Friday, May 29, 2009

5/24/09: McLintock! (1963)

It's my friend Merf's turn to choose this week's playlist, and we kick off with a grand slam starring John Wayne. While I haven't seen many of his films outside of The Quiet Man and True Grit, I do have considerable admiration for his talent, and McLintock! is the perfect movie to pique one's interest in the Duke.

Although technically a Western, the setting and time (1890-ish) are mostly superfluous, as this is basically a slapstick comedy inspired by The Taming of the Shrew. Re-teaming with Maureen O'Hara (his Quiet Man co-star), Wayne plays a land baron whose estranged wife returns to his mansion to bitch at him and order him around. He takes it all in stride—he practically owns the town, which is named after him...and anyway, he loves the dickens out of her. While they stare each other down, their daughter (delicious Stefanie Powers) plays the same basic game of cat and mouse with hired hand Patrick Wayne (John's real-life son). There are numerous character actors around, including Chill Wills, Yvonne DeCarlo, Jerry Van Dyke and Strother Martin, a ton of rollicking fistfights, two hot spanking scenes, and a famous mudhole brawl that reportedly took a whole week to film. There's also a hilarious sequence where a drunken McLintock can't make his way up the staircase. The movie is enormous fun, with some memorable one-liners and a final double-entendre that will sail over the heads of kiddies and give the adults something to snigger about for days. Rating: 5/5.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

5/23/09: Forever and a Day (1943)

Set and filmed during World War II, Forever and a Day tells the story of a house in London and the various people who lived in it, from 1804 until the German blitzkrieg of 1940. Given the scores of British actors and directors who all contributed their work for free in making the movie (to aid the war propaganda effort), it's fairly astonishing how obscure it is. There's a framing device involving the current sale of the house as its rich history unfolds in a series of vignettes that are variously dramatic, comedic and touching. Among the stars appearing: Claude Rains, Ida Lupino, Ray Milland, Charles Laughton, Elsa Lanchester, Sir Cedric Hardwicke and Buster Keaton. All of the stories are entertaining, but Lupino has the best sequence as a maid named Jenny. Rating: 4/5.

5/22/09: Easter Parade (1948)

We were overdue for a musical. Well, there's nothing like a plotless movie—even a musical—to make you appreciate how important a story is. Although it possesses only the barest wisp of a plot, Easter Parade gets by on its dazzling colors, superb costumes, fun songs and terrific dancing. Those elements alone make this Fred Astaire movie worth seeing. As for the storyline, it's your basic A loves B, B loves C and C loves D scenario. After parting ways with his longtime stage-show partner (Ann Miller), Fred hires the first dancer he finds (Judy Garland) to replace her. Cue the orchestra!

This is officially the first non-Wizard of Oz movie I've ever seen to feature Judy Garland. Now 26 and nearly a decade older, she no longer has the same juvenile appeal—I know she was incredibly beloved as an adult and considered very beautiful by the masses, but she's just nothing to look at from where I'm sitting. (Those lips are too plump and pouty, and she tends to scowl.) Ann Miller, on the other hand, is a sexy, sophisticated dish. My favorite bits of Easter Parade were the parade of hats at the beginning and Fred's astonishingly well-rehearsed toy-store dance. The Irving Berlin songs are all lovely, although not one of them serves to advance the plot. Rating: 3/5.

Monday, May 25, 2009

5/21/09: Madame Bovary (1949)

The acclaimed director Vincente Minnelli (Father of the Bride) was my motivation for owning this film version of the famous French novel by Gustave Flaubert. In Northern France, a mediocre doctor (Oklahoma native Van Heflin) flips for Emma, a pretty, starry-eyed ingénue (Oklahoma native Jennifer Jones); their story is told framing-story style by Flaubert himself (British-born James Mason). OK, so there aren't a lot of actual French people in this movie. But at least one of the men Emma Bovary cheats on her husband with is the tres magnifique Louis Jourdan.

The tale is about how the titular wife destroys the lives of various people, including her own, because of how bored she gets with everything and everybody. It's a sad story, well told, although it made me hungry to know some of the novel's details that were obviously carved away to make this 115-minute film. (I'll probably pick up the 1975 British miniseries on DVD, featuring Tom Conti.) As with The Ox-Bow Incident from earlier in Forties Week, it was amusing to see Harry "Colonel Potter" Morgan from TV's M*A*S*H in his earlier days, albeit in a microscopic role. Rating: 4/5.

5/20/09: Sergeant York (1941)

If my Movie-a-Day project has done nothing else, at least it has put a face to the name Gary Cooper—today's feature is the third Cooper movie I've seen this month. An added bonus: I can now differentiate two similarly titled wartime dramas, Mister Roberts (a work of fiction) and Sergeant York (a biography).

The story of Sergeant York is extremely simple. Alvis C. York is a hillbilly with a fondness for drinking and fighting. A freak run-in with a lightning bolt turns him into a religious man, but soon he's drafted to fight in WWI. His expertise at hunting and shooting make him an experts marksman overseas, and soon he's a big war hero. The end. Although not particularly complex, York is an entertaining and inspiring real-life story with outstanding performances (especially by Cooper); it's always fun to hear Walter Brennan talk—that one-of-a-kind voice always makes me think of his 1962 single "Old Rivers." Joan Leslie is attractive as the love interest. Rating: 4/5.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

5/19/09: The Yearling (1946)

The biggest surprise about The Yearling is that it is not, as I'd always assumed, primarily about a boy and his pet deer. Yes, there's a deer, but the yearling of the title is really an allegory in this coming-of-age story of a boy entering his teens and starting to take a more important role in the family unit.

Ezra (Gregory Peck) and Orry Baxter (Jane Wyman) are a hillbilly couple living in the backwoods of Florida in about 1900. After several attempts to start a family (all resulting in infant death), they are raising 12-year-old Jody while growing various crops, including corn and "tobacky." They trade with the locals and occasionally have to fight off maurading bears and other wildlife. As in the source novel by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, the Baxters suffer a string of setbacks: a catastrophic rain destroys their crops, some pigs are stolen, Ezra gets bitten by a rattlesnake and later throws his back out. Meanwhile, Jody opens his heart to a young fawn, Flag, to compensate for the love he isn't getting from an emotionally distant Orry, who has trouble showing affection after all her other kids have died. As Flag gets bigger, so does his appetite, and soon he's gobbling the Baxter's precious crops. Something must be done about it, and if you've seen Old Yeller, you know just what that something is.

Children who see The Yearling will no doubt sympathize with Jody and the hungry deer, but because the "critter" poses a massive threat to the Baxters, I tended to identify with the adults. Even so, The Yearling is a masterpiece suitable for the whole family, marvelously filmed, with great wildlife scenes and an array of exquisitely photographed meadows and other scenery. The relationship between Jody and his parents is superb, and it's astounding to see how radiant and beautiful young Jane Wyman (who would go on to play Aunt Polly in Pollyanna 15 years later) was. With the right lighting, she reminded me eerily of Katherine Heigl of TV's Gray's Anatomy. Rating: 5/5.

BLOGGER'S NOTE: I'll need to double-check, but I believe this may be the longest string of highly recommended (4/5 and 5/5) movies I've seen since the beginning of the year.

5/18/09: Meet John Doe (1941)

Although I rank director Frank Capra's 1946 classic It's a Wonderful Life as among my very favorite movies, I have inexplicably failed to see many—or any—of his other films. That's why DVDs of It Happened One Night, You Can't Take It With You and today's feature have been piling up in my movie queue. Capra is one of the most famous and revered directors in American film history.

Meet John Doe is about how some newspaper people conspire to create a fictional story about a supposedly suicidal visionary and propel it to headline status. They draft hobo Gary Cooper to play the part of the would-be suicide, and the public eats up the daily stories about how a working-class everyman lost his faith in America, and his vision of how it must rebound. The ironic twist is that this cynical, fabricated contrivance results in people actually starting to be nice to their neighbors. Cooper finds himself caught between his real (John Willoughby) and fake (John Doe) personas, desperately wanting to play ball as the former and keep delighting the public as the latter. Throw in Barbara Stanwyck as the reporter who created the whole John Doe idea—and who starts to fall in love with Willoughby—and that's the essence of the picture. It's a fascinating story, and it kept me interested almost all the way through, until the letdown of the disappointing ending. Rating: 4/5.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

5/17/09: The Ox-Bow Incident (1943)

Quick! What's the Henry Fonda movie where a bunch of "angry men" must determine the guilt or innocence of another man facing lots of incriminating circumstantial evidence, but whom Fonda insists may actually be innocent? Up until today, I'd have assumed the only film to fit that description was 12 Angry Men, but it's also the exact plot of today's feature. Presumably, Ox-Bow Incident made Fonda a natural choice to play Juror #8 some 14 years later; this is kind of an 1800s Western version of the same story (based on the book by Walter Van Tilburg Clark), and it was a splendid choice to kick off a week of movies made in the 1940s.

Three men stand accused of cattle rustling and murder by a posse who are in a rush to judgment—they've even got the nooses at the ready, and most are itching to use them. Fonda and Harry "Colonel Potter" Morgan (38 and 28 at the time of this film's release, respectively) get caught up in the hunt for the killers, but refuse to give in to the "mob mentality." Despite a fairly predictable resolution, The Ox-Bow Incident is absorbing and fun to watch; I'm glad to finally know the significance of the Ox-Bow of the title—I've always wondered if it literally referred to a bow worn by an ox! Rating: 5/5.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

5/16/09: 17 Again (2009)

Quick! What's the movie featuring Zac Efron as a high-school athlete whose eight-letter basketball team starts with W and ends with S? If you're thinking High School Musical and "Wildcats," you're correct—although we would also have accepted 17 Again, Efron's first big-screen follow-up to his mega-popular Musical franchise. This time around, he's playing for the Warriors...oh, and also, he's the magically age-reduced version of Matthew Perry, in a variation of the adult-trapped-in-a-kid's-body plot plundered by numerous '80s flicks like George Burns's 18 Again! (1988), Judge Reinhold's Vice Versa (1988) and Dudley Moore's Like Father, Like Son (1987). As we all know, in a cinematic universe, it's only a matter of time before everything old is new again—it's no accident that the word Again is in the title of Efron's "new" movie.

17 Again was a spur-of-the-moment film choice—my friend Joan invited me when I decided to bag an altogether different movie plan. Undoubtedly aided by my low expectations, this umpteenth retread of a familiar plot device turned out to be surprisingly and consistently amusing, with laughs and sight gags coming at a brisk clip. Matthew Perry plays Mike O'Donnell, a man who's bored with life; his kids barely care about him and his wife is divorcing him. A janitorial "spirit guide" (gravel-voiced Brian Doyle-Murray, brother of Bill Murray) casts a spell on O'Donnell that renders him young and virile, and the fun begins.

The generous helpings of comedy are welcome distractions from a variety of plot flaws and confounding head-scratchers (Michelle Trachtenberg of Buffy the Vampire Slayer is seven years too old to keep playing 17, and Matthew Perry resembles an older version of Zac Efron the way a goat resembles a chair). Any movie character returning to his teenage years runs the embarrassing risk of his own daughter falling in love with him, and the incest-paranoia jokes are piled on deep—they rightly reminded Joan of Michael J. Fox's same predicament in Back to the Future. Melora Hardin of TV's The Office is brilliantly cast as the school's principal, and Allison Miller as O'Donnell's wife in flashbacks is a hot Jessica Alba lookalike to watch for in the future. If 17 Again is the first of another rash of teenage-reboot pictures, may they be at least as funny as this one. Rating: 4/5.

Monday, May 18, 2009

5/15/09: Top Hat (1935)

In a! I've never seen a Fred Astaire movie (with or without Ginger Rogers), and Top Hat was clearly the ideal starting point. Like yesterday's movie, The Matchmaker, this one is based on a play with a similarly paper-thin plot—Top Hat boils down to one romance with a mistaken-identity conceit—but the singing and dancing more than make up for any deficiencies in the story. You keep wondering: How long is Ginger going to labor under the misapprehension that Fred is actually her female friend's husband? And when is Fred going to figure out why she keeps slapping him? But then somebody starts singing one of the many terrific Irving Berlin songs, and your heart tells your brain to chill and just go with it. The screenplay is brimming with clever jokes and one-liners—although no single line is as funny as the set representing Venice, Italy, that's clearly in an antiseptic movie studio with waxed floors and prop gondolas! Both leads are in top form, attractive and magnetic as can be. Special thanks to Peter Boulding in the UK for recommending this "frivolous and fluffy treat." Rating: 5/5.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

5/14/09: The Matchmaker (1958)

Based on Thornton Wilder's 1955 play (itself based on several earlier plays, including Wilder's own The Merchant of Yonkers), The Matchmaker is a funny and farcical turn-of-the-century comedy featuring Shirley "Hazel" Booth as Dolly Levi, the character who would go on to be the centerpiece of the stage musical and movie Hello Dolly. Although satisfactorily amusing, it does seem fairly astonishing that this small-scale story has flourished in so many incarnations—especially as transformed into the huge-in-every-way Hello Dolly, one of the world's most famous musicals. (I haven't seen Dolly yet, but it's on my list.)

Dolly Levi is the aging matchmaker who "tries" to find a hot young wife for grumpy store owner Horace Vandergelder (Paul Ford, The Music Man's Mayor Shinn), when it's really herself she's trying to sell in that capacity; one of the potential spouses (beautiful Shirley MacLaine) has eyes for Vandergelder's clerk (Anthony Perkins, quite convincing as a heterosexual). That's it in a nutshell. A pre-How to Succeed in Business Robert Morse is around as Perkins' co-worker for the occasional quip—he's the only one of the original Broadway cast to reprise his role for the film. It's cute and occasionally laugh-out-loud funny...but how does this all work with a 27-year-old Barbra Streisand in the lead role? I can't wait to discover that for myself. Rating: 4/5.

Friday, May 15, 2009

5/13/09: Murphy's Romance (1985)

Today's choice is actually a holdover from last week's AFCA marathon, a late recommendation by Huey Callison and Peter Boulding. As a confirmed chick-flick fan, I've always been curious about this romantic comedy, released when Sally Field was nearly 40 (she plays 33) and co-star James Garner was 57 (he plays 60). So in the movie, they are separated by nearly three decades, while in reality, it's 17 years. Given that Sally Field is the only pictured star in the film's original movie poster (shown above), Murphy's Romance is a curious title for this picture—especially considering that there's no actual romancing going on with him until the final couple of minutes. Poster notwithstanding (the DVD cover is a much more accurate representation of the film), Garner is pivotal to the story, and he deserved the Oscar nod for Best Actor he received for his portrayal of the rugged but suave Arizona pharmacist Murphy Jones. It's basically a small-town love-triangle romcom with a modern Western setting, which renders the movie's jazzy, sax-drenched soundtrack (by Carole King) somewhat odd, although not unpleasant. This is a very light but charming tale with two exceptional lead actors and solid direction from Martin Ritt, whose camera seems to be having a love affair with Sally Field's jeans-covered bottom. Rating: 4/5.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

5/12/09: The Wrong Guy (1997)

My ratings tend to be based on my pure enjoyment of the movie in question, so I'll award Gone With the Wind a "1" and Stroker Ace a "5" if the former bores me and the latter amuses and delights me—it's my blog, and I don't care if I'm watching a film that's adored by critics and audiences across the globe.

Even so, my highest rating of The Wrong Guy looks extremely odd. It's not a great film by anyone's definition...and yet, it made me laugh harder and more frequently than any movie in recent memory. That alone earns its reward. Undoubtedly it helps that I'm a huge fan of Dave Foley (and his Kids in the Hall sketch-comedy TV series), and the inclusion of sexy Jennifer Tilly alone is worth the price of a DVD rental. The movie, co-written by Foley and Simpsons scribe Jay Kogen, has Foley running from the law for a murder he didn't commit—and that nobody else believes he committed. His wide-eyed dim-bulb Nelson Hibbert is a variation of some of the characters he's played in Kids in the Hall, and at times the movie (directed by David Steinberg) does feel like an extended version of one of the short films that series used to feature. (According to Wikipedia, the script was, in fact, inspired by an early KITH-era sketch.) The result may feel like a trifle for non-fans, but even though some of the jokes misfire, The Wrong Guy had me in stitches. Rating: 5/5.

5/11/09: State of Play (2009)

Here at my house, we endorse movies that feature hero journalists who solve crimes that leave the police stumped. How disappointing, then, that State of Play's byline-generator Cal McAffrey has to be played by an unkempt Russell Crowe, whose ugly long hair and full beard appears to be a veritable condominium for the insect world. State of Play is a political whodunit in the fashion of Murder at 1600 or Absolute Power—the kind of movie where the Big Lawbreaker invariably turns out to be one of the guys making the laws in the first place. While the cops wring their hands and warn D.C.-based writer Crowe not to do their job, he does their job anyway, and oh, the leads he uncovers! While investigating the mysterious death of a woman in the employ of Congressman Ben Affleck (an old friend of Crowe's! What are the odds?!), Crowe gets tongue-lashed boringly and interminably by his editor, Helen Mirren, with beautiful Rachel McAdams playing Carl Bernstein to his Bob Woodward. The stellar cast is rounded out by Jeff Daniels and Jason Bateman, with Crowe tackling the role vacated by both Brad Pitt and Edward Norton. I found the movie to be rather by-the-numbers, feeling like I'd seen it a million times before. The actors are adequate, the script is adequate, the direction is adequate...and State of Play ends up creepily familiar and completely implausible. Rating: 2/5.

5/10/09: The Soloist (2009)

Ever looked at a homeless person and wonder about that person's backstory? What happened to make him lose his way? That's the basic idea behind The Soloist, a reality-based film that starts reasonably well but gradually loses its own way.

Nathaniel Ayers (Jamie Foxx) is homeless, schizophrenic and enormously talented. He's a wizard with any musical instrument he picks up, especially the cello. L.A. Times columnist Steve Lopez (Robert Downey Jr.) meets him on the street and is immediately drawn to his proficiency on the violin, even though it's missing a couple of strings. Ignoring the fact that Ayers is missing a couple of strings himself (he babbles incoherently and pushes a large shopping cart full of junk), Lopez starts writing a column about him and gradually tries to "civilize" him by getting him a room to live in and maybe start taking some medication. But as any idiot knows, you can't civilize people who don't want to be civilized. At first Ayers looks upon his new friend as a kind of God, but when Lopez tries to make too many personal changes in his life, disaster strikes.

The Soloist tries to show us what it's like inside the mind of a schizophrenic (they hear lots of spooky, echoey voices) and, in one interminable sequence, we're even shown what classical music must "look" like inside Ayers' head. (Joan, my constant movie companion, swears it's the screen saver built into Widows Media Player). The best thing about The Soloist is the acting of Robert Downey Jr., who is electrifying in virtually everything he's in; he can be funny and charming and dramatic all at the same time. Unfortunately, the film is excruciatingly long, with more than a couple of dull passages that fail to move the narrative forward. Ultimately, the movie's message seems to be that it's extremely noble to try to help the homeless—providing they possess some otherworldly talent. Otherwise, screw 'em. Rating: 2/5.

5/9/09: Star Trek (2009)

How utterly appropriate that I follow the lame futuristic tripe of The Fifth Element with a genuinely exciting sci-fi confection like Star Trek. I've been following the Trek saga since I was in middle school, and have seen all of the movies in the series so far, enduring the lame ones and embracing the good ones. With the character of Captain Kirk having been killed off (and a couple of the original cast members perishing in real life), it was time for what they call a "reboot"—the kind we've seen with superhero series like Batman. The mastermind at the helm of this Star Trek prequel is J.J. Abrams (the creator of TV's Alias and Lost). Directing a mostly new cast that details how the original characters first came to work together, he has produced what is indisputably the most exciting of all the Trek films. (My sentimental favorite will always be Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan.) It's your basic good vs. evil story, with a very evil villain and a couple of twists on the familiar dynamic—Kirk and Spock are rivals in their younger incarnations, and Uhura has a surprising love interest—but all of it works, despite a rather bombastic musical score that my constant movie companion, Joan, wished had been significantly less weighty on the ears. Despite a couple of niggling objections like that, Star Trek turns out to be a very welcome new starting point in the franchise. My tricorder readings suggest an exceptional sequel may be anticipated. Rating: 5/5.

5/8/09: The Fifth Element (1997)

What if the producers of Blade Runner had decided that in addition to making it a sci-fi action story, it should also be a silly musical comedy-romance and look like a colorful comic book? Well, you'd probably have something like The Fifth Element, a visual smorgasbord that that cares not a whit about logic and instead gleefully embraces the kind of archeological and mystical claptrap on display in movies like Raiders of the Lost Ark, where burning an ancient scroll can wreak havoc or pushing the right brick in the wall of a 2,000-year-old shack can unleash a thousand poison darts.

In the futuristic world of The Fifth Element, there's a giant ball of pure evil, aided by (who else?) Gary Oldman, with good guys Bruce Willis and sexy Milla Jovovich the only hope for saving the world. Given that basic setup, this could have actually been a decent space thriller; regrettably, it's been camped and goofed up to inane proportions. I'll protect what little remains of my dignity and not summarize the actual plot, which is superfluous to the numerous sight gags, Bruce Willis's trademark zingers, and random violence. Suffice it to say that there are laser guns, weird aliens and Oldman doing one of his famous crazy characters with an outrageous accent. Meanwhile, comedian Chris Tucker (future star of the Rush Hour franchise) plays a silly fey pop singer with a ridiculous hairdo; he got in the way of my enjoyment of this movie, while Willis was his typical self and an orange-haired Jovovich is total eye candy. Unfortunately, The Fifth Element tries to do way too many things and ends up failing at nearly all of them. I wanted to see the movie advertised in the poster, but it's as misleading as any advertisement ever created—it would be more accurate if Willis were wearing one of those colorful beanies with a spinning propeller. Rating: 2/5.

Saturday, May 09, 2009

5/7/09: The Chain (1984)

It may not help to be British in order to appreciate The Chain, but there's no way in Marylebone it can hurt. The film, recommended by the pseudonymous John Haptin
of AFCA (I believe his real name is Gussie Coxworth-Shufflebottom IV), is a curiously constructed English set piece involving various people "moving on up" to a new flat or house, creating what's known as a circular property chain—each one dependent on the preceding move. This Chain details seven moves in all, with the characters encompassing the moving-van workers as well as the folks who are moving. But there's more to the gimmick: in addition to extracting humor from the full spectrum of classes (lower straight through to upper), each of the dwellers in transit is supposed to represent one of the Seven Deadly Sins. So there's a big cast accompanying the high concept. Even though I've been an Anglophile since middle school, I would have benefited enormously from subtitles—the accents in The Chain are some of the most incomprehensible I've ever heard. I was able to follow the story reasonably well, but a great deal of the humor was lost on me. There's a running joke about the movers discussing philosophy, and I was very pleased to see David Troughton of The Norman Conquests in a small role. But man, I sure would love to see this again with subtitles. Rating: 2/5.

5/6/09: Truly Madly Deeply (1990)

I daresay most people associate Alan Rickman exclusively with his role as the evil Snape in the Harry Potter fantasy series. A fantasy of a much different sort—but a fantasy all the same—Truly Madly Deeply is a reminder of that Rickman can play virtually any role. In this movie, he's Jamie, the ghost of a cellist who returns to the flat of his grieving girlfriend Nina (Juliet Stevenson), who is having an extremely difficult time accepting his death. Nina is delighted and overwhelmed by their reunion, but gradually comes learn that moving forward with life may ultimately be more emotionally healthy for her than living in the past. It's a very touching picture, sort of a companion piece to Ghost from the same year, yet an altogether different kind of story. It's really a showcase for Stevenson, who shows off a full spectrum of emotions and talents. A somewhat less attractive version of Emma Thompson, Stevenson steals the show, the way Sally Hawkins did in Mike Leigh's Happy-Go-Lucky. This is also the first feature of the late Anthony Minghella, who of course would go on to make The English Patient several years after this. I very much enjoy these three-hankie movies, and this one has the added benefit of being both charming and very funny as well. The ending will have you positively blubbering. I actually watched the film a second time to enjoy Minghella's very informative and enlightening commentary. Thanks very much to David Skinner of AFCA for the recommendation! Rating: 5/5.

TYPOGRAPHICAL NOTE: It's interesting that the original poster (seen above) adds commas to the film's title, whereas commas are nowhere to be seen in the title during the movie itself. That's why I didn't use them. (The DVD box also omits the commas.) A small but delicious trivial tidbit of interest only to fellow grammarians.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

5/5/09: Rancho Deluxe (1975)

I was mostly aware of Rancho Deluxe because of the soundtrack by Jimmy Buffett, whose career was just taking off at the time. The movie features a positively youthful Jeff Bridges and Law & Order's Sam Waterston, while Slim Pickens looks like the grizzled old hangdog he was back in '75. Rancho is an oddball comedy-western about two ne'er-do-well cattle rustlers (Bridges and Waterston) who conspire to pull off a big heist in between their whorin' and drinkin'. It offers a healthy dose of unconventional comedy—a stolen steer chews up a motel room, a hottie played by a former Miss California sucks on Harry Dean Stanton's nipple, and an extended game of Pong are some of the kooky highlights of this picture, written by novelist Thomas McGuane. The story is almost secondary to the offbeat characters, quirky dialogue and humorous situations. Buffett's songs offer just the right tone of breezy C&W. Special thanks to Arthur from AFCA for the recommendation! Rating: 3/5.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

5/4/09: Living Out Loud (1998)

Living Out Loud chronicles several months in the life of Judith Moore (Holly Hunter), whose marriage has been derailed because of her husband's infidelity. Newly single, Moore is adrift, trying to figure out what her new purpose in life should be. The film is about making new friends, and how those friends get us through the day when our relatives and spouses let us down. Among our hero's new friends are Pat (Danny Devito), the elevator operator in Moore's apartment building, and Liz (Queen Latifah), a singer in a neighborhood cabaret. It's a small, funny and touching movie, marred only by Holly Hunter's relentless chainsmoking. Writer-director Richard LaGravenese employs a daydreamy, Walter Mitty-type conceit for Hunter's character from time to time that should seem out of place but feels oddly appropriate for this film. Devito plays against type as a sensitive charmer who forms a bond with Hunter, and Queen Latifah gets to show off her wonderful voice and look sexier than ever before. Thanks to AFCA's Jason Quick for the recommendation! Rating: 4/5.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

5/3/09: Where the Lilies Bloom (1974)

If yesterday's movie was The Civil War Waltons, today's movie might as well be called The Orphaned Waltons. Bill and Vera Cleaver's 1969 novel Where the Lilies Bloom inspired this tale of four motherless children living in the Appalachian backwoods who face an unnevering challenge when emphysemic Dad suddenly drops dead. Determined to stay together and not face separation via institutionalization, the kids decide to tell curious visitors that Dad's just sick or sleeping, or both.

The plot is basically the same as the 1967 British film Our Mother's House (based in turn on Julian Gloag's 1964 novel); it's also very similar to a 1972 Disney flick I saw a few weeks ago called Napoleon and Samantha, in which a young Johnny Whitaker keeps his own father's death a secret to the outside world. The Lilies take on the story is just more...well, Waltony. (Little surprise that the screenplay was by Waltons creator Earl Hamner Jr.)

In this version of the Desperate Orphans fable, which is probably the best of the bunch, the brood consists of Devola, the very attractive older daughter; Mary Call, her plain-looking younger sister; Romey, their younger brother; and cute-as-a-button 5-year-old Ima Dean. Yet is is Mary, not Devola, who takes charge of the band of siblings and serves as their protector. The main thing threatening to blow the kids' cover is Harry Dean Stanton, the family's landlord and their father's main nemesis, who is constantly visiting their ramshackle home—partly because he's got a crush on Devola. Mary Call tries hard to follow her father's wishes and pick the family up by its bootstraps, but it may prove to be an impossible task for the long haul. It's an interesting if unoriginal premise, and it's carried off with skill. The child actors are solid if unremarkable, but Stanton is perfectly cast as the interloper whose sympathetic side is key to the film's perfect and heartbreaking finale. Special thanks to AFCA's Hank Gillette for recommending this one. Rating: 4/5.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

5/2/09: Friendly Persuasion (1956)

Day two of AFCA Week brings us the William Wyler film of Jessamyn West's novel The Friendly Persuasion, the recommendation of my Internet acquaintance MC Hamster. Think of it as The Civil War Waltons, with gentle Quakers Gary Cooper and Dorothy McGuire as the head of the deeply religious Birdwell family, who say "thee" and "thy" a lot. The nation at war is filled with untold temptations—blood lust and sexual lust heading the list. While the South's confederate soldiers begin to invade the valleys of Indiana, Cooper and his family must decide whether to join the good guys and fight to protect their home or stand by their staunch principles of anti-violence. Son Anthony Perkins decides to heed the call to arms, while daughter Phyllis Love flips for a neighborhood Union soldier...and actually kisses him on the lips!

It's a grand old story with a very picturesque backdrop and a lovely musical soundtrack, occasionally slow moving but filled with enough good scenes to ward off boredom. The film features a goose that out-acts half the members of the cast, including Gary Cooper. And Perkins, four years prior to Psycho, actually has a scene in the attic with his mother! My favorite sequence, occurring early in the movie, involved Cooper and McGuire settling a dispute in their barn over the purchase of an organ. I reckon I enjoyed Friendly Persuasion more than its star did; supposedly Cooper hated the film, describing it as a "boring piece of crap." Whatever thee say, Coop. Rating: 4/5.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

5/1/09: Apartment Zero (1988)

A new theme week begins today—one that's been in the planning stages for five years. It was back then that I asked members of an online group called AFCA ( to suggest "underappreciated films" they love but that somehow never captured the widespread acclaim they'd always deserved. Over the years, I have acquired more than a dozen movies from the list they created, and when I launched this One Movie a Day project, I knew that I would have to devote at least one week to their recommendations. And now I have.

The week commences with a movie touted by a woman whose Internet handle is Lesmond. Released in 1988, Apartment Zero tells the story of Adrian (Colin Firth), a prissy, snobbish man with a British accent who is living in Buenos Aires. He is helping care for his mother, who is suffering from dementia, while running a revival movie house that isn't exactly raking in the dough. (I know—the idea that people in Buenos Aires aren't lined up around the block to see movies like Compulsion is a real shocker.) Poor foot traffic at the cinema forces Adrian to look for a roommate—an Oscar to his Felix, and that's his Odd Couple analogy, not mine. After turning down numerous applicants, Adrian takes an instant shine to hunky Jack (Hart Bochner), and without so much as a reference request, accepts him on charm alone. (In his defense, Jack does have exceptional pecs and the world's definitive chin dimple.)

After moving in together, the clearly smitten Adrian begins to dote on Jack and say anything other than what he's really thinking (i.e., "You're adorable!" "Let's make out!" "Where did you get that fabulous top?"). Meanwhile, the mysterious Jack is revealed to be a promiscuous bisexual and very likely a psychopathic murderer, which is frankly the kind of thing that tends to happen when you don't ask your roomie for references. Adrian does a long, slow burn for Jack before finally connecting the dots about the true nature of his companion...but ultimately, both guys are cuckoo for cocoa puffs in their own demented way. Apartment Zero doesn't give the viewer anybody to root for, so who really cares which nutcase gets the upper hand in the final reel? The answer is in the second word of the film title. Rating: 2/5.