Movie Review: Being There (1979)


Title: Being There
Release Date: December 19, 1979
Director: Hal Ashby
Production Company: Lorimar Productions
Summary/Review:

This is a movie that I know I watched sometime back in the 1980s but had next to know recollection about what happens in it.  In fact, I read the Jerzy Kosiński book it is based on in the 1990s and don’t remember that either!  So it was essentially like coming to this movie anew.

Peter Sellers stars (in his last film released before his death) as a simple-minded gardener named Chance.  I think if this movie was made at a later date they would probably identify him as being on the autism spectrum. His background is a bit of a mystery as he has lived his entire life on the grounds of a Washington, D.C. mansion and no one seems to know he exists beyond his benefactor and the maid, Louise (Ruth Attaway). With such little interaction with other people Chance spends his free time obsessively watching television.  As an aside, this movie makes great use of clips from 1970s television shows and advertisements that comment on the action of the film.

When “the old man” dies, Chance is forced out on his own.  Through a series of mishaps he becomes enmeshed in the lives of the wealthy and powerful Ben Rand (Melvyn Douglas) and his younger wife Eve (Shirley MacLaine).  Chance’s comments on gardening are mistaken as an optimistic philosophy on business and the economy.  Ben, who is terminally ill, finds comfort in Chance’s companionship, while Eve falls in love with Ben.  As a result of his connection with the Rands, Chance is able to meet the President (Jack Warden), appear on a TV talk show, and attend a state dinner with the Soviet ambassador (Richard Basehart).

The movie is a product of the cynical 70s with the power brokers of Washington all projecting their desires onto Chance.  It also pokes fun at how easy it is for a well-dressed white man to “fail up.” But there’s also a sweetness to the movie, especially in the quick but real bond that forms between Chance and Ben.  The movie succeeds on the impressive performance of Sellers who really immersed himself in the role, finding that he identified strongly with Chance. The movie is beautifully shot, with Sellers appearing in the foreground of the Capitol building and in the Rand’s mansion (filmed at the Biltmore Estate in North Carolina) being particularly iconic.  This is a movie worth remembering.

Rating: ****

Movie Review: The Gods Must Be Crazy (1980)


Title: The Gods Must Be Crazy
Release Date:  10 September 1980
Director: Jamie Uys
Production Company: C.A.T. Films
Summary/Review:

The Gods Must Be Crazy was one of my favorite movies when I was young, starting at the age of 10 when I first saw it on the big screen. There was a notorious XXX theater in the downtown of my hometown, but I guess gentrification arrived in 1984 and it reopened as an art house cinema.  The first time I entered that theater was to see The Gods Must Be Crazy and it felt very cosmopolitan to watch a movie made in Africa at an art house cinema.  I then watched it many, many more times on tv and video.

Before I start the review, I should note that there are some problematic elements of The Gods Must Be Crazy. First, it was partially filmed and funded in South Africa without ever mentioning apartheid or any indication of racial inequality (I noticed on this watch that they mention “Botswana” multiple times, but never say “South Africa”). Second, it deals with the San people (or the “Bushmen” as they’re called in the movie) in a condescending manner, depicting them as an isolated tribe of hunter-gatherers which wasn’t at all true to life at the time the film was made.  With that said, this is one of the first movies made in sub-Saharan Africa to become a worldwide hit and succeeds due to a brilliant combination of mockumentary with political satire, romantic comedy, and straight-up slapstick.

The mockumentary part deals with Xi (Nǃxau ǂToma), a member of a San tribe who finds a glass bottle that’s initially thought to be a useful thing, but as there is only one it begins to sow jealousy and division among the family.  They determine the bottle is an evil thing an Xi is tasked with carrying the bottle to “the end of the world” to return it to the gods.  The scenes with the San are narrated documentary-style with a professorial, anthropological tone by Paddy O’Byrne.

But then the same narration is used to describe scenes of “civilized” people in a big city (which I assume is Johannesburg) to hilarious effect. Which introduces the next thread of the film, Kate Thompson (Sandra Prinsloo), a woman decides to become a teacher in a rural village. She is given a lift by a biologist, Andrew Steyn (Marius Weyers), who is extremely awkward around women.  Their pairing provides the romcom and a lot of the slapstick.  Finally, a revolutionary, Sam Boga (Louw Verwey), goes on the run with his soldiers through Botswana after failing to assassinate the President of a fictional neighboring nation.  All of these threads come together in a genuinely funny way.

Rating: ****

Movie Review: But I’m a Cheerleader (2000)


TitleBut I’m a Cheerleader
Release Date: July 7, 2000
Director: Jamie Babbit
Production Company: Ignite Entertainment | The Kushner-Locke Company
Summary/Review:

High school cheerleader Megan (Natasha Lyonne) is stunned when her parents and friend consider her behavior to be “abnormal” and stage an intervention. Megan is sent to True Directions, a conversion therapy camp to be “cured” of her homosexuality.  In the draconian setting of True Directions among other teenagers being trained to be heterosexual, Megan instead finds acceptance and even romance with her fellow campers, especially Graham (Clea Duvall).

Conversion therapy seems like an uncomfortable topic to make a comedy about, especially since in the 20 years since this movie was made the cruelty and trauma of this practice is more widely known.  This film is undoubtedly a satire, and a blunt one with the bright pink and blue colors of True Directions emphasizing strict traditional gender roles as well as heterosexuality.  But the movie is also very sweet, with the romance of Megan and Graham played very well.  Some of the supporting characters are broad gay stereotypes, especially the boys, but Lyonne and Duvall are excellent in the lead roles.  The humor is hit and miss but overall this is a pretty good film.

Rating: ***

Movie Review: Hollywood Shuffle (1987)


Title: Hollywood Shuffle
Release Date: March 20, 1987
Director: Robert Townsend
Production Company: Conquering Unicorn
Summary/Review:

Hollywood Shuffle is a comedy that satirizes the institutional racism of the motion picture industry that limits roles for Black actors to gang members, servants, and enslaved people.  Robert Townsend directed and stars in the film and co-wrote the script with Keenen Ivory Wayans.  I remember at the time that Townsend was considered part of a much-publicized “trend” of Black directors making a mark in movies along with Matty Rich, John Singleton, and, of course, Spike Lee.  Townsend plays Bobby, an aspiring actor who gets a role in a stereotypical gang-related movie and has to choose between potentially advancing his career or standing up for more positive representation of the Black community.

The rather earnest main plot is punctuated by Bobby’s daydreams that play out as skits.  The style is very similar to Wayan’s sketch comedy show In Living Color, which debuted a few years later.  While the topics are still sadly relevant, some of the gags feel dated now,and the message of the film is by jokes based on homophobic and misogynist stereotypes. The sketches can run a bit long too.  But overall Townsend has his heart in the right place and this is a movie that needed to be seen in 1987, so I’m glad it became a hit.

Rating: ***

Classic Movie Review: Nashville (1975)


Title: Nashville
Release Date: June 11, 1975
Director: Robert Altman
Production Company: ABC Motion Pictures
Summary/Review:

I can’t say that I’ve ever seen a movie quite like Nashville.  Even with the trademarks of a Robert Altman film – large ensemble casts and overlapping dialogue – there’s still something ineffable about this film I haven’t seen before.  The general story involves the lives of several musicians, aspiring musicians, music biz people, political campaigners, and hangers-on on Nashville over a period of several days.  The movie isn’t exactly plotless, as it does have a story to tell, but the plot is slow and messy not unlike real life.

Nashville is more of a character study of the 24 people in the movie with an underlying focus on celebrity culture.  I’m glad this movie was made in Nashville instead of Los Angeles or New York.  As a country music hub, Nashville is probably unique in that it has a strong celebrity culture while also being small enough where everyone keeps ending up in the same places.  Or at least it was in the 1970s, as Nashville has grown in population in the intervening decades.

The film is full of musical performances, and interestingly the actors were tasked with writing their own songs and filming them in live concert settings.  I don’t know much about country music, but honestly a lot of these songs sound like they could’ve been standards, so the soundtrack is worth seeking out.  The movie also has political undertones in that a third-party candidate,  Hal Phillip Walker (voiced by Thomas Hal Phillips) is campaigning in Nashville with a car traveling around the city reading his platform promises as a throughline through the film. The final scene is also set at a political rally (more on that below with a huge spoiler warning).

Among the cast, the standout performances include:

  • Lily Tomlin as Linnea Reese, a singer in a gospel choir who is raising two deaf children and is in an unhappy marriage with Delbert Reese (Ned Beatty) a lawyer in the music business and organizer for the Walker campaign.  Linnea is by far the most fully-realized character and surprisingly this is Tomlin’s first movie role after years in television.
  • Ronee Blakely as Barbara Jean, who is kind of the “sweetheart” star of country music who is in and out of hospitals with mental health issues.
  • Karen Black as Connie White, another top female vocalist in the country scene who is set up as the rival to Barbara Jean.
  • Henry Gibson as Haven Hamilton, a male country star who represents the Nashville old guard.
  • Keith Carradine, a younger folk rock star who is party of a trio with a married couple, Bill and Mary (Allan F. Nichols and Cristina Raines) but wants to go solo.  He also is Lothario who tries to use his charm and vulnerable persona to coax women into bed with him, including Linnea.
  • Gwen Welles as Sueleen Gay, a young woman eager to get into the music business despite the fact that she sings off-key. Men take advantage of her ambition to give her opportunities to perform where she’s objectified for her beauty.
  • Geraldine Chaplin (Charlie’s daughter) as a BBC radio reporter who is doing a story on Nashville who inserts herself into many scenes and blurts out the most loathsome things.
  • The movie also features a baby-faced Scott Glenn in a small role as a Vietnam vet who is a big fan of Barbara Jean and the equally youthful Jeff Goldblum in a part where he never speaks but frequently appears around town on a motorized tricycle.

Even though I read a summary of the movie and knew what was coming, the end of the movie is still quite a shocker. (HERE COME THE SPOILERS) A disturbed loner we see throughout the movie (David Hayward) shoots and presumably kills Barbara Jean when she’s performing before a political rally. What happens next, beggars belief.  Instead of people clearing the area, they stay together and sing.  This is for a big twist in the film because a straggly aspiring singer named Albuquerque (Barbara Harris) is able to take the mic and prove that she’s actually talented despite appearances. But I also recalled that after the University of Texas tower massacre in 1966 that the school never canceled any classes. So the idea that people would want to go on with what they’re doing despite the violent attack seems true to the time.

Nashville is a long movie, and at times slow-going and just a bit too much.  Nevertheless, it is artfully crafted and undeniably a great film.  I’m glad I had the time to watch it.

Rating: ****

Movie Review: Putney Swope (1969)


Title: Putney Swope
Release Date: July 10, 1969
Director: Robert Downey Sr.
Production Company: Herald Productions
Summary/Review:

This independent satirical film from 1969 feels way ahead of its time but also incredibly dated in the way it deals with racial prejudice and sexual matters, not to mention its frequent deployment of profanity and nudity.  After the death of the chairman of the board at New York City advertising firm, the board votes for a new leader with almost every member strategically selecting the board’s token Black member, Putney Swope since they can’t vote for themselves.  Arnold Johnson portrays Swope, but his bizarre gravely voice is dubbed by the director Robert Downey, Sr. which immediately brings to mind the use of “white voice” in Sorry To Bother You.

The plot, as much as there is one, involves Swope firing all the white employees (except for a few tokens who are made to ride the freight elevator), replacing them with Black people and renaming the firm as Truth and Soul. Swope becomes more corrupt, firing employees wily-nily as he steals their ideas, eventually becoming a Fidel Castro-like tyrant. Meanwhile the U.S. President (played by a little person named Pepi Hermine) begins to maneuver against Truth and Soul as a threat to national security.  All of this is intercut with the extremely surreal commercials created by the firm which are in full color while the rest of the movie is in black & white.

The movie is most interesting as an artifact of 1960s counterculture than anything that is rewarding to watch for entertainment or insight. The movie was clearly made by and for people using recreational drugs and watching this movie while sober means most of the jokes fell flat for me.  Advertising is an easy target for parody and most of the jokes are more just raucous thumbing the nose at authority than anything insightful. Putney Swope was made about halfway between two great Hollywood satire films, Dr. Strangelove and Network, and it has elements of each.  But I find it is more of a forerunner for scattershot spoof movies of the 1970s like The Groove Tube and Kentucky Fried Movie.

Rating: **

Movie Review: Sorry to Bother You (2018)


Title: Sorry to Bother You
Release Date:  July 6, 2018
Director: Boots Riley
Production Company: Significant Productions | MNM Creative | MACRO | Cinereach | The Space Program | Annapurna Pictures
Summary/Review:

Cassius “Cash” Green (Lakeith Stanfield) is a young man, down on his luck, and going through an existential crisis when he starts a job at a telemarketing company.  He learns that to make successful sales he has to use a “white voice” (ironically, his managers always talk in “Black voice” when pumping up the employees in meetings).  Soon he’s promoted to the Power Caller department where he makes a fortune selling unethical products and services at the same time his friends and coworkers from the lower floors are organizing a strike. Underlying everything is the growth of a new company called WorryFree that provides cheap labor by signing people to lifetime contracts and housing them in factories (which opponents call slave labor).

The movie has a stellar cast supporting Stanfield. Tessa Thompson plays his girlfriend Detroit, who is a performance artist and underground activist. Steven Yuen is a labor organizer named Squeeze. And Omari Hardwick plays the mysterious Mr. _____, Cash’s Power Caller manager.  Danny Glover and Forest Whitaker also appear in small roles, and Rosario Dawson performs a voice.

I was not prepared for this movie.  I went in expecting a satirical comedy more than anything else but ended up feeling more disturbed than anything else.  Granted, this movie is supposed to be disturbing, but I wasn’t expecting creepiness approaching Get Out levels.  And that was before the scenes of full-on body horror!  I also felt the movie had too many targets.  While the satire of the corporate world and capitalist exploitation works, I felt the gags about online memes, reality tv, and performance art fell flat.  Still this is a good first film for Boots Riley and I look forward to seeing what he’ll put out next.  Oh and the music by Riley’s band The Coup and tUnE-yArDs is perfect for this movie.

Rating: ***

Classic Movie Review: M*A*S*H (1970)


Title: M*A*S*H
Release Date: January 25, 1970
Director: Robert Altman
Production Company: Aspen Productions | Ingo Preminger Productions
Summary/Review:

My mom was a fan of the tv series M*A*S*H so watching M*A*S*H was a big part of my childhood.  We could watch two old reruns every weeknight, while the new episodes on Monday night were the first show I was allowed to stay up past 9pm to watch. After the last episode of M*A*S*H was broadcast, one of our local stations showed the original movie.  As a 9-year-old, I wasn’t impressed with the movie. I liked Alan Alda and Mike Farrell a lot better than these guys I’d never heard of in the movie. I also found the movie to be very mean-spirited and was bored that so much of it took place at really stupid football game.

Revisiting the movie now as an adult, with an appreciation for Robert Altman as a director and the acting of Donald Sutherland and Elliott Gould, and knowing the context of the Vietnam War the movie was responding to, I figured I might like it better.  I did not.  The movie is angry and mean-spirited and really none of the jokes land for me.  And the whole football plot lasts for about 30 minutes, so it is 1/4th of the movie’s runtime.

In the context of the counterculture/antiwar movement, I guess the anti-authoritarian antics of Hawkeye Pierce (Sutherland), Duke Forrest (Tom Skerritt), and Trapper John McIntyre (Gould) may have been appealing. But they’re not resisting the system so much as doing whatever they want and letting other people clean up their messes (and rushing through surgery in order to play golf is the antithesis of counterculture). M*A*S*H  is described as an anti-war film but I don’t see it actually opposing war.  Instead it falls more into the tradition going back to at least to World War II of veterans creating popular entertainment that lampoons the ineptitude of the military, but not questioning the nation’s militaristic goals (this tradition includes Hiester Richard Hornberger Jr., the politically conservative veteran who authored the book MASH: A Novel About Three Army Doctors under the name Richard Hooker).

But the worst part of the movie is its mistreatment of women. In one of the film’s most harrowing scenes, the Swamp men make a bet regarding whether Major Margaret Houlihan (Sally Kellerman) is a natural blonde.  They set up chairs around the shower tent and watch as the canvas is lifted to expose her naked body. Kellerman’s performance captures rage, terror, and humiliation and I can’t imagine how anyone can watch it and not be on her side.  One could argue that Altman was simply reflecting an accurate depiction of how women were (and continue to be) abused in the military. But everything in the context of the film says that Houlihan is a regular Army stuffed shirt and a “bitch” who deserves her punishment and we should be laughing at her.

The Sexual Revolution that was occuring at the time this film was released brought many positive changes.  But within patriarchal thinking, sexual liberation was interpreted that women should always be sexually available to men. This attitude is prevalent in this movie which served as a progenitor to the raunchy comedies of the 70s and 80s. From Animal House to Caddyshack to Revenge of the Nerds, we see again and again that “sticking it to the Man” is accomplished by humiliating and sexually abusing women.

My feeling is that in 1970, M*A*S*H was one of the first Hollywood films to caustically lampoon the military, mock religious devotion, drop an f-bomb, and talk openly about sex. It must’ve seemed refreshing for audiences at the time to see something they’ve never seen before.  Over 50 years later, we’ve had films that addressed all of these issues in ways that are far less problematic and often in ways that actually make me laugh. M*A*S*H  will be remembered for launching the careers of Altman, Sutherland, and Gould, as well as spawning one of the most beloved tv comedy series of all-time.  But the film itself doesn’t deserve its spot on the AFI 100 or any great movies list.

Rating: **

Classic Movie Review: The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) #AtoZChallenge



#AtoZChallenge 2021 April Blogging from A to Z Challenge letter L

Welcome to the Panorama of the Mountains Blogging A to Z Challenge. This year I’m watching and reviewing movies from A-to-Z based on my ongoing Classic Movie Project. Most movies will be featured on one or more of three lists: AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movies (USA), The Sight & Sound Greatest Films of All Time (UK), and Cahiers du Cinéma Greatest Films of All Time (France). In some cases, I will be very creative in assigning a Classic Movie to a letter of the alphabet, and in a few cases the movie I watch will not be Classic Movies at all.

Title: The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp
Release Date:
10 June 1943
Director:
Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
Production Company:
The Archers
Summary/Review:

This is a movie I’d never even heard of before I started working on lists of classic movies.  The title amuses me, partly because “blimp” is an inherently funny word, but also because in America the word refers to an airship, although I don’t that word is in use in Great Britain.  From some lazy internet research, I’ve learned that “Colonel Blimp” was a British comic strip satirizing the military elite.  There is actually no character in this movie named Blimp, although the main character, Clive Wynne-Candy (Roger Livesy), matches the image of the rotund, walrus-moustached comic strip caricature.

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp joins in the trend of Allied Powers in World War II producing epic historical dramas at the same time their countries are being bombed and/or invaded by Nazi Germany (France’s Children of Paradise and Russia’s Ivan the Terrible are previously reviewed films of this genre). This film alone actually deals with the present-day issues of World War II, beginning with a prologue about British soldiers beginning a mock war as part of training exercises.  Despite being informed that “War starts at midnight!,” the leader of the troop decides that the Nazis would never follow the rules of a start time, and decides to “invade” London and captures Major-General Candy in a Turkish bath.

The outrage of Candy’s embarrassment leads to a series of flashbacks that detail his history and ideology in the British military.  The first is set in 1902 when Candy has just returned from the Boer War and rashly travels to Berlin to counter anti-British propaganda by the Germans.  The next segment is set in the final days of The Great War and its aftermath.  The final flashback is set during the early days of World War II, where Candy is retired from the regular army based on his outdated views, but then appointed to lead the Home Guard.  Which leads back to the “present day” scenes of the prologue.

The movie has several plotlines tying everything together.  One is Candy’s long-time friendship with the German officer Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff (Anton Walbrook), whom he initially meets in a duel.  Another plot deals with Candy’s relationship with three women, all played by Deborah Kerr (later to appear in An Affair to Remember): Edith Hunter, who Candy realizes he loves after she marries Theo; Barbara Wynne, a WWI nurse that Candy marries; and Johnny Cannon, Candy’s driver when he’s leading the Home Guard.  The movie also deals with the erosion of the ideas of honor and rules among the European military elite, and idea also explored in The Bridge on River Kwai’s Colonel Nicholson. There’s propaganda in this movie too, as characters flat out lie and say the British did not commit atrocities in the Boer War or World War I.

The movie starts out very strange as a series of really awkward attempts at satirical madcap comedy.  But it’s worth sticking it out as the movie deliberately uncovers the human Candy underneath the “Colonel Blimp” caricature.  The movie never loses its sense of humor, but definitely becomes less silly over time.

Rating: ***

Classic Movie Review: The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) #AtoZChallenge



#AtoZChallenge 2021 April Blogging from A to Z Challenge letter B

Welcome to the Panorama of the Mountains Blogging A to Z Challenge. This year I’m watching and reviewing movies from A-to-Z based on my ongoing Classic Movie Project. Most movies will be featured on one or more of three lists: AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movies (USA), The Sight & Sound Greatest Films of All Time (UK), and Cahiers du Cinéma Greatest Films of All Time (France). In some cases, I will be very creative in assigning a Classic Movie to a letter of the alphabet, and in a few cases the movie I watch will not be Classic Movies at all.

Title: The Bridge on the River Kwai
Release Date: October 2, 1957
Director: David Lean
Production Company: Horizon Pictures
Summary/Review:

The Bridge on the River Kwai may be one of the first classic movies I watched and enjoyed as a child. It was either this or The African Queen.  Oddly enough, both movie have in common people traveling down a river to blow something up and leeches.  I watched Kwai numerous times in my youth and into my young adulthood, but I was returning to it after many decades.

The movie, for the most part, part holds up very well.  It has many iconic moments.  The English POWs marching into camp whistling the “Colonel Bogey March” (which I only just learned that during WWII was given parody lyrics and was sung as “Hitler Has Only Got One Ball“), English Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness) standing off against the Japanese camp director Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa), Nicholson staggering out of the punishment box, and the whole final sequence which I found extremely satisfying after all the build up. William Holden (who keeps appearing in these classic movies) plays the token American who escapes the camp only to return as part of team of commandos, and he represents the audience as the person who recognizes the absurdity of the situation.

When I watched this when I was younger, I took at face value, so watching it this time I really noticed how the movie is deeply satirical, with dark and absurdist humor, and an anti-war movie.  The final word of the film is “Madness!” and the entire film is an examination of madness, or perhaps more accurately, monomaniacal behavior, as exhibited by Nicholson, Saito, and commando leader Major Warden (Jack Hawkins).  What makes this movie work is that in some ways, each of these three “mad” characters does have a good point.  Saito is correct when is says that there are no rules in war.  Nicholson is right that giving the POWs a sense of purpose by building the bridge leads to better morale and health, and Warden is right that they need to destroy the bridge.  The moral quandary is how far they are willing to go to pursue these goals.  The real “madness” is the war itself, which pushes them to the edge.

Rating: ****1/2