Modern Romance

Dir: Albert Brooks, 1981. Starring: Albert Brooks, Kathryn Harrold, Bruno Kirby, James L. Brooks. Comedy.

With Modern Romance, writer/director/star Albert Brooks was dubbed a West Coast Woody Allen and, like Allen, Brooks has one of those personalities that can alienate an audience. People usually love him or find him way too annoying to watch. In Modern Romance Brooks takes his neurotic persona to new daring heights of annoyance playing Robert Cole, a Hollywood film editor. When the film opens he's breaking up with his girlfriend, Mary (Kathryn Harrold), again, which seems to be a hobby for him. But like an addict for relationships it sends him into a torturous obsession over her, again. He tries to concentrate on his work and even tries dating others, but he can't, his obsession and jealousy get worse and worse. And with it Brooks turns the romantic comedy on its head, making one of the funniest films of the '80s.

Before moving into feature films Brooks was a cutting edge stand-up comedian. His style was almost a spoof of stand-up comedy and he was one of Johnny Carson's favorites, cutting his teeth on The Tonight Show. He made some brilliant short films the first season of Saturday Night Live (very unheralded in the show's history, they seem to never be acknowledged in the show's many retrospectives). Brooks has directed seven features since, the first four of which are gems. Real Life back in '79 foresaw the coming of reality TV early. It brilliantly teamed him with another underrated, acquired taste, Charles Grodin. Then Modern Romance, which could be considered his Annie Hall, took him in a new more sorta-mature direction. His next film, Lost In America, was an angst-epic and then Defending Your Life found Brooks romancing Meryl Streep in the afterlife. His next two films, The Muse and Mother, were forgettable at best and his last go as a director, Looking For Comedy In The Muslim World, was abysmal. As an actor outside his own films he's had an interesting career, with roles ranging from Taxi Driver to Out Of Sight, he was the voice of Nemo in Finding Nemo, and got an Oscar nomination for his hilarious turn in Broadcast News.

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Sean Sweeney
Dec 24, 2010 12:44pm

It’s A Wonderful Life

Dir: Frank Capra, 1946. Starring: James Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore, Thomas Mitchell, Henry Travers. Classics.

Somehow I never got hip to It’s A Wonderful Life until more recent years. Though it’s been a Christmas season staple ever since the 1970s when its copyright fell into the public domain, it managed to elude me my entire childhood. I think I may have blown it off as corny or lightweight, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. It’s A Wonderful Life, besides being incredibly moving, has themes that still pack a wallop.

On first viewing it may take some nudging to get past the set up concerning stars talking and angels and what not. The Our Town piece of Americana, its lovable small town, seems overly clichéd at first glance until you realize this is the movie that invented it. There is a reason these ideas are now called "Capraesque." This and other films (Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, Meet John Doe, etc.) established director Frank Capra and his wholesome characters whose decent values can take on the world as a style all its own. And then the great Jimmy Stewart enters the picture and anchors it with an epic performance.

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Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Dec 16, 2010 5:10pm

Fast Times At Ridgemont High

Dir: Amy Heckerling, 1982. Starring: Jennifer Jason Leigh, Judge Reinhold, Sean Penn, Phoebe Cates, Ray Walston. Comedy.

Fast Times At Ridgemont High is The Godfather or the Gone With The Wind of '80s teenage sex comedies. It's bigger and better than its lesser peers including My Tutor, The Last American Virgin, Porky's, Losing It, and a list that goes on and on. Inspired by the success of the wonderful National Lampoon's Animal House as well as the ensemble attitude of American Graffiti, based on a book by Cameron Crowe, with an exceptional cast of then unknowns (including two of their generation's best, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Sean Penn), Fast Times At Ridgemont High is an epic study of Southern California teen suburban culture of the early 1980s.

The film really is more than just a teen sex comedy (which doesn't usually mean that sex is actually happening - it is generally more just being wished for - as well as preening and peeking for potential nudity). Besides being very funny there is some dramatic weight to the film and to many of the characters, mostly concerning an abortion. Other than a few teachers at Ridgemont High not many adults (parents) factor into the story (not including the 26-year old stereo salesman who seduces a teenager). This is a teen fantasy of laughs and sex all in a sunny, year-round location. It's the lighter side of the "burning the school down" fantasy of Over The Edge.

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Sean Sweeney
Dec 15, 2010 4:16pm

Michael Jackson Number Ones

Dir: Various, 2003. Starring: Michael Jackson. Music.

After Michael Jackson's tragic death, it was interesting to hear about young kids who were exposed to him for the first time (no pun intended). The magic of his personality and performances, as well as the simplicity of his music was easy enough for another generation to grasp and embrace. Like The Beatles, Jackson potentially is an artist who will be able to find a new audience starting with the very young for decades to come. Though I would argue that while The Beatles may have two dozen or more songs that are still considered standards, MJ only has five or six tops.

The DVD Number Ones, which has 15 Michael Jackson music videos, may not be enough for the hardcore Michael Jackson fan. I'm sure they could complain about what's missing (mercifully we are spared those songs he did with Paul McCartney, but it's also missing "Scream" with Janet Jackson and "Remember The Time" with Magic Johnson at his most magical). The DVD has no extras, no frills, just an easy menu that says, "play all."

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Sean Sweeney
Dec 9, 2010 6:15pm

The Last Picture Show

Dir: Peter Bogdanovich, 1971. Starring: T. Bottoms, J. Bridges, C. Shepherd, B. Johnson, C. Leachman, E. Burstyn. Drama.

Once upon a time a guy name Peter Bogdanovich was on top of the movie world. In the very early '70s, along with Francis Ford Coppola, he was once considered the voice of a generation (but then again, so was Dennis Hopper, briefly). Following his solid Roger Corman-produced micro-budgeted thriller, Targets, Bogdanovich got thrown front and center onto the major filmmaker map with The Last Picture Show, a perfect piece of dust-bowl Americana. This is a film that would establish a number of actors: Jeff Bridges, Cybill Shepherd, Timothy Bottoms, and Ellen Burstyn would all shine. While older cowboy actor Ben Johnson and ex-beauty queen turned character actress Cloris Leachman would win well-deserved Oscars for their performances.

The film is based on an excellent mini-novel by Larry McMurtry (later writing Lonesome Dove and Terms Of Endearment). Shot in beautiful black & white, The Last Picture Show takes place in a sleepy little Texas town in the early '50s. Main Street seems to be dying, going the way of the cinema (with television supplanting it). Everything seems to be slowly fading away. Two high school football players, Sonny (Bottoms) and Duane (Bridges), hang around the local pool hall, owned by the wise Sam The Lion (Johnson). Sam owns most of the businesses on the abandoned Main Street, including the cinema and the diner. He also looks after a retarded kid, Billy (Sam Bottoms; Lance in Apocalypse Now!). They have taken Sam’s head waitress, Genevieve (Eileen Brennan of The Sting), under their wings and she seems to look after all the males. Duane dates the town’s rich-girl, a calculating beauty named Jacy (Shepherd). Sonny gets into an illicit affair with his football coach’s lonely, middle-aged wife Ruth (Leachman). Sam passes away, but not before giving Sonny a great monologue about old times and a woman he was once crazy about when he was young. It’s a powerful scene. With age comes regret. Cinemas, shops, and towns can fade away, but memories don’t (it’s shot amazingly in one long take as the camera moves in and then out on Johnson’s glorious aged cowboy face).

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Sean Sweeney
Dec 6, 2010 4:53pm

March Of The Wooden Soldiers

Dir: Gus Meins, Charley Rogers, 1934. Starring: Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy, Charlotte Henry, Henry Brandon. Classics.

There’s a strange history of strange little holiday/family/fantasy films where the concepts were so "out there" you have to wonder, what were they thinking? From Santa Claus Conquers The Martians to that Michael Keaton reincarnated as a snowman flick, Jack Frost, there's a long list of these oddities. Perhaps one of the first and best is the bizarre Laurel & Hardy vehicle March of the Wooden Soldiers (originally it had the same title as Victor Herbert's 1903 operetta it's kinda-sorta based on, Babes in Toyland). For decades this has had perennial holiday showings on television (with different versions, all with different lengths) so now it's probably one of the best known Laurel & Hardy feature films.

The plot goes something like this... Living in a Shrek-like Mother Goose all-star fantasy town called Toyland, Laurel & Hardy play two men who share a bed named Stannie Dum and Ollie Dee. Their neighbors include the creepy looking Cat (with the fiddle) and the Three Little Pigs and an even more disturbing looking version of Mickey Mouse (played by a monkey in a costume). Stan and Ollie live with Widow Peep (Florence Roberts) and her daughter Little Bo (Charlotte Henry). Unfortunately, even in Toyland reality can set in. Peep is going to loose her pad - the mortgage is owned by the vile Silas Barnaby (one of film history's great villains). Little Bo has a relationship brewing with Tom-Tom, The Piper's Son, but Barnaby will forget the back money owed him if she will do the unimaginable - marry him. Meanwhile, hoping to score the cash from their boss, the Toymaker, Stan and Ollie lose all hope of that when they piss off Santa Claus, messing up his order for wooden soldiers (he didn't want life size ones). Eventually, after numerous frame-ups and punishments, Barnaby is exposed as a criminal. Barnaby leads an attack on Toyland by the scary monsters who live on the outskirts of town, Bogeymen. Stan and Ollie fix their blunder by using their oversized wooden soldiers to fight off the Bogeymen.

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Sean Sweeney
Dec 1, 2010 1:15pm

Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex, But Were Afraid To Ask

Dir: Woody Allen, 1972. Starring: Woody Allen, Gene Wilder, Lou Jacobi, Louise Lasser, John Carradine. Comedy.

Like most of Woody Allen's early comedies Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex, But Were Afraid To Ask is the definition of "hit or miss." This is a joke a minute film. Some are wonderfully funny but, like Airplane some years later, when you throw a ton of jokes at the wall not all of them are going to stick. Enough do to make this well worth the experience and make it an above average comedy. Released during the sexual liberation and adult sexual reeducation of the early '70s, this is kinda/sorta based on David Reuben's hugely popular manual about human sexuality of the same name. Allen uses the chapter heads to basically create seven short films, spoofing the pseudo seriousness of the subject matter. Some work better than others, but oh boy, the ones that do work are home runs. Here's the rundown starting with the least successful of the seven and moving to the better ones.

Why Do Some Women Have Problems Reaching Orgasms?

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Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Nov 29, 2010 2:52pm

JFK

Dir: Oliver Stone, 1991. Starring: Kevin Costner, Gary Oldman, Tommy Lee Jones, Donald Sutherland. Drama.

With the film JFK, superstar editors Joe Hutshing and Pietro Scalia were able to do some of the most groundbreaking editing since Psycho and Battleship Potemkin, which would mean some of the greatest editing in film history. Combining actual news footage, historical recreations, and a dense investigation and courtroom story with literally hundreds of speaking roles, they were able to piece together a three-hour drama that, no matter what you feel about director Oliver Stone’s politics or often ham-fisted approach, this film is now the definitive pop-culture record on the murder of President Kennedy.

There was a phony outrage and assault thrown at the film JFK before it was even released or seen. Critics of Oliver Stone howled that he should not be messing with history, slanting it to fit his picture. But of course that’s what any good biography or historical account will do. The combination of news footage and recreations were called manipulative. But after thirty years of the "mainstream" press in lock step with the Warren Commission’s cover-up, it’s about time to see a "mainstream" movie question the events. No matter how much that news footage apparently confused some audience members, the bottom line is: this isn’t a documentary, those are actors. Not to mention, there are enough actual documentaries and books out there on this subject to fill a library. Some right, some wrong, some rational, some hysterical. If you need to hear from the other end of the spectrum, maybe the best made documentary on the assassination was Oswald’s Ghost, a very persuasive piece of filmmaking, but in the end it has Norman Mailer declaring there was no conspiracy.

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Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Nov 19, 2010 2:59pm

The Warriors

Dir: Walter Hill, 1979. Starring: Michael Beck, James Remar, Deborah Van Valkenburgh, David Patrick Kelly. Cult.

Through the eyes of movies in the 1970s, New York City looked like one rough place. I don't mean the Woody Allen romantic side of New York (Annie Hall, Manhattan). I'm talking about almost every other film made in the decade, the dark Taxi Driver side. From The Out Of Towners to Death Wish (and most cops and crime flicks), culminating in the apocalyptic Escape From New York, the place appeared to be a dangerous dump. Bottom line: Central Park is not somewhere you want to be caught in after dark. The Warriors is maybe the perfect vision of this comic book wasteland.

The gangs in New York outnumber the cops two to one, so says Cyrus, leader of the baddest (and apparently the biggest) gang in town, The Riffs. This gangsta’ visionary gets all the gangs together in Central Park for a sort of pep rally. But like so many important revolutionaries before him, he is assassinated by a creepy guy named Luther (played by the creepy actor David Patrick Kelly). Luther is able to blame the Warriors, a small-time gang in for the convention from Coney Island, Brooklyn. The Riffs kill the Warriors' leader, Cleon, and put out an APB on the rest of the gang. Suddenly every gang in town is after the remaining eight Warriors. Narrated by a hot-lips radio DJ, the Warriors are forced to fight off gangs, the cops, and negotiate New York's unreliable transportation system.

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Sean Sweeney
Nov 17, 2010 2:23pm

The Mission

Dir: Roland Joffe, 1986. Starring: Robert De Niro, Jeremy Irons, Aidan Quinn, Ray McAnally, Liam Neeson. Drama.

It's fair to say that The Mission is an underrated film. Unlike Raging Bull or Blue Velvet it does not appear on many lists of the best films of the '80s (though any such list that does not have the Russian war flick Come And See on it is completely invalid anyway). The Mission doesn't even get mentioned in most Robert De Niro retrospectives. But this physically demanding, yet subtle role is one of De Niro's best. This was back when De Niro was still "Robert De Niro - all time great actor." Back in the good old days when he was still trying, before he became "That hammy actor from Meet The Parents and other comedies." The Mission was derided by most critics when it was released as overblown, as was De Niro’s performance (though the film did score a bunch of Oscar nominations thanks to a pricey ad campaign). But The Mission may actually be a lost gem that needs to be rediscovered and reevaluated; perhaps it could use the three-disc Criterion treatment.

Written by Robert Bolt (Lawrence Of Arabia), The Mission, at first glance, seems like a sweeping saga, but on closer inspection, it’s a small story with large mountains behind it. Jeremy Irons plays Gabriel, a Spanish Jesuit priest building a mission in the rain forest of South America in the 18th century. He is able to win over the natives with his groovy oboe playing. The natives become fully invested in the creation and running of the mission - it’s like a small co-op of social peace - as the natives are converted to Christians. Until a menacing slave trader, Mendoza (De Niro), arrives, ensnaring natives and selling them on the open market. Mendoza is a man with no moral center. However, later when he kills his brother (Aidan Quinn, sporting very '80s hair) in a jealous quarrel, Mendoza finds God and serves his penance by joining Gabriel’s order and hauling all his armor and weapons through the mountains. Moved by the native people's acceptance of him, he becomes a fierce protector of the mission and its people.

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Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Nov 12, 2010 4:43pm
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