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Mommie Dearest (1981)

23 Dec

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Smith’s Verdict: **

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“No wire hangers EVER!”

Coming from the 1981 film “Mommie Dearest,” that line is one of the most popular movie quotes, even gaining itself a spot on the American Film Institute’s “100 Quotes” list. It’s so quotable that it spawned over a dozen parodies (most of them are quite funny). And it’s from a film that is now a “cult classic” because of scenes such as the one this line came from, because a good deal of actress Faye Dunaway’s performance is loud, abrasive, and over-the-top. When I decided to see this film to see how truly “funny” it is, well…

Well, first, let me talk about the “no more wire hangers” scene, in which wealthy, stubborn actress Joan Crawford (Dunaway) is angry at her little daughter, Christina, for having wire hangers in her closet. This is the scene that is often quoted mockingly and said to be so bizarre that it’s unintentionally humorous. That really surprises me.

Yes, it’s a little confusing as to where Joan’s daughter’s wire hangers came from. Yes, the line is quite memorable. Yes, the scene is a little too over-the-top. But if you really look at this scene, it’s incredibly disturbing! I mean, you’ve got Joan yelling at her daughter for a ridiculous reason. That’s one thing. It’s another thing when Joan beats her with one of the wire hangers! This is a very unsettling, hardly watchable scene that features child abuse at its center. And it doesn’t stop there. She drags her out of bed and messes up the bathroom so she can wash it herself! Even poor Christina knows this is going too far! “Jesus Christ,” she says to herself tearfully.

(Sarcastic remark: I don’t know what’s funnier—the yelling or the beating.)

It baffles me how people have labeled “Mommie Dearest” a “cult classic” because of “campy” scenes like that. I have to wonder what movie they thought they were watching and what substance they were abusing while doing so.

Okay, to be kind of fair, my guess is that it has to do with “shock value.” Aside from the wire-hanger scene, there are moments in which a mother angrily cuts off a lot of her daughter’s hair, tackles her to land on a glass table, and, in another “campy” bit, harshly cutting hedges out of anger. It’s like watching a “Friday the 13th” movie—its fan base sees the appeal in being shocked every couple of scenes. Because of this, “Mommie Dearest” is not the most effective kind of biopic. It’s supposed to show the truly complicated relationship between Joan Crawford and her adopted daughter Christina, as it only gets worse as time goes by due to cruelty and jealousy. But it goes so far at showing the terrible parts of the relationship that after a while, it’s hard to truly explain what it’s all about. There’s hardly a narrative flow here; it’s all one shocking moment after another without much ground. Most of these scenes don’t even have much of a buildup. They just happen.

“Mommie Dearest” is a depressing film; one I wouldn’t want to revisit anytime soon. One viewing of it was enough for me. The film was so successful as an unintentional “comedy” that its popularity led to no Academy Award nomination for Faye Dunaway (which is one of the reasons she doesn’t like to talk about the film) but several Razzie nominations (and wins, for that matter). I can say this about Faye Dunaway’s performance, however. Dunaway clearly put her all into it, and in all fairness, it is a chillingly good performance. When you think about it, Joan Crawford was an over-the-top personality; therefore, Dunaway playing her as such is necessary. Dunaway should not be criticized for playing a loud, rough, even violent woman with some truly unnerving mental issues. I don’t even see Faye Dunaway in this film at all; I see Joan Crawford. (Oh, and thanks to sensational makeup, she even looks exactly Joan Crawford—another strange reason people make fun of this movie.) Too bad we only see her as a monster though. The film was based on a best-selling memoir, written by Christina Crawford, which only described her movie-star mother as such. That may be the film’s biggest problem. It’s too one-sided. I didn’t care much for this movie, other than to prove the point that I am definitely not part of this “cult” that holds it in high regard for all the wrong reasons (or the right reasons, for that matter).

NOTE: I will point out the film’s one satisfactory scene. Just before Joan attacks a young-adult Christina, they engage in a screaming match with a great exchange: “Why can’t you give me the respect that I’m entitled to?!” Joan shouts. “Why can’t you treat me the same as any stranger on the street?!” Christina responds perfectly: “Because I am NOT…ONE OF YOUR FANS!”

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Blow Out (1981)

4 Jun

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

The premise for the Brian De Palma’s tense thriller “Blow Out” goes like this: A sound man for a b-movie factory goes out one night to capture sounds of nature, only to record a supposed car accident that he believes may not have been an accident the more he listens to his recording. Is there a gunshot before a tire blow-out? Did someone cause the car to lose control and crash? He uses his knowhow to investigate.

That’s a premise Alfred Hitchcock would have loved to try out, so it makes sense that it was given to director Brian De Palma, who has shown with his filmmaking techniques in thrillers like “Sisters” and “Carrie” that he’s kind of like Hitchcock’s protégé. However, I think his filmmaking style is a little over the top, so instead of calling it Hitchcock-like, let’s just call it De Palma-like. Anyway, the point is that De Palma clearly likes to stylize his films, as he obviously loves film and filmmaking. So even if you don’t like some of his films, it’s hard to argue it’s well-made.

I digress. De Palma’s “Blow Out” is a very well-shot, original thriller that grabs you and doesn’t let go until the end credits roll. It begins with a scene straight out of the sleazy slasher movies in which an unseen stalker lurks about the halls of a college dormitory and follows a young woman to the shower. The twist—the girl’s scream is unconvincing, straight out of a bad horror movie. And…it is a bad horror movie, as our main character, a sound operator named Jack (played by John Travolta), looks over the work-in-progress of the latest product of the b-movie studio he works for. That’s a great opening, and it gives our first glimpse into the fascinating job Jack has. It’s interesting seeing how he works with the equipment in his office, especially for those who enjoy learning about post-production for films.

Anyway, that night, Jack stands on a bridge and records the audio of random sounds of the night. Before long, he becomes witness to an accident that involves a car having a tire blown out and plunging into the river under him. He jumps in to rescue the girl inside the car, named Sandy (Nancy Allen), but is too late to rescue the car’s driver, who turns out to be a potential presidential candidate. He takes her to the hospital and they have a meet-cute that can turn into something semi-romantic for them, but strangely, he is asked by the authorities to forget about what happened. But he can’t, so he tracks Sandy down and sees her every now and then. He also listens to the recording of the accident. He becomes convinced that before the tire blow-out sound is the sound of a gunshot, and that this was no mere accident.

And that’s just the beginning of where this wild ride of conspiracy and secrets takes you, as Jack tries to make it public while he’s being followed and he and Sandy make a run-in with violent characters, including a dirty-tricks specialist (played by John Lithgow) who ties up all loose ends of the ominous plot. There’s also the question of whether or not Sandy can truly be trusted, as it seems she may have something to do with it. Either way, it seems the more they dig deeper into the mystery, the more their lives are in jeopardy.

The plot for “Blow Out” gets more inventive and intense as it connects piece upon piece of this unique, well-crafted puzzle of events. But more importantly, it gives us chances to fully understand what’s going on here and gives us one great sequence after another that shows how these characters work and how they believe that their next move could work. One sequence in particular I’m thinking of is when Jack crafts a movie of the event, using his recording and some photographs.

Of course, being a De Palma film, “Blow Out” is great to look at and gives us unique, striking visual images that are sure to be embedded in the viewer’s head for a long while.

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John Travolta is effective as the main character who’s determined but somewhat bitter too. You may notice how downtrodden he is in this performance most of the time; that’s because Travolta went through insomnia at the time of filming. Given the character’s past (his attempt to use his sound & wire skills to assist cops went horribly wrong), I think it works fine. Nancy Allen plays her role of Sandy as a miserable, needy woman who isn’t sure what she wants and will do anything for acceptance, hence her role as an escort. While Allen’s wispy voice takes a little getting used to, she does manage to earn our sympathies by the time it’s clear her life is in jeopardy. John Lithgow is suitably menacing as the sinister figure who pursues everyone involved, and Dennis Franz is good as a private detective who had something if not everything to do with the incident in the first place.

There’s one thing I don’t like about “Blow Out,” and it’s the ending. Without giving anything away, it settles a running joke about dubbing the perfect scream for one of the b-movies. The payoff is so cruel that I wondered if the whole film was supposed to be a joke. But aside from that, this is a solid, gripping thriller with enough to keep us involved and even more to respect our intelligence.

Halloween II (1981)

7 Apr

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Smith’s Verdict: **

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

John Carpenter’s great 1978 chiller “Halloween” did not need a sequel. Sure, it was a box-office success, was the most profitable independent film at the time, and became the phenomenon that would create the “slasher” genre. But it didn’t need a sequel. It was fine on its own.

But with all the trashy, deplorable “slasher” movies (movies in which dumb teenagers are stalked and sliced by some psycho) hoping to cash in on the film’s success, critics and cynics at the time must have hoped that “Halloween II” would at least show copycats of the original how to do this craft properly. But as it turns out, the film is only here as an attempt to cash in, just like the other movies of this sort. It’s a disappointing, repetitive, and (worst of all) boring thriller that lacks the tension and compelling nature of the original film. It’s as if they didn’t want to try so hard with this one because they knew that whatever they would make for a sequel to “Halloween,” it would make money either way.

The eeriness is monotonous and not very tense. The characters are unbelievably dumb. The masked killer, the Shape, has lost his effectiveness as a menacing force, and has instead become a typical slasher-movie villain. Even the gore-level is turned up because apparently, blood and gore sells with audiences (those who are fond of the original remember how bloodless it is, and it had atmosphere and suspense to keep people tense).

“Halloween II” begins just a few minutes after the original film ended. Sick psychotic Michael Myers attempted to kill babysitter Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) before Dr. Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasance) shot him seven times (even though he repeatedly, frightfully yells he shot him SIX times, but whatever), and yet his body disappeared without Loomis noticing. Now, Laurie is taken to the nearest hospital, which conveniently (for a horror film) has one doctor on duty and just a few nurses. (I’m not quite sure there are any other patients either—if there were, I’m sure that would explain why there are no complaints about the poor lighting of the building.)

But wouldn’t you know! Michael Myers makes his way to the hospital and kills everyone he comes across!

Wait, how did he know where Laurie was? Why does he still want to kill her? Well, so this sequel can be made, I guess.

Anyway, Michael creeps about the hospital and kills off the people he comes across, while Laurie relies on her wits to fend for herself…Oh wait, I’m sorry; this time around, Laurie is a broken, catatonic fool who is about as complex as Barbra from “Night of the Living Dead.” Scenes that feature her in danger grow really boring as a result.

While all of this is going on, Dr. Loomis is still out to find his patient (Michael) and somehow stop him because he knows for sure that he’s alive because “he’s not a man—he’s evil!” (That’s one of many screaming rants he likes to deliver, including “I shot him six times!”) But soon, he learns of a family connection between Michael and…Laurie? Really? OK, it’s one thing to have a backstory over a character that didn’t need one in “Halloween,” but to have him related to Laurie is to give up hope for this movie.

An American Werewolf in London (1981)

17 Mar

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Smith’s Verdict: **1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Have you ever seen a movie that has you invested for the first hour-and-a-half, but then a completely lackluster ending totally lets you down? “An American Werewolf in London” is an example of that kind of movie for me. It started and continued in an intriguing, entertaining way with a divine story and script, but the anticlimactic ending keeps me from recommending this movie. It’s as if the movie wasn’t finished and the filmmakers just made do with what they had.

That’s a real shame because director John Landis had something good going here. It’s as if he spent too much time on sequences and special effects that he didn’t think to create a better resolution. Just when the last shot shows a quite unexpected anticlimactic image, boom! The credits roll! Why?

Landis has made better movies, such as “National Lampoon’s Animal House” and “The Blues Brothers.” He had something good here- a “horror-comedy”; part comedy, part horror. The movie’s plot features two young American men, David (David Naughton) and Jack (Griffin Dunne), who go backpacking on the English moors in London. They run into a pub with strange locals with weird behavior. One of them warns the fellows, “Beware the moon and stick to the road.” They don’t. That’s when the howling is heard. A werewolf attacks the two—Jack is dead and David is severely injured.

A few days later, David wakes up in the hospital where he falls for an attractive nurse (Jenny Agutter). But things go bad when Jack, now a decomposing “undead” corpse, visits David and warns him that on the next full moon, David will become a werewolf and kill people. He advises him to take his own life, and David doesn’t want to believe or listen to him.

As the movies goes along, David is released from the hospital, moves in with the nurse, and keeps receiving warnings from Jack, who is not looking real good every time he visits. He keeps advising David to commit suicide. But David doesn’t, and wouldn’t you know it—on the full moon, David does turn into a werewolf and runs around London, taking lives, and wreaking havoc among Piccadilly Circus. If only he had listened to Jack…

Some of the best moments in this movie belong to Dunne. Despite decaying in his corpse form, he still acts and talks like a college student. The very best things about this movie are Rick Baker’s spectacular and convincing makeup and effects. His creature effects and makeup help make for a terrific and horrifying scene in which David slowly but surely morphs into a werewolf. First, his hands grow into claws, then his feet become paws, and finally, his face changes into a face of fangs and a snout. It’s just so painful and it looks so convincing. The special effects here are definitely first-rate.

“An American Werewolf in London” starts out with a neat idea, a good script with some witty dialogue, and a nice cast. But when the movie ended, I was very disappointed. I won’t give the final act away, but when it arrives, there’s not a feel that the movie is over. And at no point did I feel there was any sort of dramatic (or even any at all) resolution. It’s just so sudden, so anticlimactic, and so frustrating to me. What a shame too, because I really wanted this to continue. It’s a huge letdown, and unfortunately it kept me from recommending “An American Werewolf in London.”

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

8 Mar

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Raiders of the Lost Ark” is one of the best in a series of movies that feature action-packed adventures and a hero we can all root for. But there is a whole lot more to it too—it also features a great deal of imagination and a super-fast pace. This isn’t just a movie—it’s an event. We spend two hours having fun watching the main hero go through a series of adventures while also admiring what’s happening around him and then we get to go home. It’s as exciting as any sporting event. Watch it on the big screen, and tell me you’re not excited.

For a hero, we have Dr. Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford), an archaeologist/college-professor who always gets in way over his head as he goes through dangerous lengths to unearth a hidden historic artifact—he comes complete with bullwhip, Fedora hat, and leather jacket. Oh, and he also has a fear of snakes, but why am I telling you that? In an opening scene set in South America, we see him explore a booby-trapped cave to find a golden idol. The treasure is left out in the open—this seems way too easy. And when Dr. Jones attempts to take it, this sets up a course involving spikes shooting out of the walls, a chasm, a slow-closing door, and the biggest boulder you could imagine. How could he possibly get out of this? The best thing about this movie is that while we know that he is going to get out of every situation he couldn’t possibly get out of, it’s great to see how he does.

That scene is just a curtain-opener for what comes ahead. The main storyline for this movie is that Dr. “Indy” Jones has been hired by the US government to race to Brazil to unearth the lost Ark of the Covenant before the Nazis gain control of it first (this movie is set in 1936, so the Nazis are the main villains here). Many of us know the legend of the Lost Ark but for those who don’t, its origins are explained early in the film. But it must be noted that if the Ark is opened, the power of God is given to those who open it…for better or worse. Accompanying Indy in finding the Ark’s location is his ex-girlfriend Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen), who hasn’t forgiven Indy for walking out on her many years ago but she still loves him anyway. His other ally is Sallah (John Rhys-Davies), a big, gentle man who gives Indy some advice he heard from the leader of the Nazi dig site, who happens to be Indy’s rival. He’s a Frenchman named Belloq (Paul Freeman) who, at the beginning of the movie, took Indy’s treasure, sneeringly stating, “There is nothing you can possess which I cannot take away.”

This sets up an exciting series of adventures, including a trap in near-darkness surrounded by hissing snakes and a chase scene involving a truck, a plane, and a horse. It all comes down to a race against time between Indy and Belloq as they race to retrieve the prize.

“Raiders of the Lost Ark” is also perfectly paced. In between the frantic action scenes is enough character development and minimum exposition. We get to know Indy and Marion and we fear for their lives. Credit editor Michael Kahn for creating such a fast pace and not making the movie seem out of control in its cuts. The performances are all solid. Harrison Ford, previously known for playing Han Solo in “Star Wars,” creates a different sort of action hero with strength and a taste for adventure as well as everyday man credibility. He’s also a rough scoundrel with a heart of gold. Karen Allen is the perfect ally for Indy. As Marion, Allen doesn’t play the worried girlfriend who is roped into these situations. She plays this character with energy and strength. Sure, she does scream from time to time but she’s definitely not the damsel in distress. She’s a strong, independent woman who can take care of herself most of the time.

There are also memorable small moments in the film, along with the big action sequences we aren’t bored with. Examples are these little moments are Indy’s line to Marion, “It’s not the years, honey, it’s the mileage,” and a very funny brief showdown between Indy and a swordsman. (You’ll know what I’m talking about.) The movie’s spontaneity is also one of the best things in the movie.

There are also plenty of special effects in this movie. The effects at the very end, a terrifying scene in which the Ark’s power is unleashed, are so realistic that they may frighten younger viewers. I am also very impressed at the stuntwork in the film. There is a scene in which Indy is being dragged along the ground behind a truck in a chase scene. I couldn’t tell which was Harrison Ford and which was his stunt double. But this whole scene was done without special effects—it was really happening. Someone really did get dragged along a road by that truck. There may have been pain but I suppose it was worth it to the actors and filmmakers to entertain us.

Oh, and I should also mention the “Raiders March,” the theme music score composed by John Williams, who also composed memorable music from “Jaws,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “Superman,” and “Star Wars.” He scores another notable (excuse the pun) music score here.

“Raiders of the Lost Ark” is an action movie with all the right ingredients—a smart script, a fast pace, a likable hero, a strong supporting cast of characters, incredible action scenes, a touch of comedy, a hint of romance, and not least of all, sharp direction by director Steven Spielberg and witty storytelling by George Lucas. Spielberg and Lucas have made an excellent piece of work together. I look forward to them making another collaboration.

On Golden Pond (1981)

4 Feb

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

SPOILERS THROUGHOUT REVIEW

“On Golden Pond” is a collection of brilliant short segments that wraps around at the end so that the film has a linear story structure. It has a story with a beginning, middle, and end, but even between them, if it’s possible, the story has its own wraparound with the two central characters—an elderly couple who love each other to death.

The couple is Norman and Ethyl Thayer (Henry Fonda and Katharine Hepburn). They’re long-married and still share strong simple affection for each other. But Norman is feeling like he’s getting older and it seems that she’s the only thing in his life that matters anymore. That’s good enough for him, since he gripes about everything else.

Anyway, as the story opens, Norman and Ethyl arrive to their lakeside summer cottage near Golden Pond. It’s here that we see Ethyl’s free-spiritedness that apparently stays with age, and Norman’s shyness and stubbornness towards pretty much everything, even Ethyl. He knows he’s getting older and we suspect that he doesn’t see what one more summer at this old place will do to him anymore. But Ethyl assures him that he’s her “knight in shining armor” and will always be.

That’s the opening segment of the film, which could make for a short film of its own. By the time it gets to that pivotal scene, we feel like these two characters have been developed and we like them almost as much as they like each other. But this is just the setup for the real story, which begins as Normal and Ethyl’s grown-up daughter Chelsea (Henry Fonda’s real-life daughter, Jane Fonda) arrives to the cottage to celebrate Norman’s birthday. She brings along her new boyfriend Bill (Dabney Coleman) and his thirteen-year-old son Billy (Doug McKeon). And this is where the conflicts are established. We discover that Chelsea feels resentment towards her father, as Norman has never really given Chelsea her due. It’s as if he really wanted a son to bond with, or he just never really understood how to be a father.

The midway point arrives as Norman and Ethyl agree to let young Billy stay with them while Chelsea and Bill take a trip to Europe. Of course, with no TV and no “chicks” to “cruise” (he’s from San Francisco, where he and his friends “cruise chicks”), the kid acts like a brat. But with some pushing from Ethyl, Norman takes the kid fishing, and the two develop a sort-of father/son relationship together. They bond together, share communication, and trust each other. Later, Norman has learned how to be a father.

By the time Chelsea returns to pick up Billy, she notices the friendship between her father and her new stepson (she married Bill in Brussels, as it turns out), and is even more resentful because Billy is having the relationship with Norman that she never had. But maybe there’s still time for reconciliation.

When Norman and Ethyl are alone again at the cottage, the story ends with the payoff of Norman’s realized mortality. Even though it’s predictable, it’s touching nonetheless. When “On Golden Pond” is over, we feel like we’ve spent time with warm, appealing characters in a peaceful place like Golden Pond. The emotions are there and you feel good about yourself while watching this film.

The performances are first-rate. Henry Fonda and Katherine Hepburn share amazing chemistry together and share distinct characteristics that make them memorable. A lot rides on these two veteran actors and there’s nothing short of greatness for them. Jane Fonda acquits herself nicely to the role of Chelsea, Dabney Coleman shares a great scene with Henry Fonda about asking permission to sleep in the same room as Jane (the questions and reactions are just fantastic), and Doug McKeon does more than expected with the plain role of the kid—he starts out as a bratty tyke, but becomes likeable as his coming-of-age story continues.

I heard that this is the only film featuring Henry and Jane Fonda together. Maybe some of the character Chelsea’s resentment is reflected from a possible, similar relationship between these two. Whatever the case, having this father and daughter together in the film just adds to its effect.

“On Golden Pond” deals honestly with its issues of relationships, resentment, realization, and mortality, while also showing that life can be beautiful, even if things don’t go as planned. With great acting, nicely staged scenery, and a darn good screenplay, “On Golden Pond” is a real treasure of a movie.