This is a blog which primarily gives some attention to movies that I find were overlooked (for whatever reason) or are simply underrated. I also comment on other, mainly movie-related issues as well. I welcome any suggestions for films to be added to this distinguished list.

One word of warning: The films listed below contain spoilers, so caution during reading is required.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Shoot the Moon (1982)

"Do I look like a hooker?"
"No, you look beautiful. You don't look anything like a hooker."
"See, I don't look anything like a hooker. What's a hooker?"
-Molly and Faith Dunlap.

Alan Parker was on a roll going into the 1980s with the back-to-back successes of Midnight Express (1978) and Fame (1980). Shoot the Moon was his followup project, but it didn't get as much attention, although Albert Finney and Diane Keaton both won deserved Golden Globe nominations for their performances.
George Dunlap (Finney) is a writer who, as the film opens, has just won a prestigeous writing award for his recent novel. However, the bliss he shares with his wife Faith (Keaton) and their daughters Sherry (Dana Hill), Jill (Viveka Davis), Marianne (Tracey Gold), and Molly (Tina Yothers) is simply a front for the breakup of his marriage, which occurs barely a day after George's win with him leaving their home.
Sherry is the first of the children to realize that her father has a mistress, single mother Sandy (Karen Allen). Once he leaves Faith, Sherry is the only one of the four girls who wants nothing more to do with her father. When he picks them up to take them to school, she takes the bus instead without even greeting him. She is also the only one who is not seen with Sandy, even though her sisters enjoy her company. Sherry also helps out Faith as much as she can, even going so far as to cook breakfast for all of them.
As the weeks pass, Faith eventually meets Frank (Peter Weller), a carpenter who arrives to remind her of the work order for building a tennis court which she made over a year earlier. The separation, however, has left Faith without sufficient money to pay for such a project, which prompts Frank to do it for her out of sympathy. This sympathy eventually leads to a romance between the two.
It is here where the dramatic fireworks of the film begin. George becomes jealous once he sees that Faith is attached to someone else. He also becomes more and more frustrated with Sherry's attitude toward him. This reaches the point where he arrives at his former home and demands she accept a birthday present (a typewriter). When Sherry still refuses, he forces himself into her room and spanks her.
Ironically, Sherry's view of George begins to change when, following the funeral of Faith's father (George Murdock), she catches her parents making love in a hotel room. Shortly afterward, she lashes out at Faith and Frank (even though she liked him fine before) and runs to Sandy's home to talk with her father. They basically reconcile on the dock near Sandy's beach home, where Sherry accepts her birthday gift.
However, this goodwill is shattered when George returns Sherry to her mother and proceeds to wreck the newly built tennis court with his car, scaring the hell out of the guests there in the process (I doubt it's a coincidence that the classic Rolling Stones song "Play With Fire" is playing in the background).
Frank then stops George by beating him up (understandable, but when looked at in another way-Robocop beating up Daddy Warbucks-this fight could not be more unfair). The final scene of the film is of George being comforted from his beating by all four of his girls and reaching a hand toward Faith, who's hovering over him.
What makes this film good is the jealous obsession George and Faith have on each other even though they are broken up, and even after they become involved with other people. The confrontations between the two are just as intense as Keaton's with Al Pacino in The Godfather Part II(1974). George clearly loves Sandy but can't easily let go of everything he's established with Faith. Faith, likewise, was the one who was hurt in the beginning, so she obviously misses George. Prior to their hotel love-making, they have an argument at a restaurant, which they both clearly enjoy.
Perhaps the scene stealer is Hill, whose great work as Sherry perfectly captures the anger and confusion of a child old enough to understand the concept of divorce and the impact divorce has on a family. Tragically, Hill died in 1996 at age 32 from a stroke brought on by complications from diabetes. Despite impressive voice over credits, her other noteworthy film role (sadly or not) was as Chevy Chase's daughter in National Lampoon's European Vacation (1985).
My guess-and this is only a guess-as to why this didn't make the same impression as Parker's two previous films is that people were more preoccupied with another great film from 1982 which focused (partially) on divorce-E.T.-The Extra-Terrestrial. That film was unique in that it was a coming of age story which just happened to have a science fiction angle to it. When you also take into account that E.T. was just one of many great science fiction films to be released in 1982(others, for the record, include Blade Runner, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, The Dark Crystal, The Secret of NIMH, Poltergeist, Tron, and The Thing), maybe it was inevitable that a low-budget, mundane gem as this just got lost in the shuffle.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (1980)

"You've come to the wrong place. Sleepy Hollow is about as exciting as fried mush. If it wasn't for the ghosts, there'd be nothing to say between hello and goodbye."
-Fritz Vanderhoof.

Washington Irving's classic short story The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, published in 1820, may have been the first American ghost story. The best-known film versions of the story are undoubtedly the Disney cartoon from 1949 and Tim Burton's Sleepy Hollow (1999).

Ironically, it's the Disney cartoon that's the most faithful to Irving's story. Like many others, this is the version which introduced me to the story, and Disney's depiction of the Headless Horseman rightfully became famous.

While the cartoon is great Halloween viewing, it is Burton's film that provides even more shocks, which is one reason is my favorite version of the story. Although Burton adds loving nods to the Disney version in the film, the story has quite a few departures from the Irving story. For instance, Ichabod Crane, played by Johnny Depp, is a policeman who doesn't believe in ghosts, rather than the superstitious school teacher of Irving and Disney. The Burton film also leaves no doubt that the Horseman is a supernatural force, whereas the Irving story suggests the possibility that the havoc is brought about by more human means.

In between those two versions came this TV-movie which appropriately aired on Halloween 1980 and, in a way, combines elements of both the Disney and Burton versions. Like Depp's Crane, Jeff Goldblum's Ichabod is a skeptic when it comes to matters of the supernatural. This film, however, has the same basic setup as Irving's story: Crane arrives at the town of Sleepy Hollow to begin his new teaching job. His attraction to beautiful Katrina Van Tassel (Meg Foster) angers muscular but pompous Brom Bones (Dick Butkus), which prompts him to plot driving Crane from Sleepy Hollow with the legend of the Headless Horseman.

Like Burton's film, though, there are a few liberties taken here. Irving's story and Disney's cartoon kept the Horseman's origins vague, whereas Burton's film drew up an elaborate tale of witchcraft and revenge to explain the Horseman. This film doesn't go into the Horseman's backstory either, but, like Burton's film, new characters are added, none of which, happily, are irksome.

Crane is attracted to Katina, but he also catches the eye of widowed Thelma Vanderhoof (Laura Campbell), whose son is one of Crane's students. Her father Fritz (John Sylvester White) meets up with Crane upon his arrival in Sleepy Hollow and informs him of the ghosts which are part of the town's folklore. Later on, he chastises Crane for destroying the garlic in his school (which are also his living quarters) which was meant to protect him from spirits. The school (which is appropriately small given the time period) is also inhabited by an owl which Vanderhoof says is the spirit of an Indian, one Chief Running Buffalo.

Crane later informs them of his sightings of a strange man (Michael Ruud), whom they inform him is Wintrop Palmer, Crane's predecessor whom Bones supposedly killed for his attraction to Katrina.

The latter half of the film deals with Crane beginning to slightly doubt his sanity, thanks mainly to tricks by Bones. He also declares his love for Katrina and Bones's plans to rid the town of him by disguising himself as the Horseman. Like Crane, Bones doesn't believe in the Horseman, which makes his reaction when he actually sees the Horseman at the film's climax rather amusing.

The Horseman himself is visually well-done, especially considering that CGI didn't exist in 1980. The story is really turned on its head when the Horseman pursues Bones and Crane, in turn, pursues the Horseman, thinking it's really Palmer (who earlier told Crane that he faked his death to plot revenge on Bones and the Horseman). Bones escapes and Crane ends his pursuit when he sees Palmer being taken into custody after Katrina and her father (James Griffith) find him.

Again like Depp's Crane, Goldblum's ends up with Katrina and, amusingly, Bones ends up with Thelma after she and her father find him in his Horseman disguise and blackmail him into a union so his reputation isn't ruined.

The great final shot of the film is the Horseman riding through the countryside. Perhaps more than the other versions, this one views the Horseman as the progenitor (of sorts) to future fiction boogeymen like Michael Myers: a supernatural force that just won't die!

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Noises Off (1992)*

"Like the band playing on as the Titanic sank."

-director Lloyd Fellowes.

Like Sidney Lumet's adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express (1974), this film has a cast & director that's a dream roll call. The director is Peter Bogdanovich, who, like William Friedkin, achieved great fame from the films he made in the 1970s but whose clout minimized in the decades since.

Happily, Bogdanovich has kept working, from directing underrated flicks such as The Cat's Meow (2001) to writing and directing documentaries on fellow filmmakers such as John Ford and Alfred Hitchcock.

This film, based on the 1982 play of the same name by Michael Frayn, is a play within a play.

Lloyd Fellowes (Michael Caine) is prepping his second-rate theater troupe for the opening night of the sexual farce Nothing On. His cast-fading star Dotty Otley (Carol Burnett), her pompous lover Garry Lejeune (John Ritter), insecure Frederick Dallas (Christopher Reeve), alcoholic Selsdon Mowbray (Denholm Elliott), optimistic Belinda Blair (Marilu Henner), and ditzy Brooke Ashton (Nicollete Sheridan), whom Fellowes has had an affair with-keeps forgetting their lines and cues, as well as mishandling the props.

Behind the curtain, Fellowes has to deal with the equally incompetent production assistant/understudy Tim Allgood (Mark Linn-Baker). With opening night approaching, Fellowes certainly has his work cut out for him, which isn't lessened when his stage manager Poppy Taylor (Julie Hagerty) informs him that she's pregnant with his child.

By the time opening night arrives, the crew more or less perform adequately, but their relationships with each other have deteriorated to the point where they practically try to kill each other when not onstage (in some cases, even when they are onstage). This makes their performance in Cleveland particularly unforgettable. As their scheduled performance in New York City approaches, Fellowes ends up simply begging for it all to be over.

Having never seen the original play, I can't say whether I agree with the critics who have said that this film version isn't up to par. What can't be denied, though, are the laughs that are generated by this dream cast.

*Thanks to Sarah for recommending I review this film.