Weekly Movie Reviews: Jan 7-13, 2018

Favorite Movie of the Week

Soapdish (1991)

I had zero expectations going into this because it looked totally ridiculous. Soap opera actress Montana Moorhead (Cathy Moriarty) is tired of her show’s long-time star Celeste Talbert (Sally Field) stealing her thunder. She joins forces with with the unscrupulous producer of the show (Robert Downey Jr.) and they come up with various schemes to destroy Celeste’s popularity like reintroducing an old boyfriend (Kevin Kline) that she had fired from the show decades ago, and having her accidentally murder an innocent character.

If this sounds like a soap opera to you, that’s exactly the point. Soapdish is itself a soap opera, but has one important thing that soap operas lack – tons of heart. The cast is wonderful. Kevin Kline and Whoopi Goldberg (who plays the head writer of the show and Celeste’s staunch friend) are well-known for their comedic chops, but everyone else also strikes the perfect balance of absurdity and lovableness. Everything is over the top and honestly I’m not sure how it ends up being so charming, but it does. I’d put this right up there with The Princess Bride, Last Action HeroGalaxy Quest (and maybe Maverick) – some of the best affectionate-parody-of-a-genre movies.

Other Movies Watched

Argo (2012)

I’ve enjoyed all of the other movies Ben Affleck has directed (Gone Baby Gone, The Town, Live by Night) but they’re all about crime in Boston, so I was looking forward to seeing what he would do with a different setting. I’d actually seen Argo years ago, but I didn’t remember much.

Argo is the story of the “Canadian Caper”, the rescue operation to smuggle six American diplomats out of Iran during the Iran hostage crisis in 1979 (it is much more of an American caper in the movie, though). Americans were not welcome in the country, so CIA agent Tony Mendez (with the help of some Hollywood contacts) invented a fake science-fiction movie for which he and his team were scouting for locations. And it’s a true story!

I’m not sure how to describe what’s good about this movie except that it’s larger than the sum of its parts. It uses many of the tropes that you’d expect from a movie of its genre – the last-minute roadblocks and the close shaves – but they feel fresh somehow, maybe because of their pacing? The tension is kept high all the way through and it feels deserved and melodrama-free. We don’t have a lot of time to get to know the characters but they feel fully fleshed out anyway. And it’s got some great performances from the cast; Victor Garber as the Canadian ambassador particularly made me feel warm and fuzzy inside.

The King of Comedy (1982)

This is definitely the best movie I watched this week but I refuse to call it my “Favorite Movie” because I never, ever want to see it again (I probably will, though). Robert De Niro plays Rupert Pupkin, an aspiring comedian who becomes convinced that talk show host Jerry Langford (played by real-life talk show host and comedian Jerry Lewis) will feature him on his show to jump start his career. When things don’t work out as he planned, he decides to escalate the situation.

I thought that Robert De Niro was disturbing in Taxi Driver (also directed by Martin Scorsese) but he’s even more unsettling in this movie, mainly because of his cheerful self-assurance that he’s doing the right thing even as he’s being a total creep. I think we’ve all met people that give us an uneasy feeling even if we can’t put a name to it; The King of Comedy is told from the point of view of one of those people and it’s just really uncomfortable to watch. Jerry Lewis does a commendable job as his beleaguered character, even if he’s just playing himself. And Scorsese’s direction is brilliant as always. It’s also a pretty funny movie; it’s more of a black comedy than anything else, but it does hold up a mirror to the dark corners of humanity that most people would rather not pay attention to.

Avalon (1990)

Avalon is the third movie in director Barry Levinson’s semi-autobiographical “Baltimore films” tetralogy following Diner and Tin Men. It follows three generations of the Krichinsky family after they immigrate to the United States in 1914 and assimilate into American life (which is itself changing rapidly because of television and the ubiquity of cars).

This is probably the best movie about the American immigrant experience that I’ve seen (although not my favorite, that’s still Moscow on the Hudson). Unlike the prior Baltimore films, it’s just a drama; there is humor but no comedy. There’s something a little depressing about watching the Krichinskys lose their cultural uniqueness (even if it is of their own volition) but it also helped me understand the origins of current American culture. And it’s not just a commentary on societal changes; it’s a poignant family story as well. The last act of the movie wasn’t what I expected it to be and it left me with all sorts of emotions.

Serpico (1973)

I really need to re-watch Serpico because I was exhausted the day we watched it and I may have nodded off a couple of times during the last half an hour of the movie. Even so, it’s a really good movie. It stars Al Pacino and is directed by Sidney Lumet (who later reunited in the excellent Dog Day Afternoon, also based on a true story) and it’s about real life NYPD officer Frank Serpico, who exposed systemic police corruption and prompted major changes in the way the department was run.

I’m not sure if the biopic genre as we know it now existed back when this movie was made but Serpico does not follow those tropes. It’s quiet, nuanced, and tense, sort of like The French Connection. It seemed very realistic to me; the interactions between Serpico and other officers weren’t dramatic or even explicit about what was going on, even in the most dramatic scenes near the end of the movie. Al Pacino is in his element playing Serpico; he’s good at being intensely idealistic and yet somehow affable. The movie could have easily made his character a morally righteous hero figure, but it does not give into that temptation and makes him a character that we’re compelled by even if he hadn’t done what he did.

The Newton Boys (1998)

The Newton Boys is a historical crime drama about the real life Newton Gang, a notorious outlaw gang that consisted of four brothers. It’s directed by Richard Linklater (Dazed and Confused, Boyhood, the Before… trilogy, Everybody Wants Some!!) who is one of my favorite directors, but he specializes in realistic slice-of-life movies so I wasn’t sure what to expect.

In keeping with Linklater’s strengths, much of this movie consists of conversations between the characters rather than the robberies the gang committed. But it isn’t really a character-focused movie, it’s still trying to be action-packed and fun. so the characters aren’t very interesting. The Newton brothers are played be a stellar cast – Matthew McConaughey, Ethan Hawke, Skeet Ulrich, and Vincent D’Onofrio, but despite their best efforts, their characters are not that memorable and their personalities all meld together. Even the robbery scenes are boring, probably because the movie can’t decide what tone it wants to take. Don’t get me wrong, this is a perfectly fine movie by normal standards, it just doesn’t ever rise above “decent”.

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