lands on Earth and ends up in the house of recently-widowed Jenny Hayden (Karen Allen). Utilizing various visual memorabilia in the house (photos, old home movies), the visitor assumes the dead husband’s physical form, much to the shock of the widow, whom he then kidnaps and takes on a road trip. Predictably, most of the movie involves their growing relationship in the forced confines of Jenny’s captivity.

But what really sets this movie apart is Bridges’ performance, one of those deeply satisfying achievements in which an actor manufactures a complete persona from scratch while we watch. The premise here is that this alien visitor arrived as a total blank, the prefect tabula rasa upon which a new character is writ, and he does so using nothing other than what he sees around him. Thus, in his first attempt at driving, he careens through an intersection against the light because he based his learning on Jenny’s behavior or, as he explains it: "Green light – go. Yellow light – speed up." He seems to have a purpose, although what that might be we can’t tell, but his modus operandus of fashioning himself solely from his observations is apparently based on the supposition that human behavior is consistent and predictable. The fallacy of this assumption gets him into constant trouble, and we can’t help but wince at such pure innocence rewarded with pain and confusion.

Which brings us to the heart of this character: We might be forgiven for believing that the visitor will eventually be cast in the same cynical mold as his models. After all, what else has he to go on? Incredibly, though, his own "personality" shines through, and Bridges imbues that personality with a mix of dumb naivete and penetrating wisdom that is a wonder to behold. As he develops, and as his gentle and forgiving nature becomes apparent to Jenny, she abandons herself to this image of her lost husband, only to discover that prolonging his stay on Earth will mean the visitor’s death. Despite an intended uplifting ending (the inevitable and hopelessly cliched government pursuers are outsmarted by one conscience-stricken scientist, well-played by Charles Martin Smith), nothing can relieve our despair that the pain-wracked Jenny, already tortured by the untimely death of her beloved husband, loses him for a second time.

Interestingly, while the film screams "sequel" (the visitor impregnates Jenny before he leaves), there never was one, perhaps because there was insufficient action at the box office to warrant green-lighting a second movie. A lot of people missed out on a beautiful movie…all because of a label.

I’m not sure that The Dead Zone qualifies as science-fiction. It’s centered around a character with ESP but that’s as far as it goes. The reason for its lack of box office success is related to that of The Nightmare Before Christmas, its purported pedigree: how many people over the age of thirteen are interested in seeing a film based on a Stephen King novel with the word dead in the title? So once again, the kids didn’t like it and adults wouldn’t give it a try.

Again, too bad. This is a little beauty of a film with a great plot, appealing characters and a moody tone and look that are completely absorbing.  Christopher Walken plays a young man who awakens from an accident-induced coma to discover that he can sense things by touching people and objects. He retreats from the problems this causes him (in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is an outcast) but keeps getting pulled back into the very kinds of situations he wishes to shun. It seems that every good turn he attempts to do for worthy and sympathetic individuals somehow backfires on him. I won't go further into the plot because there's no way to do so without ruining all the surprises, but it's clever and involving and one hundred percent character-driven. Walken -- who, let's face it, is a very talented weirdo -- has never been better (except perhaps in Pennies from Heaven).

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FUNNY — TRULY
The Twelve Chairs (1970)
Raising Arizona (1987)
My Blue Heaven (1990)
The In-Laws (1979)

There’s funny and there’s funny. First is the belly-laugh kind (Caddyshack, Airplane!), replete with clever one-liners and sight gags, pleasant diversions of little substance. Then there are the kind in which the comic aspects are grounded in broader, often poignant situations (Annie Hall, Mr. Saturday Night, Parenthood). Such is the case with The Twelve Chairs.

This least known of Mel Brooks’ films is based on a traditional Russian folk tale and takes place just after that country's revolution. At his mother’s deathbed, Ippolit Vorobyaninov (Ron Moody) learns that she hid the family jewels inside one of twelve dining room chairs to keep them from falling into the hands of the revolutionaries. The rest of the movie revolves around his attempt to retrieve the chair. Unfortunately, mother never marked the chair and Vorobyaninov has no way to know which one it is. Furthermore, in the chaos of the revolution the chairs got scattered to the four winds. To compound the problem, mother also confessed the secreting of the jewels to an unscrupulous priest (Dom DeLuise, in his best – no, make that his only good – role), who races Vorobyaninov to the treasure.

Joining in the fray is Vorobyaninov’s old servant, Tikon (Brooks), and a con-man played by Frank Langella. Brooks is brilliant as the reactionary peasant who still worships his old master, bringing forth an uncannily en pointe accent and set of mannerisms.

Underlying the physical comedy is a touching evocation of how the revolution affected the lives of the former bourgeoisie who, no matter what you might think of their pre-uprising excesses and callousness, suffered mightily at the hands of their socialist successors. Also well-portrayed is the deadening cultural brutality of the massive bureaucracy that quickly arose to administer the brave new country.

The film is marred, and not trivially, by the presence of Langella’s wholly mean-spirited character devoid of any humor or hint of redemption. The darkest notes in the movie are his, such as when he punches Vorobyaninov in the stomach, and one wonders if such an unsympathetic portrayal is his own invention or was intended in the screenplay. As Brooks himself directed, we can only assume that the character came out the way he wanted it to, which is surprising and disappointing. It's the only explanation of why he'd put such a relentlessly cold and affectless actor in this role.

Nevertheless, The Twelve Chairs is a film worth seeing although I must warn you: if you have little or no background in appreciating the humor inherent in works based in eastern Europe ethnicity, you probably won’t get this movie.

Raising Arizona is still, with the possible exception of Fargo, the best of the Coen brothers' work, a weirdly riotous romp dense with characters of surpassing craziness who nevertheless possess a kind of sensible internal consistency:  They may be nuts but they're predictably nuts, a set of circumstances rife with comic possibilities.

What astonished me the most about this movie, and it still does after many viewings, is how all of the actors involved captured so perfectly a specific brand of insanity, the kind in which, no matter how bent someone gets, it all seems perfectly natural to everybody else.  Nicholas Cage and Holly Hunter play an unlikely couple, a two-bit petty criminal (Cage) and a cop (Hunter) who inexplicably fall in love.  Unable to conceive a child, Hunter browbeats Cage into stealing one for her from one Nathan (the "Raw Furniture King") Arizona, played to perfection by Trey Wilson.  More than that I cannot say without sounding deranged myself.  Full of quietly hysterical moments and the kind of demented poignancy only the Coens could concoct, this film only gets better with each subsequent viewing.

My Blue Heaven is an hilarious, quasi-musical utilization of the extraordinary skills of Steve Martin, one of the most intelligent comedians ever to grace the screen. Here he plays an Italian mobster in the supposedly sweet bosom of the federal Witness Protection Program, suddenly finding himself in enforced, southern California suburban hell where he and his equally New York-centric wife have been set up as the ordinary couple next door, which is roughly analogous to passing off Dennis Rodman as a florist. Watching over them is FBI agent Barney Coopersmith (Rick Moranis), a nebbish of the first water whose wife just left him for a baseball player.

Martin’s Vinny Antonelli – oops, sorry: "Todd" – is the beautifully played classic fish out of water who nevertheless comes to have great influence over everyone he meets. Among them are Joan Cusack’s public prosecutor (can’t tell you how happy I was to see her with an Oscar nomination for In and Out) and Moranis’ FBI agent. Watching Vinny/Todd and Moranis gradually humanize each other is both funny and touching, starting with the scene where the hood tries to tip the agent. (Moranis: "You don’t tip FBI agents!" Martin, perplexed: "Sure you do!")

And then there’s The In-Laws. I’m not sure where to begin to describe this film to you, except to say that it’s one of those that is pretty funny on first viewing, and gets progressively more so with each re-seeing. Only over time can you truly appreciate how deftly Alan Arkin and Peter Falk create two screwball characters with such skill that they both seem born to the parts. Or maybe they really were.

Arkin plays Sheldon Kornpett, a bland, mild-mannered New York dentist whose daughter is engaged to be married. The future father-in-law is Falk’s Vince Ricardo, who claims to be a CIA agent but at their first get-together regales Sheldon and his wife with incredible stories told with such sincerity Vince bursts into tears at the mere memory ("I tell you, the sight of those tsetse flies carrying off little babies…"). Sheldon’s antennae are on full alert, and matters aren’t helped when he returns home one day to find his house surrounded by federal law enforcement officials because his wife found a set of counterfeiting plates in his basement where Vince had stashed them without bothering to tell anybody.

Soon Sheldon is on a private jet with Vince bound for South America. I can make myself laugh at a moment’s notice just by recalling the scene where one of the crew (the incomparable James Hong) instructs Sheldon on how to use the life vest…in Chinese.

As the story progresses, Sheldon actually starts getting used to Vince’s shenanigans…or so he thinks. But he’s constantly surprised by the escalation of Vince’s creative insanity, even while achieving some kind of acceptance in order to stop himself from going mad trying to figure it out. Sheldon’s is the prime point of view here, because we the audience sympathize with his confusion even as we are amazed at Vince’s bizarre nonchalance in the face of one lethal threat after another. In one scene, he earnestly instructs Sheldon on how to use Saltines to absorb the grease in his split pea soup, which wouldn’t normally be worth commenting on except that it takes place within minutes of Sheldon’s having been chased and shot at because Vince didn’t quite give him the whole story on a "little favor" he asked of him.

The film is one treat after another, with a surprisingly warm and satisfying ending, the whole mish-mash accompanied by an apt and memorable John Morris score reminiscent of The Odd Couple, which this film resembles, except on acid.

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"WONDERFULLY COMPLEX…"
Three Days of the Condor (1975)

I put that title in quotes for a reason. After years of enduring the opprobrium of the house critic (my wife) that my novels are too convoluted for the typical book-buyer, that phrase popped up in an important review of my latest, The Expert. Vindication at last? Not hardly. The bride draws a distinction between ordinary book-buyers and professional critics who, as she points out, get their copies free.

Nevertheless, the only guide I have for what to write is what I like to read, which is related to what I like to see in a movie. In plot-driven films what I like is intricacy: puzzle pieces artfully presented so as to increase our confusion while holding out the tantalizing promise of a satisfying conclusion.

Like Forbidden Planet, Three Days of the Condor demands constant vigilance. I first saw this movie with my sister and her husband in a near-empty theatre, so we were free to discuss things as they unfolded without disturbing anybody. It was great fun to speculate about where it was heading and also to remind each other of key plot points as the story developed.

In grand tradition, this movie centers on an ordinary man thrust into an extraordinary situation. In this case it’s Robert Redford, a low-level CIA employee whose job it is to scan books and articles from around the world in the low-percentage hope of spotting something useful to the intelligence community. He returns from a lunch break to find all his colleagues professionally assassinated. Realizing that the perpetrators know they missed one, he is suddenly on the run and takes it upon himself to try to uncover the reason for the brutal hit even as he plays a dangerous and suspenseful cat-and-mouse game with his pursuer, the understated but menacing Max von Sydow. At the same time, Redford has to manage Faye Dunaway, whom he has somewhat inadvertently kidnapped.

The latter situation is strongly reminiscent of that in Starman. In both cases, a woman is held hostage by a man who means her no harm but has no choice. In both cases, the relationship is subtly transformed from one involving fear and hostility into one of trust and empathy, and in both cases the captive eventually sides with her captor and willingly helps him out.

Redford’s character, of course, rises to the occasion. Frankly, it’s a great stretch of credibility how this meek bookworm transmutes into James Bond, but it’s all handled with such skill and style that it isn’t particularly troublesome and hardly noticeable except in retrospect. The ending is very satisfying, too, and calls to mind Absence of Malice in the complete turn of the tables by an initially powerless victim.

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OLD-FASHIONED ROMANCE, UPDATED
Somewhere in Time (1980)

I’m not being falsely immodest when I tell you that I am as cynical as they come. I abhor cheap sentimentality and patently manipulated bathos, which (partially) explains why I considered Phenomenon a disappointment and Terms of Endearment a total disgrace.

But give me a well-crafted tear-jerker with subtly developed emotion and I’m as lump-throated as the most shameless Harlequin fan;  I still mist up over Starman every time out. Which brings us to Somewhere in Time.

One of my favorite popular novels a few years back was Jack Finney’s Time and Again, the story of an ordinary, modern day guy who takes part in an experiment that transports him back to New York at the turn of the century in an attempt to revise history. A similar premise is employed in Somewhere in Time. In this case, Christopher Reeve does the temporal magic, and rather than a New York setting, it takes place in an old hotel. In an unanticipated development, he is badly smitten by an actress (Jane Seymour) who visited the place years ago, and eventually falls in love with her. The problem, of course, is that he really lives many years in her future, a bit of a sticky situation not easily resolved by real-world physics.

But this is the movies, not MIT, and while this movie is not terribly substantial, it is worth seeing just to give your tear ducts a workout without the kind of embarrassment you should have felt for weeping over the absurdly cheap trick of Debra Winger’s character getting the Big C in Terms of Endearment. Contributing hugely to the movie’s impact is the score based on Rachmaninoff’s "Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini," romantically over-the-top music from a composer who was romantically over-the-top to begin with.

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A NEW WAY OF SEEING
Pumping Iron (1977)

The very best artistic endeavors are those that change your view of the world by showing you things in a way you might not have previously considered. These re-considerations might be general and global in nature, such as never again writing off the physically repulsive after seeing The Elephant Man, or more specific and local, such as re-thinking the entire U.S. space program after reading/seeing The Right Stuff.

George Butler's Pumping Iron is of the latter ilk. It deals with the world of professional body-building, an enclosed cultural sphere that, at least until Arnold exploded onto the scene, tended to evoke groans of revulsion and knee-jerk exclamations of disgust among the uninitiated ("Oh, God, I’d never want a body like that!" as though the exclaimer had some kind of choice in the matter). I confess to a similar reaction, pre-1977. That was the year I saw Pumping Iron, a completely mesmerizing, totally fascinating peek into the lives and work of these amazing behemoths, at a screening in New York that included some live posing by Franco Columbu, one of the legends of the sport.

I remember clearly the experience of watching this film, which I think pretty much mirrored the rest of the audience. It started out with my feeling very much as I did the first (and only) time I’d seen a carnival freak show, which was a lot like staring at an auto wreck. But as the scenes unfolded, we found ourselves drawn into the whole Gestalt of that environment, to the point where we began discussing among ourselves in earnest whispers whether Mike Katz had enough definition in his lats and if Lou Ferrigno’s triceps were sufficiently balanced. In 85 minutes our entire conception of body-building was transformed. I even went to several competitions and was quite proud to find myself correctly predicting the winners with reasonable accuracy.

Of course, it’s Arnold’s movie, all the way, and we’re on his side as he prepares for his fifth Mr. Olympia title. His presence is extraordinary, his charm irresistible, his intelligence undeniable. The mind games he plays against the dull-witted Ferrigno and his protective father are hilarious, despite the real effect they obviously have on the hapless victims.

Ironically, I lost interest in bodybuilding a few years ago when the sport’s practitioners crossed the line of physical achievement I personally considered reasonable, layering on masses of muscle so seemingly indiscriminate as to render antiquated whatever idealized picture of perfection they’d started with. Maybe I need an update of Pumping Iron to help me understand this new level better.

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SMALL AND TOUCHING
Saving Grace (1986)
Threshold (1981)
Jackknife (1989)
Big Night (1996)

Sometimes, perhaps owing to under-powered marketing efforts or Byzantine movie business politics, or just to chicken studio execs, certain films lacking blockbuster stars or other standard pedigrees get undeservedly lost in the noise. These are some examples.

Saving Grace stars Tom Conti as the modern-day Pope Leo XIV who one day finds himself accidentally locked outside the Vatican walls. Intrigued by the possibilities, he wanders around Rome, trying to blend in with the local populace in order to get some feeling for what an ordinary life might be like. Before long, he ends up in a small, nondescript village which just happens to need a new priest, a role he slips into easily. While the pampered, isolated and self-centered Vatican staff (is it possible even to imagine a Curia without Fernando Rey?) drive themselves to distraction trying to cover for the pope’s absence even as they desperately attempt to get him back, the pontiff finds himself absorbed in the lives of his new parishioners and strangely moved by the ordinary travails of ordinary people.

This film studiously avoids grand gesture and cheap sentiment, concentrating instead on the insightful portrayal of how important things can take place in unimportant lives. There are a multitude of charming moments, beautifully underplayed by the talented Conti (Ruben, Ruben) in a marvelously restrained and subtle performance. The occasional cuts between the pope’s highly personal sojourn into the countryside and the consternation among his Vatican handlers that the great man himself would rub shoulders with peasants provides cutting commentary on the arrogant isolation of the church hierarchy from the daily lives of the faithful. That the little village is practically walking distance from the church’s seat of power makes that disconnection all the more poignant.

But don’t get the impression that Saving Grace is a political statement. It’s a sweetly sorrowful and ultimately uplifting labor of love by some caring filmmakers, and whatever commentary it offers is smoothly woven into the story with humor and, well…saving grace.

One wonders how Threshold ever got made, since the pitch for it would be difficult to make very exciting, but I suspect Donald Sutherland had something to do with it. He plays a renowned heart surgeon collaborating with Jeff Goldblum’s engineer on a fully self-contained artificial heart. Goldblum’s character is the sole spot of freneticism in this movie in which the rest of the characters act like real people might if they were unaware that a camera was present. There are no histrionics, nobody even raises a voice, to the point where you sometimes have to strain to hear what is being said. So all of the emotion and tension is transmitted strictly by the words they speak and the situations that develop, and this masterful handling of events and human interactions is strangely powerful and affecting.

As if to underscore the non-cinematic reality of what is taking place, there are unexpected turns that no big-budget producer would have allowed. Mare Winningham, in one of her earliest major film roles, is the young girl who receives the artificial heart with no advanced warning. While she is on the operating table (in a scene that uncomfortably demythologizes any illusions we might have held about patient dignity during surgery), Sutherland discovers that her heart is beyond repair. He elects to defy the hospital’s medical board and install the artificial heart. When Winningham awakens out of anesthesia, we expect the typical celebration of successful defiance of moribund authority in the face of radical lifesaving; after all, the new device worked to perfection.

But this film isn’t about satisfying our Hollywood-accustomed desires. Winningham is confused and terrified by the strange device clicking away in her chest, beside herself with anxiety because she’s suddenly unsure if she’s really still human. Sutherland’s surgeon, expecting at least a little gratitude, is totally thrown by this surprising reaction. He’s a mechanic, after all, and he never stopped to consider the human implications on this one particular patient.

The film’s ending is unnervingly beautiful, too. We expect the surgeon to win the Pritzker Prize and be carried through the streets on the shoulders of his colleagues, his entire life transformed into a series of television interviews and lucrative speaking engagements as the credits roll and triumphant music swells.

Instead, he simply starts just another typical day, and we leave him as he routinely plans another round of surgeries and meetings.

There’s no real beginning, middle or end to the events that transpire in the film. Instead, it’s more like we happen upon some interesting people at a point in their lives when something quietly momentous is occurring, hang around for a while, and then leave when it’s basically over. That’s why it must have been a difficult pitch. It’s also why it’s a wonderful picture.

Jackknife is a small film that packs a huge emotional wallop. I’m not going to say much about it beyond urging you to see it, but I will warn you that it’s one of those that marketers and the critics they influence tend to refer to as uplifting and redemptive, but is in fact sad and depressing.

Ed Harris, in one of his best roles, plays a Vietnam veteran so scarred by his wartime experiences that he has shut down like a faulty nuclear power plant, sealing off nearly all the entryways to his emotions and capacity for human contact. He is living with his sister, brilliantly portrayed by Kathy Baker, whom he has pretty much managed to drag down into his personal hell with him.

Robert DeNiro, an army buddy, arrives on the scene as the self-appointed savior on a mission to rescue Harris from his demons. How it happens is so harrowing and powerful it makes you wince to watch it. The emotional pace is relentless, the performances searing, and the only reason the movie wasn’t the big hit it deserved to be was because, well, it isn’t exactly the kind of flick that leaves you humming the love theme on your way out of the theatre.

And, finally, there’s Big Night. There’s an emotional connection here with 29th Street, insofar as it involves a love-hate relationship within an Italian-American family, but there the similarity ends. Where 29th Street is a bravura showpiece of deep feelings exploding unrestrained all over the screen, Big Night is more of an elegant museum piece in which passions are quietly displayed in a more contemplative setting. Also, where 29th Street has a linear plot with a climactic and satisfying resolution, Big Night shares its story concept with Threshold: both are slices of life centering on an important event, at the end of which the characters simply return to normal and the film ends.

Stanley Tucci, who co-directed, and Tony Shalhoub (who single-handedly made Quick Change unmissable) play Italian immigrant brothers, Secundo and Primo (get it?), who are struggling to make a go of their gourmet restaurant. Secundo is the businessman and schmoozer concerned about pleasing customers and obtaining financing. Primo, on the other hand, is a culinary artist of the first rank, an uncompromising perfectionist who refuses even to prepare a side order of pasta for a customer who is supposed to be eating risotto because her plebeian tastes brand her "a criminal."

Tucci’s Secundo is torn between his respect for his brother’s high standards and the need to make enough money to keep the business afloat. But his exhortations to Primo to accede just slightly to his customer’s desires are snidely rebuffed at every turn, and it’s killing him to watch the wild success of his competitor directly across the street, who fills his eatery to capacity nightly by catering to every garish and tasteless whim.

What action there is focuses on one big night in which Louis Prima himself is expected to visit the restaurant. The brothers put everything they have, financially and emotionally, into preparing the kind of feast not seen since ancient Rome in order to impress the popular singer and perhaps achieve some notoriety for their beleaguered establishment.

Tucci and Shalhoub hit all the right notes in this beautiful film without raising their voices (except in one scene) or making a single superfluous gesture. These two terrific performances are like icebergs, where you only see ten percent directly but the ninety percent below the surface is firmly present and undeniable. There is plenty of humor but it only hides the real desperation, as in a scene where Primo tries to talk a loan officer into some leniency.

And the ending is one of pure theatrical brilliance. Secundo fixes breakfast for Primo, and not one word is spoken. That’s it. Imagine how that pitch would sound to a studio exec, but then watch how it’s pulled off in the movie.

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TRANSCENDENT PERFORMANCES
What's Eating Gilbert Grape? (1993)

As it happens, this is a very good film about a family beset not only with a retarded son/brother, but a reclusive mother of Brobdingnagian proportions who is the focus of fascinated ridicule in the town.   However, the real reason you should see it is because of a performance by the 19-year old Leonardo DiCaprio that may be one of the most amazing ever given by anyone of that age or, come to think of it, anyone ever.

He plays Arnie, the mentally ill younger brother of the eponymous Gilbert Grape (Johnny Depp), and it is impossible to believe that this is the same guy who starred in Titanic.  Unlike Dustin Hoffman's Rainman or Cliff Robertson's Charley or Harrison Ford's (Regarding) Henry, all of which were very well done, DiCaprio's Arnie is not a cleaned up,  cinematic idealization of benign aberration, but a full-out, nose-picking, dirty fingernailed blast of reflected reality that, to anyone who has known such real-life unfortunates, is truly awe-inspiring.  The only thing more mind-boggling is that he didn't win the best supporting actor Oscar or Golden Globe for which he was nominated.

And the kid's no flash in the pan, either, as witness This Boy's Life and Marvin's Room.  One only hopes that, like Pacino, Malkovich and Duvall, he has the self-confidence and the agent to occasionally forgo the Titanics in favor of the Gilbert Grapes.

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OTHER WORTHIES

Insignificance (1985)  - Although it stars the normally execrable Theresa Wright and is definitely not for everybody, I loved this wildly offbeat offering that examines the tantalizing possibilities were Marilyn Monroe, Joe DiMaggio, Joe McCarthy and (!) Albert Einstein to meet.

Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941) - This is the film that Warren Beatty's Heaven Can Wait remade, but it is vastly superior to the modern version, especially considering Beatty's annoyingly stammering performance.  Robert Montgomery plays a prizefighter who dies before his time and is sent back to earth in a different body.  Don't miss it.

Intermezzo (1939) - An old-fashioned, Madame X-type tearjerker concerning a pianist (Ingrid Bergman) and her love for the virtuoso violinist she accompanies on tour (Leslie Howard).  Full-faucet moments that make Terms of Endearment look almost rational (emphasis on the almost) and some beautiful music.

Smoke (1995) - A beautiful, almost hypnotic "slice of life" movie centered on a Brooklyn tobacco shop run by neighborhood philosopher and raconteur Auggie Wren (Harvey Keitel). There's no plot to speak of, and the individual stories don't even intertwine very much, but Keitel's performances is understatedly stellar and it's one of the best examples of the virtues of taking your time. The only thing that would make this movie better is if it were eight hours long.

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