Movie Review: The Out of Towners (1970)


Title: The Out of Towners 
Release Date: May 28, 1970
Director: Arthur Hiller
Production Company: Jalem Productions
Summary/Review:

I don’t know where I got the idea that The Out-of-Towners was a comedy classic, but I guess I figured the combination of Jack Lemmon and Neil Simon would be good for a few laughs.  It turns out the movie offers very few laughs indeed.  Lemmon plays George Kellerman, a businessman from Ohio who travels to New York City with his much put-upon wife Gwen (Sandy Dennis) in order to conduct an interview for a prestigious job. Naturally, every thing that can go wrong goes wrong including a delayed flight that is rerouted to Boston, a crowded train to New York, the inability to get a meal anywhere, losing their hotel room, being robbed, and then abducted, and even getting caught up in an anti-Cuban protest.

There are a few good moments. I particularly like when Gwen and George celebrate finding half-a-box of Cracker Jack to eat for breakfast. The topical references – sanitation and transit strikes, Cuban hijackings – make it a good time capsule for 1970. The movie was also filmed on location in a lot of places in New York and Boston, so I really enjoyed seeing what places looked like 50 years ago.

The main problem with this movie is that George and Gwen aren’t very likable.  Lemmon and Dennis are so talented that I was never totally able to hate them, but I also wasn’t really on their side.  The running gag with George creating an Arya Stark-like list of people he is going to sue is just one of the many things that are plain not funny.  My sense is the New Yorker Neil Simon created his stereotypes of what an awful pair of out-of-towners from the midwest are like without considering that the protagonists are someone you should actually want to root for.  This movie, like the latter-day comedy Quick Change, falls into the “New York is Awful” genre, but I couldn’t help thinking that at the end of the movie when George and Gwen decide to (spoiler) stay in Ohio, that it is New York City that dodged a bullet.

Rating: **

Movie Review: Ghostbusters (1984)


Title: Ghostbusters
Release Date: June 8, 1984
Director: Ivan Reitman
Production Company: Columbia-Delphi Productions | Black Rhino
Summary/Review:

I saw Ghostbusters in the movie theaters three times in 1984, and countless times on tv and video over the years since then (often at the prompting of my sister who perhaps loved the movie more than me).  My most recent viewing on the Fourth of July coincided with my first ever visit to a drive-in movie and the first time my children watched Ghostbusters (they loved it too!).

I can’t review this movie objectively.  Despite it’s weird premise, the movie was and remains one of the funniest movies ever made. I’ve always appreciated the little details they built into the movie such as all the visual references to Stay Puft Marshmallows that appear well before we ever see the Marshmallow Man.  On this viewing, I noticed that the music works so well in the film too, both the original score and various pop songs worked into the soundtrack (and yes, I had the soundtrack as a kid).

One thing I don’t like about Ghostbusters is the underlying Libertarian message that comes out in things like the villain being a government agent played by William Atherton who arbitrarily uses his power to bring down hard-working entrepreneurs.  I’ve always liked Bill Murray, but on this viewing I also noticed that Peter Venkman is very creepy.  On the upside I better appreciated the work of Harold Ramis and Rick Moranis as Egon Spengler and Louis Tully. Despite any quibbles I may have, Ghostbusters stands the test of time.

Oh, and despite what you might have heard elsewhere, the 2016 Ghostbusters reboot is really good too.

Rating: ****1/2

Movie Review: The Muppets Take Manhattan (1984)


Welcome to Muppet Mondays! Over the next several Mondays I will be working my way through the various movies in the Muppets and Jim Henson oeuvre.

Title: The Muppets Take Manhattan
Release Date: July 13, 1984
Director: Frank Oz
Production Company: Henson Associates
Summary/Review:

I saw The Muppets Take Manhattan more than once in the movie theaters as a ten-year-old, and then numerous times on cable tv, so I’ve probably seen it more than any other Muppet movie.  But it’s still been decades since the last time I watched it so my memories of it were vague. I know from reading Jim Henson’s biography that Henson was moving on to bolder visions at the time and this movie was an opportunity for Frank Oz to gain experience directing. The movie’s style is different from its predecessors and has more of a sitcom feel to it, but nevertheless still has the Muppets’ anarchic cleverness and humor.

Because the Muppets never have the same origin story, this movie introduces the idea that the Muppets met at college and after a successful senior theater performance are encouraged to take their show to Broadway. (This movie also features a fantasy sequence where Miss Piggy imagines the Muppets as babies, thus creating a whole ‘nother origin story spun off as The Muppet Babies). Unable to find a producer, the group splits up while Kermit stays in New York carrying out various schemes to get his show funded.  There’s also a sequence where Kermit suffers amnesia that I completely forgot about (hah!). Kermit ends up working in an advertising firm with other frogs who  are clearly all the Muppet performers offering their loving impersonation of Jim Henson saying “hmmm.”

There are some great bits involving a group of rats working in a dinner where Kermit also gets a job.  There are also the requisite cameo performances.  Dabney Coleman, of course, plays a villain, while Liza Minelli and Ed Koch play themselves.  But my favorite cameo is Gregory Hines who plays a roller skater in Central Park who ends up refereeing an argument between Kermit and Miss Piggy.  This movie also famously shows Kermit and Miss Piggy’s wedding, although I remember seeing an interview with Kermit on tv where he said it was just a movie and not real life.  Miss Piggy disagreed.

Rating: ***

Movie Review: Oliver & Company (1988)


Title: Oliver & Company
Release Date: November 18, 1988
Director: George Scribner
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures | Walt Disney Feature Animation | Silver Screen Partners III
Summary/Review:

On the precipice of the Disney Renaissance, Walt Disney Pictures released Oliver & Company, a movie that has many elements of the Renaissance era but doesn’t put them together quite right.  The movie features then-popular stars like Billy Joel, Cheech Marin,  Bette Midler, and Dom DeLuise, with musical artists like Huey Lewis, Joel, Ruth Pointer, Midler, and Rubén Blades singing on the cheerful soundtrack. The animation style is also a break from typical Disney style and the film is set in contemporary New York City.

The movie takes its inspiration from Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist. Oliver (Joey Lawrence) is an orphan kitten who is taken in by a gang of street dogs including the carefree Dodger (Joel).  They steal and pickpocket to help the human Fagin (Dom Deluise), a good-hearted vagrant who needs to pay off a debt to the evil loan shark Sykes (Robert Loggia), who looks an awful lot like Rudy Giuliani. Just as he’s settling in with the gang of dogs, Oliver meets a very wealthy, kind-hearted girl, Jenny (Natalie Gregory).  Jenny’s diva poodle Georgette (Midler) is insanely jealous of her new pet.  Comic hijinx ensue, and soon the stray dogs, Fagin, and Sykes intersect with Oliver, Jenny, and Georgette.

The movie is a bit of a mess.  Oliver is the protagonist for the early part of the film, but then it shifts to being a story about the “Company.”  The Jenny plotline is pure 80s cheeze (and mind you as an 80s kid I love that stuff, but I do warn you its schlock).  The songs are catchy, but lyrically tend to be obvious commentaries on the movie.  Dodger’s key song “Why Should I Worry?” is repetitive and the lyrics are basically nonsense.

I won’t say that Oliver & Company isn’t entertaining, but it doesn’t really go beyond the bare essentials of a competent movie for kids.

Rating: ***

Book Review: The Monied Metropolis by Sven Beckert


Author: Sven Beckert
Title: The Monied Metropolis : New York City and the Consolidation of the American Bourgeoisie, 1850-1896
Publication Info: Cambridge, UK ; New York, NY : Cambridge University Press, 2001
Summary/Review:

I read this book as a group project at my job since the people covered in this book are the types who are represented in many of our archive’s older manuscript collections.  The author uses the word “bourgeoisie” and is very repetitive in general.  I also think Beckert could’ve been better at showing rather than telling about the social changes in 19th century New York City.  Nevertheless, it does offer some interesting insight into “the story of the consolidation of a self-concision upper class in New York City in the second half of the nineteenth century.” (Beckert, 2).

The main theme of the book is the conflict between the established merchant class and the nouveau-riche industrialists.  The conflict also manifests itself in those who are sympathetic to slaveholders in the South because it provides them financial gain (generally the merchants) and those who are anti-slavery, mainly because it threatens to compete with their own sources of labor, but also for moral and religious reasons (typically the industrialists).  Even during the Civil War there were elites who favored ending the war swiftly and going easy on the slaveowners.

New York City grows massively in population during this time as well as in wealth.  And the new bourgeoisie find ways to consolidate that wealth into a handful of families that intermarry akin to medieval aristocrats.  The elite unite to quash labor movements and increasingly use their strength to squash political organizing of the poor out of fear that the working class will be radicalized.  The elite even take on the roles of government, such as building castle-like armories and training as National Guard units to prevent proletarian uprising.

It’s hard not to read this book and not come away with the impression that the 19th-century New York City elite were pretty awful people.  Even in a charitable act such the Christmas Feeding at Madison Square Garden, the rich would gather in the stands to watch as lines of poor people processed through to receive gifts of food, adding an extra layer of humiliation to their plight.  In addition to acting against labor, the NYC elite also consolidated around antisemitism, anti-Black prejudice, and anti-immigrant sentiment.  By the end of the century they were using terms such as “businessman,” “capitalist,” and “taxpayer.” Their legacy has many echoes in the present day.

Favorite Passages:

“Mystifying the laws of the market into laws of nature allowed upper class New Yorkers to account for their own exalted position.” – 281

Recommended books:

Rating: ***

Movie Review: Fourteen (2020)


TitleFourteen
Release Date: May 15, 2020
Director: Dan Sallitt
Production Company: Static Productions
Summary/Review:

I watched Fourteen through a virtual screening for the Brattle Theatre, in Cambridge, MA. The movie focuses on two women in their twenties who have been friends since junior high school and retain that friendship as they set out on their individual life paths in Brooklyn.  Mara (Tallie Medel) is a  quietly competent and driven type working as a teacher’s assistant, studying for a graduate degree, and writing a novel in her spare time.  Jo (Norma Kuhling) appears more relaxed, has an acerbic wit, and works as social worker.  It becomes clear early on that Mara is a caretaker, doing things like making sure that Jo isn’t chronically late for work, while Jo makes Mara push her own boundaries.

The movie is impressionist in style, showing short scenes of the two women alone and together over a decade or so.  They cycle through boyfriends, jobs, and apartments with some cathartic moments thrown into the mundanity of everyday life.  Over time, the two women grow apart albeit with no great precipitating event although the challenges to their relationship are evident from the start.  Jo also begins a downward spiral into depression, anxiety, and substance abuse.

Fourteen is a very honest and realistic depiction of life and relationships done with excellent writing, direction, editing, and acting.

Rating: ***1/2

Movie Review: Taxi Driver (1976)


TitleTaxi Driver
Release Date: February 8, 1976
Director: Martin Scorsese
Production Company: Bill/Phillips Productions | Italo/Judeo Productions
Summary/Review:

Taxi Driver is one of those movies constantly marinating in the ether of popular culture, but another one I’d never watched before.  It wasn’t quite what expected, at least the first half of the movie had some surprises.  I knew that Robert DeNiro starred as a taxi driver named Travis Bickle who becomes obsessed with protecting a child prostitute, Iris, played by Jodie Foster.  I also knew that in the twisted mind of John Hinkley, this movie played a part in his plan to assassinate Ronald Reagan.

I didn’t know that this movie also starred Cybill Shepherd, Albert Brooks, and Peter Boyle.  Shepherd plays Betsy who is a campaign worker for a presidential candidate, and Brooks is her very funny co-worker.  Bickle initially becomes obsessed with Betsy and the first half of the movie shows his extremely awkward and uncomfortable attempts to date her. Boyle plays Wizard, a fellow cab driver who attempts to mentor Bickle but fails to have any influence.

It’s only after being rejected by Betsy that Bickle begins his obsession with Iris, and Jody Foster only appears in a small part of the movie (albeit a brilliant acting performance, especially for a 12-year-old). Bickle stocks up on weapons and trains to both assassinate the presidential candidate and kill Iris’ pimp, Sport (Harvey Keitel).  It’s extremely disturbing and the final scenes where Bickle goes on a murderous rampage are gory but glamorized violence. The movie reflects the white moral panic of the 1970s when the victims of disinvestment and poverty in cities like New York were blamed for the degeneracy.  It also foreshadows the rise of MRA/incel ideologies with Bickle the prototype of men who feel that rejection by women gives them license to carry out unspeakable murder.

There is nothing technically wrong with this movie.  The acting, especially by DeNiro and Foster, is terrific.  The cinematography is stunning with many shots that are instantly iconic.  The musical score by Bernard Herrmann is both brilliant and disconcerting.  I can even admit that this movie depicts accurately the way a person like Bickle acts and thinks.  Nevertheless, I absolutely hate this movie and never want to watch it again.

Rating: *** (to be honest I don’t know how I can rate this movie at all, so I’m just giving it the standard ***)

Movie Review: Quick Change (1990) #atozchallenge


I’m participating in the Blogging from A to Z Challenge by watching and reviewing some of my favorite movies of all time that I haven’t watched in a long time. This post contains SPOILERS!

TitleQuick Change
Release Date: July 13, 1990
Director: Howard Franklin and Bill Murray
Production Company: Devoted Productions
Synopsis:

There are not a lot of Q movies out there, much less ones I want to watch again, but here’s one I enjoyed 30 years ago.

Dressed as a clown, Grimm (Bill Murray) robs a midtown Manhattan bank, holding the staff and customers hostage in the vault.  While negotiating with police Chief Walt Rotzinger (Jason Robards), Grimm makes ludicrous demands in exchange for hostages.  As the demands are fulfilled he releases his lifelong friend Loomis (Randy Quaid) and girlfriend Phyllis (Geena Davis), as well as himself (sans clown costume).  While the police are distracted by the seeming ongoing hostage situation in the bank, the trio slip off with cash taped beneath their clothing.

The heist goes without a hitch, but their efforts to get to the airport to fly out of the country are met with increasingly ludicrous obstacles.  They get lost in Queens, get robbed by a Yuppie conman, lose their car, ride in a cab with a driver who knows no English, accidentally walk in on a Mafia operation, and deal with an anal bus driver who gets them within walking distance of the airport.  They finally make their flight, but Rotzinger boards to make an arrest, only to take away an obnoxious passenger who is a notorious Mafia boss.

When Did I First See This Movie?:

I saw this with my sister when it first came out, probably because we both like Bill Murray.  I remember thing it was outrageously funny and surprised that the movie seemed to vanish from the theaters and no one else I knew saw it.

What Did I Remember?:

I remember the clown bank robbery and Geena Davis wiping off a bit of white makeup that Bill Murray missed, getting lost in Queens, the Latin people jousting on bicycles, and the eerie empty streets they walk through near the airport before boarding the baggage train.

What Did I Forget?:

I forgot about the whole mafia subplot, the visit to Phyllis’ old apartment where they run into Phil Hartman, the cab driver, and the bus ride.

What Makes This Movie Great?:

There are moments of inspired comedy in this film, with Bill Murray robbing the bank and negotiating for hostages being the part that holds up the best.  It’s also very funny when Murray talks himself through the encounter with the mafia, and even makes up with some more money.

What Doesn’t Hold Up?:

This movie is cynical and angry and built around the idea that New York City is an awful place, something I’ve never believed in, so I don’t know why I thought it was so funny 30 years ago.  A lot of what the characters hate about New York seems to involve people with darker skin and different accents, which is more than a little bit racist.  A lot of the gags fall flat.  The relationship between Murray and Davis is not believable and they have no chemistry.  And Quaid’s character, despite his best efforts, is a one-note “dumb guy” that ceases to be funny after too much repetition.

Is It a Classic?:

No, not at all.

Rating: **1/2

One other all-time favorite movie starting with Q:

  1. Quest: A Portrait of an American Family (2017)

What is your favorite movie starting with the letter Q?  What is your guess for my movie starting with R (Hint: The film score is by the same composer as another of my favorite R movies, The Right Stuff)?  Let me know in the comments!

Movie Review: King Kong (1933) #atozchallenge


I’m participating in the Blogging from A to Z Challenge by watching and reviewing some of my favorite movies of all time that I haven’t watched in a long time. This post contains SPOILERS!

Title: King Kong
Release Date: April 7, 1933
Director: Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack
Production Company: Radio Pictures
Synopsis:

Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) is a Hollywood filmmaker who films on location in remote wilderness settings. He’s been told by his producers he needs to cast a woman in his next picture but no casting agent will allow any of their actresses to go on a long, possibly dangerous journey.  The night before setting sail, Denham finds the down-on-her-luck Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) and decides she will be perfect for the film.  On their ship journey halfway around the world, Ann develops a romance with the first mate, Jack Driscoll (Bruce Cabot).

Denham leads the ship to a unchartered island near Sumatra he’d heard of from a Norwegian captain. On the island they interrupt the indigenous people carrying out a ceremonial sacrifice of a young woman as “bride of Kong.” The chief is intrigued by Ann but she and the crew return to the ship.  Later the native people abduct Ann and sacrifice her to Kong, a giant gorilla.

Denham, Driscoll, and many sailors follow in pursuit. Kong kills off most of the men while also defending Ann from various dinosaurs and a pterodactyl.  Eventually Driscoll is able to bring Ann to safety while Denham subdues Kong with gas bombs.  Denham decides to bring Kong to display in New York, promising everyone they will be millionaires.

A few months later, Kong debuts on Broadway, and pretty much immediately escapes into the city.  He once again takes Ann and fights off various people who try to stop him (and perhaps his only real jerk-move is derailing an elevated train for no apparent reason).  He climbs to the top of the Empire State Building for safety, but there he is shot down by army biplanes and falls to his death.

When Did I First See This Movie?:

Kong and I go way back.  One day when I was a toddler, I wanted to go shopping with my mother and grandmother, but they made me stay home with my father.  I fell asleep mid-tantrum.  Meanwhile, my mother felt guilty and decided to bring home a gift – a foot high, plastic, King Kong piggy bank.  She placed it right near my head so I would see it when I woke up, expecting delight, but instead hearing my terrified screams!

Nevertheless, that King Kong would be one of my favorite toys for years to come.  Whenever I built New York City’s skyscrapers with my wooden blocks, I placed King Kong on the Empire State Building.  I also remember a giant, inflatable King Kong on the real Empire State Building in 1983 for the movie’s 50th anniversary. I can’t remember the first time I watched the original King Kong, but I know I saw the 1976 remake first, on tv sometime in the early 80s.

WOR in New York had a tradition of showing King Kong, Son of Kong, and Mighty Joe Young on Thanksgiving afternoon and we watched them all for several years running.  In 2005, I enjoyed a two-theater, two-city double feature where I watched the original King Kong (1933) at the Brattle Theater in Cambridge and then hopped on my bike and rode to the Somerville Theater in Davis Square and saw Peter Jackson’s new remake of King Kong .

What Did I Remember?:

This movie has the simplest of plots so it’s hard to forget much.

What Did I Forget?:

Nevertheless, I forgot how much of the movie is on Skull Island.  Only the last 20 minutes take place in New York.  I think the remakes have conditioned me to have a greater balance of the locations.

What Makes This Movie Great?:

This movie was a technical marvel when it was released, and even if the special effects look “unrealistic” by today’s standards, you have to admire the imagination and artistry that went into them. The final scene where Kong bats at biplanes from his perch at the top of the Empire State Building is still breathtaking.  And it is heartbreaking when Kong is shot and falls to his death.

I have always hated the final line, “It was beauty who killed the beast!” No, Denham, you jerk, it was you who took this animal from its home, chained him up and put it on display, and then called on airplanes to shoot it down when he got away.

What Doesn’t Hold Up?:

Where do we start?  The movie is full of racial stereotypes from the Chinese ship cook to the “natives” on Skull Island.  And why is an island in the Southeast Asia or Oceania region populated with people who look African?  The depiction of gender isn’t any better.  Sure you can say that the patriarchal behavior of the men in the film is an accurate depiction of men of the time, but the scriptwriter also decided that most of Fay Wray’s dialogue would be “Aaah!” Finally, there’s a lot of cruelty to (imaginary) animals in this film.  It’s no wonder that King Kong remakes have made Kong more sympathetic and the women stronger characters.

Is It a Classic?:

As a pure adventure/horror film with iconic moments, it is clearly a classic, but be ready for all the baggage that comes with it.

Rating: ****

I don’t have any other K movies to recommend unless you want to watch King Kong (1976) and King Kong (2005). Get your guesses in for my movie starting with L in the comments. (Hint: it is based on a romantic debut novel that became a huge bestseller).

Documentary Movie Review: Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child #atozchallenge


This is my entry for “J” in the Blogging A to Z Challenge. Throughout April I will be watching and reviewing a documentary movie from A to Z. Other “J” documentaries I’ve reviewed include Jane and Jiro Dreams of Sushi.

Title: Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child
Release Date: July 21, 2010
Director: Tamra Davis
Production Company: Curiously Bright Entertainment | LM Media GmbH | Fortissimo Films
Summary/Review:

The Boston Museum of Fine Arts recently opened an exhibit on the work of Jean-Michel Basquiat, but since no one will be visiting any museums for some time, I decided to learn about Basquiat through this movie.  The movie includes archival film and photographs from Basquiat’s life (including a never-before-seen interview filmed by a close friend) as well as interviews with friends and art experts.  Basquiat, who was a handsome young man with a disarming smile, grew up in Brooklyn but left home in the late 1970s at the age of 18 to join the large circle of fine artists, musicians, dancers, performers, and filmmakers who lived, worked, and played in the (then affordable) Lower Manhattan.

Basquiat first attracts attention for his graffiti tags which include social commentary in poetic language. Within two years of arriving in Lower Manhattan, Basquiat had his own studio and gained considerable fame and money for his art.  Basquiat is presented as a polymath who draws on many influences from Davinci to Bebop to whatever is on tv.  He’s also a very disciplined in working on his art and is ambitious to be recognized as the greatest living artist.  He forms a close friendship with Andy Warhol and is something of a successor to Warhol.

Unfortunately, sudden fame and wealth come with its costs.  Basquiat has to deal with many hangers-on and the paranoia and loneliness that come from not being able to trust anyone.  He begins using hard drugs.  And despite the recognition he does get, Basquiat is frustrated that highest echelons of the art world racistly dismiss him as a “primative” artists.

I found a lot of parrellels in Basquait’s life to Amy Winehouse in the documentary Amy (although this documentary is more well-done than Amy).  And like Amy Winehouse, Jean-Michel Basquiat died at the age of 27, leaving behind a mindboggling body of work (1000+ paintings and 1000+ drawings) for his few years. I didn’t know anything about Basquiat before watching this movie, but I was glad to get the opportunity to learn about him and his thought-provoking art.

Rating: ****