Two if By Sea

Two if By Sea. Morgan Creek Productions 1996.

Before watching the movie:

I have never heard of this movie before deciding to watch it. I’m not entirely sure how it fits the romantic comedy beats if they’re already together, but a comedy about art thieves getting in over their heads, with Sandra Bullock, sounds very appealing. I’m not sure if I’ve encountered Denis Leary in a romantic comedy role before, but that doesn’t detract from my interest. I’m really not sure about Leary starring in a romantic comedy he co-wrote though, which sounds like it could go very poorly.

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Holiday Rewind: When Harry Met Sally

When Harry Met Sally. Castle Rock Entertainment 1989.

Being in a completely different chapter in my life than I was when I first watched When Harry Met Sally, I’m not sure if it will have the same effect on me now. This movie was a bit aspirational for me at the time, but now I’m more settled and have different life issues and resonances.

I don’t remember very many scenes outside of the two or three iconic moments, but I also remember the whole thing with the wagon wheel table, which was pretty irrelevant but left an impression for some reason.

Twelve years ago, Harry Burns caught a lift from Chicago to New York with his girlfriend’s best friend Sally Albright. The 18 hour drive did not go well, including when Harry suggests that men and women can’t be just friends because the man will always want to have sex. Seven years ago, Harry and Sally happened to share a flight. Harry suggested that, as they’re both in serious relationships now, they should become friends, but had to admit that his earlier statement stands. Two years ago, Sally and Harry ran into each other again, Harry freshly divorced from his wife who left him for another man, and Sally broken up with her man who didn’t share her life goals. Both clearly hurting, they hit it off and became what each other needed. They quickly fall into a relationship that’s almost a platonic life partnership. Both of them encouraging each other to get back out into the dating scene, they try to set each other up with their best friends Jess and Marie, who instead fall for each other and quickly get married, while Harry and Sally help each other navigate relapses in their respective post-breakup depressions, trying to determine what this thing they have really is.

This movie is entirely dialogue driven, which means the biggest star is Nora Ephron’s script. However, a lot of Harry’s lines don’t sound like a Nora Ephron script, and that’s apparently because most of his part was punched up by Billy Crystal. I understand that it’s fairly common for some actors to get a pass on the script where they or a favorite writer makes them sound the way they sound in every movie, but it does kind of stand out here. It also runs on observational humor, which I understand was a big movement in comedy about that time, but now it just feels like proto-Seinfeld.

The mockumentary segments with decades-married couples telling the stories of how they met is a sweet framing device, but I come up empty at least half the time trying to decide if the particulars of the story being told has some thematic bearing on the chapter about to unfold. I think they’re just stories, but one or two come close enough that it seems like there might be more meaning.

I didn’t remember just how much I was disappointed in the neatness of the resolution initially. They found each other, went through a crisis that forced them to reevaluate what they really meant to each other, and that’s a completely okay resolution. I wanted it to be more relevant to where I was then, and it wasn’t, and I took that out on it a bit. This is a delightfully charming, unconventional romcom that ends up in a conventional place because that’s what makes it a romcom, and that’s okay.

Holiday Rewind: Die Hard

Most movies that I watch for review, I don’t come back to often. Lately, I may come back to them once to watch them with my wife, but usually pretty soon after the first viewing. In this case however, the time I watched Die Hard with my wife is closer to now than it is to the time that I reviewed it, in no small part because I reviewed it over ten years ago, long before we ever had a chance of meeting.

So often, when a movie has this much cultural relevance you see a lot of references to and spoofs of parts of the movie in other works, but aside from some quotable lines, there’s not much that gets directly referenced. Even the Die Hard pastiche episode of the recent Turner and Hooch TV adaptation doesn’t really go past putting the character in a similar outfit and hostage situation, and parodying a couple of lines. I’m surprised I knew as much as I did before my first viewing.

Die Hard. 20th Century Fox 1988.

John McLane of the NYPD didn’t follow his wife when she and the kids moved to LA six months ago for her new job, and now he’s coming to join them for Christmas, if she’ll have him. Her company, Nakatomi, invites him to their Christmas party on the thirtieth floor of their brand new skyscraper, but while John is in the bathroom airing out his feet from the flight, the party is crashed by a gang of international criminals and the partygoers taken hostage. As the only one in the building not under their control, John tries to not only keep the hostages safe and foil the terrorists, but also get the local authorities to take the situation seriously, with one pistol, one stolen radio, and no shoes.

A couple of months ago I saw Die Harder for the first time and it actually kind of felt like a better movie, or at least a better Christmas movie. It leans very hard into the Christmas angle. While I remembered this was more than incidentally set on Christmas, I didn’t remember very well how. This movie is in fact, just as much as alternative Christmas movie as I didn’t remember. It’s not necessarily concerned with the holiday for most of the movie, but there are frequent reminders. Also the movie ends with family, debris falling from the sky like snow and plays a Christmas song, so viewers leave feeling like a Christmas movie just happened. I’m a little surprised to see in my original review I did consider it only incidentally festive, since I’ve come to remember it as much more so.

What struck me this time is how carefully the tension is modulated. John is almost constantly put in situations where he’s barely able to squeeze out of an immanent threat, and even as he wins small victories and chips away at the criminals’ power, it never feels like he’s getting the upper hand, because the criminals get more actively dangerous as their team gets picked off and their plans get derailed. John is only ever escaping the crisis of the moment, and the stakes stay high because he can’t save everybody.

I think I said everything that needed to be said about the performances the first time. Alan Rickman is a joy to watch as Hans Gruber even if his accent is a bit thin. John feels human in a way that a lot of action heroes don’t, even later Bruce Willis characters.

This may not be the most festive movie to watch at Christmas, but it’s at least a seasonally appropriate palate cleanser when one feels overloaded on the more saccharine fare. Anyone who enjoys action suspense movies would probably rank this near the top of their list.

Holiday Rewind: The Bishop’s Wife

I thought I had originally selected The Bishop’s Wife as a Christmas viewing, but I originally reviewed it in a September, so clearly not. I remember it as being less about Christmas than I had expected, which is strange if I hadn’t gone out of my way for it.

I also remember it being a quiet and almost thoughtful movie. It was light and feel-good more than being about the comedy or the drama. The busy man has to feel in danger of losing his wife to a man in tune with her needs to remember to value life outside of his ambitions. Merry Christmas, take nothing for granted. If I didn’t know that It’s A Wonderful Life only got popular much later because it could be run on TV for cheap, I’d suspect that this movie that came two years later was trying to capitalize on it.

The Bishop’s Wife. RKO Radio Pictures 1948.

Harry Brougham used to be the reverend of a small church in a poor part of the city, but not too long ago was appointed as the local bishop and tasked with overseeing the fundraising and construction of a new cathedral, which he’s become obsessed with building as a glorious edifice, but in order to get the money for such a grand work, must brown nose with the area’s wealthy elite, especially Mrs. Agnes Hamilton, who wants to leverage her donation to make the cathedral a monument to her late husband. But with his constant negotiation and planning meetings with the big donors, Bishop Brougham has not only lost all joy and charity, but also any time to love his wife Julia and daughter Debby. Strained by the tension between his principles and his desire to realize the magnificent cathedral of his dreams, Henry prays for guidance, and into his life pops Dudley, an angel who’s come to pose as Henry’s assistant and help him find his path. Though Henry doesn’t want to believe Dudley is who he says he is, particularly as Dudley won’t perform any miracles with witnesses, he does begrudgingly believe that Dudley may be supernatural. But instead of a helper to raise a cathedral from nothing with the wave of a wing, Dudley spends most of his time raising the spirits of Julia and Debby by “representing” Henry in his roles as husband and father. As Julia is lifted out of the misery of her existence since Henry’s duties took him away from his family life, Dudley’s relationship with her begins to resemble something wholly inappropriate.

This gets billed as a comedy, but it seems more like a light feel-good melodrama. Or really, it’s an unorthodox romance, where the central tension is that not only can the central couple really not be allowed to end up together, but the whole point of them getting dangerously close to falling in love is as a wakeup call to the protagonist. Dudley’s lies of omission and other interactions with the secondary and tertiary cast bring some levity, but it really feels more like comic relief than something intended as a comedy. Although perhaps in its day it was entering comedy territory just to put the pair into situations that lend themselves to misinterpretation from the outside. Definitely there’s a mild laugh a couple of times from people getting the wrong idea, but it’s very mild.

One may almost be tempted to consider it interesting that Cary Grant is not here as a romantic lead, only that’s not actually true, since again, the main shape of the movie is a romance story, only Dudley and Julia can’t actually be together. What makes it unusual is that the tragedy of them not being able to be together isn’t really foregrounded, it’s more of a postscript to the morality play of staging a crisis in Henry’s life.

I’m impressed with myself that in the original review I summed up the movie as feeling like a Christmas card, because I came up with the same imagery in organizing what I expected to write this time. Both times I was probably inspired by It’s A Wonderful Life originating as a short story in a Christmas card, even though I didn’t reference that movie directly in the original review. This came from a novella, as most movies with an unusual amount of texture do.

I also think I was pretty harsh on the diversions from the plot for entertainment value. Does the scene with Dudley, Julia, and their cab driver advance the plot the whole time? No, but it advances the theme of brightening the world with understanding and unconventionality. Does the boys’ choir scene advance the plot? No, but it illustrates some Christmas magic. I don’t know why I remembered it as barely a Christmas story, since so many scenes are steeped in at least being in early winter and the climax is on Christmas Eve, as well as having a very Christmas message of love, generosity, and fellowship. This could easily be among the movies left on repeat on cable channels that send everyone home for Christmas week.

Holiday Rewind: Mixed Nuts

I hardly remember watching Mixed Nuts at all, to be honest. I seem to remember it was even darker than I expected from the phrase “dark comedy”. From the synopsis I’m looking at now, it seems like it takes plenty of opportunities for comedy from the kinds of “weirdos” Steve Martin’s character has to encounter taking suicide hotline calls, but I think the main source of comedy was his holiday at home spiraling out of control for some reason. That’s a big reach for my memory on this. The biggest thing I’m noticing now that I didn’t notice before is that I think this is one of only two movies where Steve Martin has color in his hair (sandy blond in this case, jet black pompadour in Little Shop of Horrors).

Mixed Nuts. Tristar Pictures 1994.

Phillip is the director of crisis helpline Lifesavers, a non-profit operated out of an apartment with an apparent staff of three including himself. As Lifesavers is several months behind on rent, the landlord, eager to sell his building for condo development, has served an eviction notice to everyone in the building, though Phillip hides news of Livesavers’ eviction from the staff in the hope that he’ll come up with some $5,000 miracle in the next week. Mrs. Munchnik is eager to leave for Christmas Eve dinner with her late husband’s family, and gets trapped in the broken down elevator. Catherine is easily overwhelmed by empathizing with the callers, and has secretly been holding a torch for Phillip. Catherine’s friends Felix and Gracie are seven months into a pregnancy and about to break up because Felix lost a job he wasn’t interested in and intends to pursue his art dream that isn’t going anywhere. One caller, Chris, is desperate for someone to talk to in person and begs Phillip to give the address of the office, which is against the rules, but Phillip caves to Chris’s crying. Chris is actually a lonely trans woman whose family openly mocks her, but Catherine worries that Phillip may have invited the Seaside Strangler serial killer. Also probably-autistic neighbor Louie is around.

I noticed this time around that it’s a Nora Ephron film, and I thought I was going to see something familiar in the writing or directing, but it’s only maybe there in the parts that slow down enough to almost not fit with the rest of the movie. That probably comes from adapting somebody else’s densely character-driven farce.

For the most part, the plot is a train wreck in slow motion, mainly in the form of Phillip’s world crumbling and leading him toward a breakdown. Unfortunately for everyone, the main victim of his breakdown is Chris. After struggling to hide his discomfort with Chris and console her, he finds himself pinned into dancing with her, and for a moment, Phillip really is able to let go and enjoy the dance, which just makes it more tragic when he’s snapped out of it and lashes out, and then further when he seems to resent her for not accepting his meek apologies.

I’ve always kind of seen Adam Sandler’s childish shtick from his early career as probably insulting to someone, but he’s so deep in it this time that I suspect more strongly than I have in any other Sandler movie that his character is on the autism spectrum. Louie is fixated on his special interests to the point of not quite being tuned into everyone else’s world, or at least the five-dimensional chess of adult social relationships going on around him. This however leads to him relating to Chris completely earnestly and they end up being really cute together, to the point that I don’t really mind that he really only enters the plot for the act that Mrs. Munchnik exits it.

I think I appreciated this movie more this time around. Except for one really irreverent shock joke with a one-off suicidal caller, it’s not as dark as I remember it. It’s ultimately a story about people in a crazy mixed up world finding hope. Or at least, that’s the last-minute swerve to wrap up the series of unfortunate events. It’s almost experimental, not in any seriously unusual way, but even with the large cast of big names, this feels like a small-time labor of love. Maybe the cast and crew loved it more than anyone else did, but there’s definitely a lot to love hidden inside.

Holiday Rewind: Fitzwilly

I strongly associate this movie with a sweaty, empty apartment because I originally reviewed it during a broke summer internship where streaming video was my only luxury. There was nothing signalling to me going in that this was a Christmassy movie, all I knew was that it starred Dick Van Dyke and it was some kind of caper maybe. And at this point, I never really remember much more than that it’s a Christmassy movie, Fitzwilly is running some kind of kind-hearted scam, and I liked it a whole lot more than I expected, to the point that I included my original review (which I made so early in the run of this blog that I hadn’t fully developed my standards for movie poster graphics and so it has a relatively tiny poster) in at least three different bundles of recommended back catalog reading/watching. Over the years I’ve occasionally felt a little disappointed that I didn’t run it at Christmas because I recall it being such a good Christmas movie nobody remembers. So, does it live up to my recollections?

Fitzwilly. The Mirisch Corporation 1967.

Claude Fitzwilliam has been elderly heiress Victoria Woolworth’s butler as long as he was old enough to run the household, after his father, her previous butler, died and Miss Vicky raised him. Miss Vicky’s father spent all of her inheritance, but Fitzwilly has made it his and his staff’s mission to keep her from knowing this, and to that end has developed an elaborate network of thievery charging expensive goods to other wealthy people and companies and diverting them to his “charity” thrift shops. Aside from the considerable expense of maintaining the house and staff and lifestyle Miss Vicky is accustomed to, the biggest hindrance to this scheme is her great passion for philanthropy, as she is constantly writing checks for thousands of dollars to any noble cause she comes across, most, but not all, being intercepted by Fitzwilly’s staff. A new complication enters this operation when Miss Vicky hires a secretary for her dictionary project who is not handpicked and briefed by Fitzwilly, but a straight and narrow college grad Juliet Nowell, who has to be kept from learning anything about the charade, and in the process comes to worry that Fitzwilly’s job as a butler isn’t appropriately challenging for someone with his mind and education. Under Juliet and Miss Vicky’s noses, Fitzwilly’s gang has to execute their biggest job ever, redecorating a house in Florida for a contact who spent most of the money his employers gave him on himself, in exchange for the remaining $75k, enough money to keep Miss Vicky in her lifestyle for the rest of her life.

For most of the movie I feel like my memory has oversold the amount to which it’s a Christmas movie, however the climax is in a busy department store on Christmas Eve and features carol singers, so it gets there eventually. Until that point it doesn’t even feel much like winter.

The two things this movie runs on are Dick Van Dyke’s charisma and to a somewhat lesser extent, the verbal fencing going on every time Fitzwilly and Juliet interact. Their scenes together are often dazzling displays of conversational agility and both actors meet the requirements of the dialogue expertly.

This is a comedic caper with a chapter that has as much Christmas in it as A Christmas Story, but it’s a much better fit to expectations to watch it for the heisting than for the Christmas.

Holiday Rewind: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

Yesterday’s Movies has been going on for long enough that even though I’ve been more likely to avoid seasonal movies than write a holiday post, there are enough holiday movies in the back catalog that I can take a month to review my reviews.

Planes, Trains and Automobiles is the only movie I ever think of as a “Thanksgiving movie”. Well, excluding A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving because it’s only a half-hour special. And it could really work just as well as a Christmas movie, but that just makes it slightly more interesting that it’s different like that.

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles. Paramount Pictures 1987.

Neal Page’s family lives in Chicago, but he’s working in New York, which is a little unclear whether this is a regular thing or an increasingly frequent business meeting trip, but his plan is to dash out of his last meeting before the break and catch the 6:00 flight home. Even though some oaf with a huge trunk ineptly foils his attempts to get a cab twice, he manages to make it to the airport just in time to see his flight get delayed, and while waiting, he meets that oaf, the obliviously talkative Del Griffith, itinerant shower curtain ring salesman. Who is also his seatmate for the flight when they do get to board. When O’Hare gets shut down due to a snowstorm, Neal and Del’s flight gets diverted to Witchita, where Del suggests they share a cab to a motel he knows. On a complete disaster of a trip home, Del seems to have all the answers, but also provide all the problems, and Neal is seemingly shackled to this bad luck charm of a man by fate.

I’m always a little surprised to see this is a John Hughes movie. Hughes is cemented in my mind as being associated with teen (and preteen) coming of age movies, but I know he’s made plenty of adult-focused movies as well. Especially having that in mind this time, I kept thinking that Neal’s house looks like the Home Alone house, but it turns out they aren’t even the same style. Apparently Neal’s is a colonial and Kevin’s is a Georgian, and even bigger than Neal’s.

I think I know what I was going for when I called it “comedy that piles misery on top of misery”, but that’s more about secondhand embarrassment. When a protagonist is making a fool of themselves, it makes me squirm, but the humiliation Neal is going through isn’t embarrassment, it’s indignity. Neal suffering through this trip teaches him the humility to care for even someone as annoying as Del who’s reaching out for some human companionship.

There’s a couple of places where the editing is a bit confusing because something nondiegetic isn’t immediately recognizable as not being part of the scene, but that’s my main quibble. The no-homo type jokes in the shared hotel scene haven’t even aged all that terribly, as the main object of humor is the men’s own insecurities.

In a landscape replete with Christmas movies of all genres, this holiday travel movie doesn’t even have to be nominally set at Thanksgiving to have staying power. John Hughes seems to have had some kind of sense of how to make an evergreen classic through very human storytelling. Cookie cutter Hallmark movies may pull at the heartstrings, but I feel like movies like this give a nudge to the soul.

Clifford

Clifford. Orion Pictures 1994.

(no, not that one)

Before watching the movie:

This is another random find I don’t have much background on. It looks very much like something nobody cares about beyond squeezing some extra residuals out, and it appears that it was considered a disaster. Which I can kind of see. What caught my attention was “Martin Short plays a ten year old menace”. What makes me wonder who came up with it and thought it was worth filming is “Martin Short plays a ten year old menace”. I suspect the concept grew out of a bit that Short was already trying to find a home for.

Also Charles Grodin and Mary Steenburgen are probably good choices for the types they seem to be playing, but even for the early 90s (this got shelved for a few years because Orion couldn’t afford to distribute it) I’m not really sure “Martin Short, Charles Grodin, and Mary Steenburgen” are the extremely marketable combination you want to attract audiences with.

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Movies of My Yesterdays: Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby

This might be the first entry in this series from my time in college. It’s not quite from after the inception of this blog, but getting very close to it. It wasn’t long after when I saw this movie when I got my first opportunity to go back and catch up on movies I’d missed. But that wasn’t the way I saw this one.

I first saw Talladega Nights because it belonged to my my freshman roommate, who set up his TV, small movie collection, and mini fridge, told me I was welcome to use all of them, and then found friends outside the dorm to spend all his days and nights with, leaving me alone with the whole room pretty much all the time. I can’t recall whether this movie got played in one of the rare times he was there or if I put it on myself in a bolder move in using his stuff, as using somebody else’s movies without their direct permission still seems like a breach to me even if blanket permission has been given (it occurs to me that I don’t feel this way about the massive movie and game collection of another roommate I had in the early days of the blog, which was probably represented multiple times on here). I’m pretty sure that was the only time I saw it until now.

Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby. Mosaic Media Group 2006.

Born in the back of a speeding Chevelle, Ricky Bobby grew up not knowing his father, who left to race cars and do more shady things, which may have imparted his obsession with speed to him. Ricky only saw his father once in his childhood, making an unexpected and ignominious appearance at his class’s Career Day, but he left him with the dictum that “if you’re not first, you’re last”, a phrase Ricky went on to model his life on. Without many career prospects, Ricky found his way into the pit crew for Dennit Racing, finally getting his opportunity to enter a NASCAR race as a replacement for the driver who walked out in the middle of a race while in last place, and Ricky proves himself by finishing third, becoming a racing star. Backed up by his best friend Cal driving Dennit’s second car, who always gives him the assist to get to first, Ricky quickly achieves a life of fame and fortune, living in a mansion with Carley, the smoking hot fangirl he married, their two disgracefully disrespectful sons, and Carley’s father who impotently disapproves of how his grandkids are being raised. Ricky’s maverick driving style makes him a fan favorite, but costs him with the sponsors and the tournament judges, and therefore does him no favors with the new head of Dennit racing, Larry Jr., who hires openly gay Frenchman Jean Girard from the Formula One circuit to be his new, dependable lead driver with European precision. Ricky’s jealousy overwhelms him, causing him to crash and have a psychological breakdown that endangers his ability to ever be able to get behind the wheel of a car again.

This felt really raunchy at the time, but while it’s still kind of raunchy, it doesn’t feel like that’s an exceptional thing. I think the raunchiness largely comes from how it’s both a parody of the contemporary machismo but also kind of an earnest celebration of it. It feels entirely a product of its time, but no moreso than in the jokes about Girard being gay. This is tempered by Girard being revealed to be an honorable guy looking for an equal on the track and definitely a much more rational person than Ricky, but the jokes still significantly Other him. It occurs to me now that by being gay and European, Girard is specifically designed to be the antithesis of the NASCAR stereotype and the American nationalist cultural moment that NASCAR was a significant component of at the time. His being French is probably targeted at the specific distaste for the French after the country refused to support the US in doing some post-9/11 lashing out.

While the extreme farce style can easily get out of hand in a bad way, there were still plenty of laugh out loud moments. Its extremely contemporary nature probably keeps it from being as timeless as Anchorman, but it’s still a lot of fun. It’s not something I would come back to a lot, but I can see occasionally revisiting it to get my expectations exceeded again.