Weekly Movie Reviews: Oct 1-7, 2017

Favorite Movie of the Week

Planes, Trains & Automobiles (1987)

I’ve seen all of John Hughes’ teen movies that’s he’s famous for (The Breakfast Club, Sixteen Candles, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and so on) but I hadn’t seen any of his later movies until I saw this one. We follow New York City executive Neal Page (Steve Martin) who is trying to make it home for Thanksgiving but is plagued by transportation delays and cancellations. He also cannot shake off his traveling companion, garrulous shower curtain ring salesman Del Griffith (John Candy).

I haven’t seen Steve Martin in too many things but his reputation as a comedian is well-deserved if his comic timing in this movie is anything to judge by. Neal Page’s frustration throughout the movie is entirely relatable, most of us have been through transportation snafus, been around people who just don’t know when to shut up, and dealt with all the other annoyances he runs into; we just (hopefully) haven’t had to deal with all of them at the same time. There are a bunch of memorable scenes, but my favorite is probably when he’s just had enough when his rental car goes missing (NSFW for profanity). That scene is hilarious on its own but its placement in the movie is extremely cathartic.

One of the things that makes this movie so fantastic is that it does an amazing job of making you feel the way the character does almost viscerally, but for some reason you still enjoy it. Plus it’s got heart!

Other Movies Watched

As Good As It Gets (1997)

Obsessive-compulsive and misanthropic author Melvin Udall (Jack Nicholson) has a predictable life, he lives alone, he keeps his house neat and precisely organized, and he eats breakfast at the same table at the same restaurant served by the same waitress every day. His life suddenly changes when two things happen – his regular waitress Carol (Helen Hunt) quits to take care of her sick son, and his gay artist neighbor, Simon (Greg Kinnear), gets beaten and robbed, leaving Melvin to take care of his dog. He begins to form an unlikely friendship with both of them but his habitual insensitivity threatens to get in the way.

As Good As It Gets is a wonderful movie. I’m used to thinking about Jack Nicholson as someone who plays powerful and confident characters that are usually in control of whatever situation they are in but this movie made me realize what a good actor he was. He’s simultaneously cantankerous and vulnerable and you can’t help but feel for him even when he says and does the most outrageously rude things. I’m a big fan of Helen Hunt and she’s excellent as usual. This is apparently the most recent movie that has won both the Best Actor and the Best Actress Oscars (Greg Kinnear also got nominated for Best Supporting Actor). And Cuba Gooding Jr. was delightful in his part as Simon’s boyfriend.

I’ve just been focusing on the acting but everything else about it is good too. The acting wouldn’t have mattered if the movie hadn’t been as well-written as it is, the way that the characters grow over the movie is deeply satisfying. I am fond of the trope where two broken people end up fixing themselves through helping the other one with their problems and this is one of the best things I’ve seen with that narrative.

Terms of Endearment (1983)

I was looking forward to watching this movie because after watching Broadcast News, Spanglish, and As Good As It Gets, I think James L Brooks is one of those directors (like Ang Lee) that really knows how to get nuanced and subtle performances from actors. Plus I’ve been tracking how many Oscar Best Picture Winners I’ve watched so far, and this was on the list.

We follow Aurora (Shirley MacLaine) and her daughter Emma (Debra Winger) for a few years of their lives, starting with Emma’s wedding. They go through a lot (both separately and together) and their stubbornness means their relationship is often contentious. They have a bond that’s not broken easily though and that keeps them going even when everything around them is falling apart.

This movie reminded me of Steel Magnolias; although Steel Magnolias followed a group of women, two of the main characters are a mother and a daughter and it begins with the daughter’s wedding just as in this one (and Shirley MacLaine is in both). Terms of Endearment just follows the lives of Aurora and Emma without an overarching story, just an emotional arc. It’s often funny and sometimes quite sad, and it makes you feel like you know these people in real life. The actors do a superb job and the chemistry between them is palpable. Although this movie is primarily about the women, Jack Nicholson and Jeff Daniels also stand out in their supporting character roles as well.

Mighty Aphrodite (1995)

Woody Allen directs, writes, and stars in this movie about sportswriter Lenny who is a little bored with his life. When he discovers that his adopted son Max has a genius level intellect, he decides to find Max’s biological parents since he believes that he must have inherited it from them. Instead he finds Linda Ash (Mira Sorvino), a prostitute and occasional porn star who is one of the most empty-headed people he has met, but he still feels inexplicably drawn to her.

Mighty Aphrodite is structured like an ancient Greek play (and named after a Greek goddess too), it has a Greek chorus (led by F. Murray Abraham) who help tell the story by breaking the fourth wall, both talking directly to us and talking to the characters as well. It’s an interesting device and I thought it seemed pretentious at first but it fits the story and the movie well. This is only the second Woody Allen movie I’ve seen (after Annie Hall) and I’m not sure if he plays a similarly neurotic character in all of them, but it works for this one. Mira Sorvino is marvelous in her role as an extremely vacuous but indisputably nice woman, she won a well-deserved Oscar for it. Helena Bonham Carter actually plays it straight as Lenny’s bored wife and she’s good at it. It’s definitely a quirky movie but I’d recommend it.

Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)

Spider-Man: Homecoming features the third new movie version of Spider-Man in the last fifteen years, but this time he’s part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and played by someone closer to being an actual teenager (Tom Holland). And thankfully it’s not an origin story; Spider-Man has been fighting crime for a while and has already been noticed by the Avengers (as we saw in Captain America: Civil War last year).

While this movie features the trademark Marvel style (including the constant quips which I used to find funny but seem obnoxious now), it also takes a lot of inspiration from classic teen movies. Yes, Peter Parker is coming to terms with his superhero identity, but he also needs to get his homework done, ask the girl he likes out to homecoming, and try to not let down his school’s science trivia (I think) team competing in the nationals. And it’s a decent teen movie! Apparently the cast and crew were drawing heavily from John Hughes movies so that makes sense.

I’m not sure if it was a great superhero movie or not, but I liked that it wasn’t just a superhero movie and I liked Michael Keaton as the villain (he sure does like his winged super-roles – Batman, Birdman, The Vulture). I do wish Iron Man wasn’t such a big part of the movie, though. As likable as Robert Downey Jr. is as Iron Man, needs to stop invading other superheroes’ movies and making them all about him (see also Captain America: Civil War). It detracted from Spider-Man’s arc, turning his motivations for fighting crime from his idealistic roots to just wanting to be accepted by someone he admires.

Brokeback Mountain (2005)

Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) meet when they’re both hired as sheep herders on the remote Brokeback Mountain. They spend months together and as they get to know each other, they end up forming a deeper relationship (I’m not sure how to describe it; “falling in love” seems too extreme and “having sex” seems too cold). They go their separate ways after the season ends but keep being drawn to each other and continue their relationship clandestinely for years afterward.

I’m not sure how I haven’t seen this movie until now, given its acclaim and my love for Ang Lee. It’s a very well-made movie but I did not like it as much as I like most of his movies, primarily because I found it boring. Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal did a terrific job, the direction, the writing, and the cinematography was outstanding, and I can’t find any notable flaws with the movie so I’m not sure why I found it boring. Maybe it’s because it’s a romance and I find most romances boring, I didn’t feel close to or invested in either of them and so I couldn’t understand why they were even drawn to each other.

The French Connection (1971)

Two New York City narcotic cops, Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle and his partner Buddy Russo, are trying to intercept a large drug shipment that’s being smuggled in from France by suave businessman Alain Charnier.

That pretty much summarizes the movie, it’s a slow moving thriller that focuses on the characters and the cat-and-mouse game they play. Our primary hero, Popeye (played with his characteristic intensity by Gene Hackman) is an irascible and bigoted alcoholic, but he takes his job extremely seriously. The man he is tracking down, Charnier, seems like a cultured gentleman but he’s also a hardened criminal. The way the movie focuses on their opposing personalities gives it a lot of its character. The chase sequences are tightly executed, giving the movie a sense of real tension that modern action movies don’t have. The movie’s design and cinematography add to the tone it’s established, everything about the movie is dirty and gritty.

The French Connection won the Best Picture Oscar when it came out and it seems like one of those movies that transformed a genre entirely (or maybe created a new one?) I can see its influences in so many movies. But it seems a little unpolished, as pioneering movies often do; it uses a new way of telling a story but which hasn’t been perfected through repetition yet.

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