Poltergeist – 1982

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This is actually one of my top 5 favorite movies of all time, which is odd because I am generally not a big fan of horror movies.  But I discovered this movie when I was a kid and have loved it ever since.  The casting was perfect, the acting was great, the story was powerful, the special effects were incredible, and even the emotional drama was compelling.

This movie spawned two sequels and a remake, but if you ask me, none of these was able to match the original.  The story starts out in the peaceful little paradise of Cuesta Verde, California.  It is suburban heaven.  The Freeling family is your typical family.  Steven and his wife Diane, played by Craig T. Nelson and JoeBeth Williams, are parents to three beautiful children, Dana, Robbie, and Carol Anne, played by Dominique Dunn, Oliver Robbins, and Heather O’Rourke.

The Freeling family is terrorized by violent and malevolent ghosts who focus on, and abduct the 5 year old Carol Anne.  The family enlists the help of a team of parapsychologists made up of Dr. Lesh, played by Beatrice Straight, Ryan, played by Richard Lawson, and Marty, played by Martin Casella.  The team moves in with the Freelings to study the paranormal phenomenon.  They are shocked and horrified by the wild and physically dangerous nature of the haunting.

The bizarre and seeming random acts of supernatural violence grow and increase, getting worse and worse each time.  After several horrific encounters with the evil spirit, Marty leaves and refuses to return to the house, but Dr. Lesh and Ryan return with the help of a spiritual medium.  She is Tangina Barrons, played by Zelda Rubenstein.  In my humble opinion, she was the film’s biggest failing, but we’ll get to that in a bit.

Tangina takes the fight to the ghosts and mounts a rescue mission in which Diane, with a rope tied around her waist, goes into the spirit world to find Carol Anne.  The rescue is successful and Tangina leaves, declaring that, “This house is clean.”  But oh, how wrong she is.

Steven decides that the family is moving immediately.  While Steven and Dana are away, Diane, Robbie, and Carol Anne are left alone in the house.  With only a few hours more remaining before their departure, the poltergeist attacks again, this time pulling out all the stops.  Diane is nearly raped by an invisible attacker while Robbie is attacked by a terrifying clown doll.

Diane is forced into the back yard where she falls into the swimming pool.  Coffins begin erupting from the ground and skeletons fill the pool as Diane struggles to get out.  Following her children’s frantic screaming, she makes her way into the house and to the children’s bedroom.  When she opens the door, she is nearly sucked into the gaping maw of the beast as it is attempting to swallow Robbie and Carol Anne.

She rescues them and flees the house as rotting corpses begin shooting up through the floor.  Steven and Dana arrive and the family drives away together, finally safe from the demonic force.  As they escape, the anger of the beast follows them down the street, blowing up gas lines and fire hydrants.  The hunger of the poltergeist is so great that it literally consumes the entire house, leaving an empty lot.

As you can imagine, the movie was a special effects extravaganza.  Director Tobe Hooper, known at the time for his work on the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, spearheaded the project, though, if not for his involvement with the movie E.T. the Extra Terrestrial, it might have been Stephen Spielberg.  However, it is interesting to note that a greater involvement from Spielberg is rumored to have taken place.  Spielberg has been quoted as saying, ”Tobe isn’t… a take-charge sort of guy. If a question was asked and an answer wasn’t immediately forthcoming, I’d jump in and say what we could do. Tobe would nod agreement, and that became the process of collaboration.”

Alright, so I mentioned that Zelda Rubenstein was the film’s only real failing.  She was supposed to be physically strange and there was no doubt, she certainly was.  But she was so weird that she was a little distracting.  She looked and sounded like a munchkin from the Wizard of Oz.  She seemed to detract from the intensity of the horror.  True, she actually won the Saturn Award for Best Supporting Actress, but she seemed to be a strange kind of comic relief in a film where everything is played completely straight.  Still, despite her high-pitched, nasal voice, and her plump, midget’s stature, she did have a few moments of intensity that matched the rest of the cast.

My favorites in the cast were JoBeth Williams, Craig T. Nelson, and Beatrice Straight.  JoBeth’s role was both physically and emotionally demanding.  She played the part of a mother whose daughter has been abducted by ghosts.  She knows that there is a demonic force that is restraining and manipulating her little girl, and that there is nothing she can do to stop it.  Can you imagine?  And the end of the film where she is attacked by the invisible assailant, and then nearly sucked into the spirit world was just thrilling!

Nelson was also great and played the part of the terrified and worried father.  He was just wonderful.  Everybody had their big scream moments, and his were just as intense as the rest of them.  The part where he is holding the rope that is tied to his wife as she is going after Carol Anne is just great.  He hears Tangina telling the spirits to go into “the light” but doesn’t understand.  He panics and tries to pull Diane back, but what he pulls out of the portal is a gigantic skull with fiery eyes.  Steven is so terrified that he lets go of the rope.

Something interesting about that scene, though.  They show shots of Steven as he is holding the rope and trying to pull it back in.  But then they show a few shots of Tangina as she is talking to the spirits.  Watch the shadow on the wall behind Tangina.  I think it is supposed to be Steven’s shadow, but look closely.  What is the shadow doing?  It is hard to tell, but when the camera goes back to Steven pulling the rope, it doesn’t match the shadow at all.  Back to Tangina, and the shadow is still doing something different.  Whether that was intentional or not, that just made the scene infinitely more creepy for me!

Beatrice Straight was wonderful as Dr. Lesh.  I loved the scene in which she is trying to explain the evil spirits and the afterlife to Robbie.  She had this very calming voice and yet it was intense at the same time.  Her performance was engaging and very memorable.  Also, the moment before Diane goes into the portal, as Diane and Steven kiss, the expression of emotional empathy on her face as she watches the two lovers is so perfect.  Straight really did a great job in this strange and wonderful film.

The special effects for the movie were really something special.  This movie was made before the era of CGI and digital effects.  Many of the effects were practical effects, though there was certainly some animation effects as well.  The practical effects were generally more effective and the animation was often obvious.  For example the part where Diane is shoved up the wall and onto the ceiling was very well done.  The entire room had to have been on hydraulics and rotated so that Williams could appear to slide up the wall.  It was very well done.  But the earlier scene where a ghostly, skeletal hand jumps out of the television to reach for Carol Anne, while well done, is obviously hand-drawn animation.  But what do you expect for 1982?

The soundtrack, written by Jerry Goldsmith, was also something special.  I own the soundtrack and read in the album notes that the entire score was written before Goldsmith had seen any of the filmed footage, a fact I find absolutely impressive.  It was so perfectly suited to the movie and the supernatural subject matter.  The innocent and child-like theme for Carol Anne, the quasi-religious theme for the “other side”, and the jarring and terrifying theme for the Beast, were all so expertly crafted.  Well done Goldsmith!

Now, I’m not saying that this was a perfect film.  Sure, it had a few inconsistencies, plot holes, and editing mistakes, but I’m ok with them.  Some of them are easily noticeable, but easy to overlook.  They make the movie no less enjoyable to watch.

For example, during the abduction, Carol Anne is holding on to the bed frame for dear life as she is being sucked into the portal in the closet.  You see her grasping the wooden frame with one hand until she can’t hold on any longer.  The frame is obviously broken, and her hand clearly slips off the end of a broken piece.  Then we see her flying across the room, a large piece of the broken frame still gripped in both hands.  Then, a moment later we see the bed frame with a large piece broken off.  But not to worry.  Later on in the movie, we see the bed frame whole and undamaged again.

Another little thing that always catches my attention is in the scene where Diane has just rescued Carol Anne from the spirit realm.  The two are covered from head to toe in red slime.  They are put into a bath tub full of water.  The wider shot shows Carol Anne with most of the slime cleared away from her hair and forehead.  Then a close-up shot of her face shows her hair and forehead thickly covered with the slime.  Then the wider shot once again shows her forehead nearly clean.  It is a little thing, but it catches my attention every time I watch it.

And now I have to take a moment to mention the clown.  Ok, what kind of terrible parents would get such a terrifying clown doll for their children?  I mean, really!  That clown doll was one of the scariest things in the movie even before its face turned overtly demonic.  It was scarier than the tree that knocked out a window to grab Robbie in an attempt to eat him, a window that, I might add, was remarkably fixed the next time we see it.  It was scarier than the part where Marty is tricked into thinking that he is pulling all the flesh off of his face.  It was even scarier than the dragon-like skeleton that prevents Diane from reaching her children in the film’s climax.  The clown is supposed to be a happy child’s toy, but its maniacal grin and its insane, demonic eyes would be enough to give anyone nightmares.  Then, when it attacks Robbie and drags him under the bed, we love seeing the little boy fight back and rip out its stuffing.

Just as an interesting note, in my research, I found that in 1982, a novelization of the film had been written.  It contained some very interesting things which were not in the film, one of which explains the clown doll a little bit.  I will quote from Wikipedia which said, “While the film focuses mainly on the Freeling family, much of the book leans toward the relationship between Tangina and Dr. Lesh away from the family.  The novel also expands upon the many scenes that took place in the film, such as the Freeling’s living room being visited by night by outer dimensional entities of fire and shadows, and an extended version of the kitchen scene in which Marty watches the steak crawl across a countertop.  In the book, Marty is frozen in place and is skeletonized by spiders and rats.  There are also additional elements not in the film, such as Robbie’s mysterious discovery of the clown doll in the yard during his birthday party, and a benevolent spirit, “The Waiting Woman”, who protects Carol Anne in the spirit world.”  Interesting…


1980 – Coal Miner’s Daughter

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Coal Miner’s Daughter – 1980

I have to start off by saying that I am not a country music fan.  More than that, one of my least liked forms of country music is honky-tonk, simply because it is characteristically incredibly twangy.  I’m not saying it is bad music, just that it isn’t my personal preference.  That being said, Coal Miner’s Daughter is all about the famous Country superstar, Loretta Lynn.  In fact, the film is based on her autobiography, and apparently follows her life very closely and accurately, this from the singer’s own lips.

But did I dislike the movie?  No, I didn’t.  I can respect it for a film that was well-made and entertaining, even though the subject matter was pretty foreign to me.  Sissy Spacek, who played the lead as Loretta Lynn, did a fantastic job, earning herself the Oscar for Best Actress.  Tommy Lee Jones did a fine job as well, dying his hair orange to play the role of Loretta’s husband, Doolittle Lynn.  The film followed Loretta’s life from 1945 to 1969, the formative years of her singing career.

She starts off in a back-woods, hillbilly mining community, known as Butcher Hollow, Kentucky, as a 13 year-old Loretta Webb meets, falls in love with, and marries Doolittle Lynn.  He turns out to be an alcoholic who mistreats and abuses her, then throws her out on the street after getting her pregnant.  Then he moves away to Custer, Washington to find work.

At this point, I hated his character and couldn’t understand why she would ever go back to him.  But she does, and when he sends her money so she can join him, she goes.  The couple had 4 kids by the time Loretta was 19 years old.  Then, because he likes hearing Loretta sing, he forces her to sing at a honky-tonk bar.  Again, I didn’t like his character because he was making her do something she didn’t want to do, simply to please himself.

But apparently, he did the right thing.  She took to being on stage like a fish to water.  She ended up loving it, and she obviously had the talent.  The time was right and everyone who heard her sing loved her voice.  But then, as Loretta’s manager, “Doo” seemed to do a bit of a turn-around.  He actually started to treat her well, when he was not drinking and womanizing.  He asked her if she wanted to pursue a singing career and worked incredibly hard to help her get what she wanted.

But the film also pulled no punches as it followed Loretta’s career and personal life.  She became so famous so quickly that she didn’t seem to be ready for the incredible pressures that the life of a superstar entails.  According to the film, she drove herself so hard that she ended up having a nervous breakdown on-stage in front of thousands of shocked fans.  She took a year off from singing, spending time on her ranch with her husband and children.  The film ends as she returns to the stage, happy and healthy, singing the song that became her signature song, Coal Miner’s Daughter.

The movie also chronicles Loretta’s close, personal friendship with her idol, Patsy Cline, played by Beverly D’Angelo.  I liked D’Angelo and thought she did a great job, though again, I have never listened to Patsy Cline’s music or followed her career, so I don’t know how accurate her performance was.

To say that Spacek really embodied the soul and spirit of the real Loretta Lynn is an understatement.  First, I was sincerely impressed to learn that she did all her own singing in the film.  I watched an interview with the real Loretta Lynn that was incredibly informative.  She said that in preparation for the role, Sissy followed her around for a year, imitating her and getting the sound and mannerisms just right.  Then, she went into the recording studio and recorded all the songs for the movie so accurately, that fans had difficulty telling the difference between the singer and the actress.

And I’d also like to mention what Loretta said about Tommy Lee Jones’ performance in the film.  She said that she was shocked that he was not recognized for his work because he did such an incredible job as Doolittle.  Though I didn’t like his character at the beginning, I ended up liking him by the end, thanks to Jones.

1979 – Norma Rae

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Norma Rae – 1979

Norma Rae is the movie that elevated Sally Field from the Flying Nun and Gidget to super-stardom.  The film won 2 of the 4 Academy Award nominations it was given, Sally taking home the Oscar for Best Actress for her performance in the title role.  And I must say that she really deserved it.  She really pulled out all the stops and gave us some spectacular acting.

It is a drama about a woman working in a cotton mill who gets involved with organizing a labor union.  She puts everything she has on the line to fight for a better work environment: her marriage, her job, and even her freedom.  The film’s producers, Tamara Asseyev and Alex Rose, called the movie a political drama because it dealt with a very topical issue, though I don’t know if labor unions could be categorized as political.

Norma Rae is a young woman who is certainly no saint.  She has a habit of sleeping around, and is the single mother to her two children, both of whom have different fathers.  As the film begins, she is also casually having an affair with a married man.

But she is a hard worker at the mill, though like every other employee, she turns a blind eye to the injustices perpetrated by her bosses.  The working conditions at the mill are hard, unsanitary, and unsafe, and the pay is substandard.  But it is all she knows, and so she, along with her father, Vernon, played by Pat Hingle, and her mother, Leona, played by Barbara Baxley, is resigned to living the rest of her life without the hope of anything better.

But all that changes when a man named Ruben Warshowsky, played by Ron Leibman, arrives, handing out flyers that encourage the formation of a worker’s union.  Nobody wants to listen because they are afraid of losing their jobs.  She and nearly everyone else continues to ignore the unsafe work environment and simply go along with the way things have always been.

But then, slowly at first, she begins to listen to Ruben and she becomes more and more interested in what he has to say.  Along the way, she meets Sonny Webster, played by Beau Bridges, and falls in love.  The two marry and move in together.  But everything changes when her father dies because of the unsafe working conditions at the mill.  It is like a fire under her butt, causing her to risk everything to stand up for her rights.

It was an important issue, one which had never been so effectively addressed in film before.  It examined the difficulties of forming a union from several different angles.  We’ve all seen that famous scene where Norma Rae is standing on a table holding up a sign that says “UNION,” until all the rest of the workers at the mill turned off their machines and refused to work.  But it is important to know what happened directly before that scene and directly after it.

Before she got on the table, she was being fired for writing down an illegal policy that had been posted on the bulletin board.  She was being pressured to stop what she was doing and get back to work by at least 4 members of the management staff that had posted the memo.  After the table scene, the Sheriff came to force her to leave the premises. She asked for a statement in writing saying that she would be taken to her home and was refused.  Once outside the mill, the Sheriff’s men grabbed her and violently forced her into a squad car.  She was arrested and taken to jail, charged with disturbing the peace.

It was a powerful story that was very believably told.  Field really carried the film and did a fantastic job, though the rest of the cast was good as well.  Bridges, in particular did a good job, as did Hingle.  The film made the point that Unions are important in protecting the rights and safety of employees in a way that cannot be ignored.  It made the point that there are laws that say that employers don’t have the right to overwork and underpay their employees.  They don’t have the right to ignore safety issues or treat employees without dignity or respect.  Norma Rae was a brave film that shed light on a real social issue that deserved to be examined.

1979 – Breaking Away

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Breaking Away – 1979

I’m not entirely sure if I liked this movie or not.  It was good enough, though a little predictable.  It has been described as a coming of age movie, but I disagree.  I’d actually call it a triumph of the human spirit movie.  It is generally called a comedy, and while it had a few funny moments, I never once found myself laughing.

It was about 4 young boys, all of whom are recent high-school graduates, come from the wrong side of the tracks, and have no idea what to really do with the rest of their lives, though the film really revolved around 1 of them.  Dennis Christopher played Dave Stoller.  He is a good kid who has the talent, and the desire to become a world-class cyclist.  He is constantly training and wins every race in which he competes.  He is waiting for the opportunity to become a champion.

His 3 friends, Mike, Cyril, and Moocher, played by Dennis Quaid, Daniel Stern, and Jackie Earle Haley, each have their own distinct personalities.  Mike is the domineering leader of the group who is actually a jerk who would rather hold his friends back from bettering their lives than allow them to leave him, since he doesn’t know what to do with his.  Cyril is not terribly bright, but is incredibly loyal to the other 3 boys.  And then there is Moocher, a boy who longs for a life of his own, even going so far as to marry his secret girlfriend without telling the others.

That’s all you really need to know about them.  85% of the movie is all about Dave anyway.  He lives at home with his parents.  His father, Ray, played by Paul Dooley, is a dishonest used car salesman.  His mother, Evelyn, played by Barbara Barrie, is a loving but subservient housewife who sometimes dreams about having some excitement in her life.

The family dynamics between Ray, Evelyn, and Dave is supposed to supply most of the film’s comedy.  But I’ll be honest.  The fact that Ray was a terrible father, constantly calling his son a worthless loser, even when he knew that Dave could hear him, really destroyed a lot of the funny moments for me.  That wasn’t funny.  It was sad.

Anyway, the bulk of the film follows Dave’s dreams of being a cyclist.  He becomes excited when he learns that a famous Italian cycling team will be coming to Bloomington to compete.  He enters the race to prove himself to them.  In fact, more of the film’s comedy comes from Dave constantly pretending that he is Italian.  He speaks to his parents with a fake Italian accent, calling his father “Papa,” much to the man’s consternation.  He becomes incredibly fond of Italian opera, playing it loudly in his room like most kids play rock-n-roll.  All of this was amusing, but not really funny.

But all Dave’s dreams are shattered when the Italians cheat, causing Dave to crash his cycle and drop out of the race.  At the same time he learns just how dishonest his father is, especially in his profession as a used car salesman.  Depression follows, but it is the film’s final and climactic race that has caused Breaking Away to be lauded as such an inspirational film, and it all stems from a silly little subplot about a girl Dave falls in love with.

Her name is Katherine, played by Robyn Douglass.  She is beautiful and he gets her to fall for him by lying to her, pretending to be an Italian foreign exchange student.  Her boyfriend and his cronies end up hating Dave and his friends, and the way the two groups settle their differences is by entering a team cycling race.  What a convenient and predictable way for the four boys to prove that they aren’t losers!

To make a long story short, Dave and his friends are the underdogs.  Dave cycles most of the race because none of his friends are cyclists.  But when Dave gets injured, his friends each take a turn racing until the distraught and depressed Dave sees that his parents have come to the race to support him.  He finally gets back on the bicycle and wins the race despite his injuries.

True, it was somewhat based on a true story, but that made it no less predictable.  The acting was alright, but nothing to really write home about.  I don’t know.  Unfortunately, I think the film’s drama, comedy, tension, excitement, and its emotional content were all just too luke-warm to inspire me like it was supposed to.

1979 – Apocalypse Now

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Apocalypse Now – 1979

This is another one of those movies that has a reputation as a great and profound work of art.  It has a mystique about it that it is supposed to be deep and meaningful.  Taking place during the Vietnam War, it delves into the psyche of its main character, Captain Benjamin Willard, played by Martin Sheen, as he is sent on a secret mission to assassinate Colonel Kurtz, played by Marlon Brando, because he has gone off the deep end.

Kurtz has become a renegade, setting himself up as a kind of demi-god in Cambodia, leading forces made up of Cambodian natives, Vietnamese soldiers, and brainwashed American soldiers.  The U.S. government wants his command terminated “with extreme prejudice.”  Captain Willard is ok killing the Vietnamese because they are the enemy.  But murdering someone who is supposed to be on his own side turns the war into a completely different experience.

As I was watching the movie, I was struck by how much the film seemed to parallel the Joseph Conrad novel, Heart of Darkness.  But as I did a little reading about the movie, I found that this was not a coincidence.  Director Frances Coppola had specifically made a modernized film version of the famous book.

Willard is put on a boat with a crew of colorful characters.  Albert Hall plays the Quartermaster, Chief.  Frederic Forrest plays Chef, the Engineman.  Laurence Fishburne and Sam Bottoms play Mr. Clean and Lance, both Gunner’s Mates 3rd Class.  Clean is from the Bronx, and Lance is a professional surfer.  It is their job to transport Willard up the Nung River, through dangerous “Charlie” territory, to Kurtz’s camp in Cambodia.

One of the things about the film that caught my attention was the insanity of it all.  The 60s, the time when the Vietnam War took place, was a time when mind-expanding drugs of all different kinds were recreationally, and sometimes casually used.  Somehow, Coppola really made a lot of the exciting action sequences seem like hallucinatory, drug-induced trips, and not just the scene where Lance actually drops a tab of acid.  And the blurred visuals, the constant explosions, and the creepy, warped circus music, was like sensory overload.

There is a famous scene near the beginning of the movie in which Willard and the crew take part in a helicopter attack on a Viet-Cong village.  The objective is to get them and their boat to the mouth of the Nung River.  The man in charge of the attack is Lieutenant Colonel Bill Kilgore, played by Robert Duvall.  During the raid, about a dozen heavily armed choppers destroy the village, killing enemy soldiers and civilians alike, all the while blasting the epic music from Act III of Wagner’s opera Die Walkure, the Ride of the Valkyrie.  It is after the raid is over, and a napalm airstrike is delivered that Kilgore utters that famous line “I love the smell of napalm in the morning… Smells like… victory!”  Actually that is only part of his little monologue that is meant to show that he is not completely sane.

And I would be remiss if I didn’t say something about Marlon Brando.  I’ll be honest, I don’t understand why everybody goes so gaga for his performance.  He was alright, but nothing extraordinary.  We have all heard the stories of Brando being so hard for Coppola to work with because he came unprepared, extremely overweight, not having read Heart of Darkness, not knowing his lines, making outrageous demands, and rewriting the script to his own liking.

But I actually read an article which claimed the opposite.  It said that Brando actually came to the set very well-prepared, and that Coppola actually depended on him to help revise the script.  But because Coppola felt overwhelmed by the film, he betrayed Brando and blamed him for what he saw as the film’s shortcomings.  I don’t know if that is true.  Brando’s part in the film was actually pretty small.  He only showed up in the last 30 minutes of the 2 ½ hour film, and even then, I’d guess that he had about 7 or 8 minutes of screen time, getting paid $3.5 million.

Aside from that, Sheen’s performance was intense, and the rest of the boat crew did a very good job.  There were also a few small roles with recognizable actors that surprised me.  Harrison Ford played Colonel Lucas, a General’s aid, and Dennis Hopper played an American photojournalist who is a disciple of Kurtz.

1979 – All That Jazz

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All That Jazz – 1979

I had been looking forward to seeing this movie for a number of reasons.  I like Bob Fosse, I love his choreography, I have seen a few stills from the film, and they all looked interesting.  I also happen to be a Roy Scheider fan.  But for the most part, I think I was a little underwhelmed.  Don’t get me wrong.  I thought it was a good film, but maybe I was just expecting too much.

This was a movie written and directed by Bob Fosse, and was about Bob Fosse.  It was a musical fantasy with surrealistic sequences in which the Bob Fosse character, Joe Gideon, played by Scheider, who really did a wonderful job in the role, has meaningful conversations with the Angel of Death, listed in the credits as Angelique, played by a very young Jessica Lang.

The film is about how Joe is a man who lives a life of obsessions and addictions.  He is a workaholic, a perfectionist, an egomaniac, a drug user, a chain-smoker, and a sex addict.  He lives hard and fast, driving himself toward an inevitable heart attack.  When it comes, he goes into the hospital and the final fantasy sequence begins in which he sees himself in a glitzy film production.  He is wearing a sparkly, sequined costume, standing next to himself in the hospital bed with tubes coming out of his nose and mouth.

In this show, people from his real life show up and go into song and dance numbers about how they want him to live.  But when he does not, he goes into his final number, a duet with Ben Vereen as O’Connor Flood.  They sing the song Bye-Bye Life.  For those of you who don’t know the lyrics of the original song, they go, “Bye-Bye, Love.  Bye-Bye, Happiness.  Hello, Loneliness.  I Feel Like I could die.”  Instead Joe sings, “Bye-Bye Life,” and, “I think I’m gonna die.”  When the song is done, Joe finds himself floating down a long, shadowy hallway toward Angelique who is waiting for him with her arms open wide.

The little dream sequences in which Joe is speaking with Angelique are sprinkled throughout the film, commenting on what was going on in his life.  Joe has a daughter named Michelle, played by Erzsebet Foldi.  Her mother, Joe’s ex-wife, Audrey Paris, is a dancer, played by Leland Palmer.  Joe’s Current Girlfriend, Katie Jagger, is played by Anne Reinking.  All of these people represent specific people in Bob Fosse’s life.  Interestingly enough, Reinking’s character, Katie, was the film’s version of herself, Ann Reinking, who had been Bob Fosse’s girlfriend.  The character of Audrey was Fosse’s 3rd wife, Gwen Verdon.  The film paralleled Fosse’s life so closely, that in the movie, Gideon was choreographing a show while directing a film about a stand-up comedian called The Stand-up.  Fosse directed the film Lenny, starring Dustin Hoffman.  The stand-up comedian was played by Cliff Gorman.

For me, one of the best parts of the movie was a dance sequence called Airotica.  It is supposed to be a rough treatment of the show he is choreographing.  It starts out tame and fun, heavily laden with Fosse’s unique style of dancing.  But then it turns dark and overtly sexual, the dancers stripping to their underwear.  Three pairs of dancers are featured, a man and a woman, then two women, and then two men, each of them seeming to make love through their dance moves.  The choreography was fascinating to watch and it was a great scene, especially if you like the Fosse style.

There were parts of the movie that were great, but I have to admit that there were also a few parts that were self-indulgent and plodding.  The fact that Bob Fosse made a movie that was all about how awesome Bob Fosse was, was just a little too ego-maniacal.  Except that if I think about it, he was a little right.  At least he displayed his own flaws and shortcomings with just as much gusto as his talents.  The film delved into the psyche of the man, trying to figure out what made him so good at what he did.

And I think I found the answer in a single quote from the film.  While talking to the Angel of Death, Joe Gideon says, “No, nothing I ever do is good enough, it’s not deep enough, it’s not anything enough.  Now when I see a rose, that’s perfect.  I mean, that’s perfect.  I want to look up to God and say, ‘How the hell did you do that?  And why the hell can’t I do that?’”

1978 – An Unmarried Woman

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An Unmarried Woman – 1978

This was a movie that appears to be very relevant to the time in which it was released.  It touched on the Feminist Movement of the late 70s.  The movie had a really simple plot that followed a woman whose husband leaves her for a younger woman.  She is forced to become a single mother.  The film was about her struggles to become independent, and consequently, happier.

Jill Clayburgh was very good as Erica Benton.  She was the common woman.  There was nothing extraordinary about her.  She was married and, like many women, only ever knew physical and emotional love with one man, her husband, Martin, played by Michael Murphy.  He was supposed to be a good and hard-working man, a loving father, and an attentive spouse.  However, he had a little flaw.  He was cheating on his wife.

Actually, though Martin was supposed to be all those things, I didn’t like his character.  What I mean is, even before he confessed his infidelity to his wife, I didn’t like him.  He was a jerk.  He was irritable and got angry easily, inexplicably blamed his wife for ridiculous things, and got vocally upset when Erica wasn’t in the mood to have sex with him.  But fortunately, he wasn’t the focus of the movie.

In An Unmarried Woman, Erica is forced to endure all the negative emotions that are associated with the betrayal of a cheating husband.  The film takes a little time to show her depressed, frightened, angry, accepting, hopeful, and eventually happy, all understandable emotions.  And Clayburgh did a good job with all of them.  She is helped through her divorce by her daughter, Patty, played by Lisa Lucas, and her group of friends, Sue, Elaine, and Jeanette, played by Patricia Quinn, Kelly Bishop, and Linda Miller.

Some of the most memorable scenes, for me, were Erica’s sessions with her therapist, Tanya, played by Penelope Russianoff.  I liked Tanya.  She was calm and attentive, and she assisted Erica through some of the film’s deepest emotional moments, scenes where Erica dissolves into tears over her fears and her anger.  Tanya also helped Erica to explore a sort of sexual awakening, touching on the Sexual Liberation Movement.

Erica, in an attempt to get over her depression and sexual repression, tries to have a meaningless affair or two.  The first one doesn’t work out so well because she recklessly chooses a really sleazy guy, Charlie, played by Cliff Gorman.  But on her second try, she finds both love and happiness with Saul, a talented British artist, played by Alan Bates.  And just as an incidental note, the artist who created Saul’s wonderful abstract expressionist paintings for the film was the internationally renowned Paul Jenkins.

But here, critics say, is where the movie seems to undermine its own agenda.  The film was about following a woman who had been wronged along the road to her independence.  But in the end, it appears to be clear that she doesn’t want to be independent.  To quote from Wikipedia, “The two main criticisms … are that An Unmarried Woman is not relatable to all women because of the affluent life that Erica lives, and that even though the film shows Erica’s journey to independence, she ultimately does not want to be alone, and seeks out a relationship with Saul.”

But I completely disagree.  The critic who wrote that obviously didn’t watch the end of the movie.  So she has been dating Saul, and is falling in love with him.  In fact, he has broached the subject of marriage.  He has a place in Vermont in which he will be staying for 5 months.  He asks her to go with him.  The point is that she says no.  She has learned to be happy with her newfound independence and is not ready to give it up.

Jill Clayburgh unfortunately didn’t win the Academy Award for her performance, but there is no denying that she did a good job.  She portrayed the raw emotions and vulnerability of her character with depth and skill.  And I really enjoyed Alan Bates’ performance as well.  He was such a good guy, though he was not perfect.  He seemed to be emotionally rushing Erica, which had the effect of pushing her away a little.  In fact, I think the two of them had a very good on-screen chemistry, elevating the film from simply average to quite good.

1978 – Midnight Express

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Midnight Express – 1978

I have to say, I am pretty conflicted about Midnight Express.  There were some things that I liked very much, things that I thought were incredibly well done.  But there were just as many things that I didn’t like at all.  The movie had the potential to be incredibly good, but it too many problems that I couldn’t get past.

The film took itself way too seriously, trying to present itself as a deep, hard-hitting drama about a young man who is forced to endure unbelievable hardships!  He survives and triumphs!  It’s based on a true story!  It’s a film that pulls no punches!  It will change your life forever!  Well… not really, but it will be incredibly offensive to Turkish people and the Turkish nation.  The film had no subtlety at all, and was pretty heavy-handed, clobbering you over the head with its own self-importance.  And the overtly 80s style synth score, especially the crappy rock-inspired stuff at the beginning of the movie, was ridiculous.

It sounds like I have a lot of complaints, but as I said, there were just as many good things that I liked very much.  The subject matter was pretty heavily dramatic and there was some very good acting.  The ending was interesting and took a turn I didn’t expect.  It also had a couple of actors who I like.

The film was about Billy Hayes.  Billy, played by Brad Davis, is a young man who did a really dumb thing while visiting Turkey.  While leaving the country, he tried to smuggle 2 kg of hash through customs.  He was caught and tried in the Turkish court system.  He was convicted and sentenced to 4 years in prison, with the hope of a reduced sentence if he behaves himself, which he does, even though he is mentally abused and physically tortured.

He makes friends with an American inmate, Jimmy Booth, played by Randy Quaid, and a heroin addicted British inmate named Max, played by John Hurt.  Together, the three of them dream of escape.  The filthy and unsanitary conditions in the prison would be enough to drive anyone crazy.  But it was the prison snitch and the head guard that made their lives a real hell.  The snitch was a disgusting man named Rifiki, played by Paolo Bonacelli.  He took care of most of the mental abuse, depriving people of food, blankets, and dignity.  He would also watch for any misbehaving and report it to the head guard, Hamidou, played by Paul L. Smith.  Hamidou would administer the physical torture.  The scene where Billy is strung up by his ankles while Hamidou caned the souls of his feet was hard to watch.

Eventually, when his sentence is nearly complete, Billy learns that his sentence has been changed, and he is suddenly facing a 30 year sentence.  He loses his mind and murders Rifiki in a very gruesome battle, biting out his tongue.  He is transferred to a ward for the criminally insane.  He loses what is left of his sanity.  To make a long story short, Billy’s family smuggles him money and he tries to bribe Hamidou to get him transferred to a low-security ward.  Instead, Hamidou tries to rape him.  Billy kills the evil guard, steals his uniform, and escapes.

My biggest problem with the film is that it didn’t show a single example of a Turk who wasn’t evil or corrupt.  It portrayed them all as monsters.  As we all know, this is a complete fiction.  Even the film’s director, Alan Parker, said that the script, which had once been based on the memoirs of the real Billy Hayes, held little of the true story that it had once been.  One little change after another, after another, after another, produced a film with very little truth in it.

Apparently, one of the biggest offenders of making changes to the plot, was the script writer, Oliver Stone.  For example, the whole attempted rape, murder, and escape scene was a complete fiction.  In reality, Hayes was moved to another prison on an island from which he eventually escaped, by stealing a dinghy and rowing 17 miles in a raging storm across the Sea of Marmara.  But I guess that wasn’t dramatic enough for Stone.

But the performances from Davis, Smith, Quaid, and Hurt were good.  Davis really seemed to throw himself into the role.  The part where Billy learned of his increased sentence and denounced all of Turkey as a nation of pigs was pretty dramatic.  But like I said, it lacked any kind of subtlety and was as unapologetic as a sledge hammer.

2015 – Spotlight

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Spotlight – 2015

The new winner for 2015 is a movie called Spotlight, so named because the name of the newspaper specialty column for the Boston Globe was called Spotlight.  The purpose of the column was to do in depth investigative reports on issues of social significance.  This historical film tells the story of how the 4 Spotlight reporters and the newspaper editors of the Globe shined their spotlight on one of the world’s best kept dirty secrets: the rampant child abuse and sexual assaults perpetrated on children within the Catholic Church.

And it wasn’t just that the child abuse was uncovered, but that the Catholic Church had known about the problem for many, many years, and had not only done nothing to stop the problem, but had official policies in place to cover up the scandals and protect the priests who were preying on young boys and girls.  Priests were never punished.  They were just moved to different parishes where they would sexually abuse more defenseless children.

I actually didn’t really know much about the issue, and so I did a little reading to see just how accurate the events in the film were.  Apparently they were incredibly accurate.  In fact, they were so accurate and were handled with such honesty and care by the filmmakers, that the Catholic Church in the Archdiocese of Boston said that the “media’s investigative reporting on the abuse crisis instigated a call for the Church to take responsibility for its failings and to reform itself—to deal with what was shameful and hidden.”

Also, “a review published by the Catholic News Service called the film a ‘generally accurate chronicle’ of the Boston scandal, but objected to some of the portrayals and the film’s view of the Church.  On the Catholic News Service, auxiliary bishop of Los Angeles, Robert Barron, said that it is ‘not a bad movie’, as it shows that the wider community shares the responsibility for sexual abuse committed by priests, but that the film is wrong to insinuate that the Church has not reformed.”

Interesting Note:  One of the very few critics of the film said that one of the failings of the film was that it never made any mention of the psychologists who assured the Catholic Church that priests who had been caught molesting children had undergone sufficient therapy to be returned to their jobs.

It is important to mention those things before getting to other aspects of the film because the movie’s incredible accuracy and realism were what made it so impressive.  The movie is nearly educational about the scandal. The script made sense, was finely crafted, and did nothing to sensationalize the negative aspects of the situation.  They seemed to go out of their way to give the victims of the abuse, the Survivors as they were called, a real voice.  And it was done with true sensitivity and care.

But at the same time, the film did not focus on attacking the Catholic Church.  Instead, its focus was on the power of journalism.  While I was watching it, I was very much reminded of the 1976 Best Picture nominee, All the President’s Men with Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman.  Both films were the stories of criminal conspiracies that were investigated and made public by journalists.  In fact, one of the film’s goals was to highlight the power of journalism in an age where the profession has been waning.

Josh Singer, one of the two screenwriters, was quoted as saying that, “This story isn’t about exposing the Catholic Church. We were not on some mission to rattle people’s faith. In fact, Tom (Tom McCarthy, the other screenwriter and the film’s director) came from a Catholic family. The motive was to tell the story accurately while showing the power of the newsroom – something that’s largely disappeared today. This story is important. Journalism is important, and there is a deeper message in the story.”

The story took place in 2001.  Many will remember the very public scandal that rocked the world back then, giving the Catholic Church and nearly all organized religion a black eye.  The movie had an ensemble cast with some pretty prominent names.  Michael Keaton played the Spotlight team’s editor, Walter “Robby” Robinson.  He worked under Ben Bradlee Jr., played by John Slattery.  The film starts off as the Globe’s chief editor is retiring, and a new editor, Marty Baron, played by Liev Schreiber, is hired.  The three other Spotlight reporters working under Robinson are Michael Rezendes, played by Mark Ruffalo, Sasha Pfeiffer, played by Rachel McAdams, and Matt Carrol, played by Brian d’Arcy James.

And there is your main cast.  The film gave pretty equal time to each of the actors, giving each of them their own little dramatic moments.  The only exception to that might have been Ruffalo.  His drama was, at times, more intense, and his story was followed a little more closely.  Ruffalo was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his work, and I really think he deserved it.  I have seen him in other films and he has always been good.  In Spotlight, he was phenomenal.  He seemed deeply invested in his role and extremely passionate about the subject matter.  I was really impressed with his performance.

However, there were also a number of other actors whose names are easily recognizable, all of whom did a fine job, as well.  Stanley Tucci played Mitchell Garabedian, an attorney who was representing the victims of sexual abuse without much apparent success, Billy Crudup as Eric McLeish, another attorney who also represented victims, but who was compliant with the cover-ups perpetrated by the Church, and Len Cariou, playing the part of Cardinal Law, the high Church official who knew about the abuse going on in the Boston area and was largely behind the cover-up conspiracy.

Interesting note:  I liked how the movie acknowledged the terrorist attacks of September 11 that took place during their investigations.  In fact, part of the plot was that the story about the Catholic Church sexual abuse scandal was almost derailed because every reporter possible was reassigned to cover that more immediate story.

The wonderful thing about the plot was how easily it was able to draw me in to the story.  It really is a very disturbing subject matter.  It was made clear that yes, the Catholic Church and its backwards policies were the real criminals, but the blame did not stop there because it was a crime that everybody knew about, yet did nothing.  It made the point of saying that if you know about such a terrible crime and do nothing, then you are far from blameless.  In fact, the character of Robby had once had the opportunity to tackle the story years earlier, but had not.  He was honest enough to put his own name on the list of those who were responsible for letting the sexual abuse crimes continue.

The number of victims was staggering.  The Spotlight team is initially told to investigate a single priest who had been caught abusing children, and the cardinal who allegedly knew about it and did nothing.  But as the investigators dig deeper and uncover more evidence and hear more stories, the number of priests being investigated raises to 13.  Then, as they dig even deeper, the list of names raises to 87 clergymen in the Boston area alone.

The investigative team keeps pushing and keeps working, relentlessly pursuing the truth.  They conduct interview after interview, they file a lawsuit to gain access to sealed documents that prove the Cardinal’s involvement in the cover-ups.  The film does a really great job of following the investigative process.  Not only did I learn about the scandal, but I learned a little bit about how such investigative reporters do their jobs.

Now, I have to take a moment to mention the film’s score.  Right from the opening credits, the music set the tone of the entire movie.  It had a distinctly sad and melancholy feel.  It was heavy and a bit ominous.  It seemed to have an immediate sense of foreboding that never completely went away.  Then, during the scenes where the surviving victims began to tell their stories, the sadness and depression that they felt seemed to fit right into the music.  They complimented each other and made for some pretty effective story-telling.

And the stories that they told made a terrible sense.  Only a few full and detailed stories were told, but they were eerily realistic when describing how the abusive priests were able to manipulate the children into having sexual relations with them, and how they were able to callously prey on the children’s fragile emotions to prevent them from telling anybody about what was being done to them.

And why didn’t the victims generally say anything?  Because a priest is supposed to be a kind and benevolent authority.  If he says it is alright to do something, then it must be alright.  Then, after the abuse has started, shame is a powerful emotion that prevents the child from saying anything.

Interesting note:  The film did a wonderful job of looking at the scandal from a number of different viewpoints.  It examined it from the prospective of the Church, the lawyers, the reporters, the public, the victims, and even, in one case, a perpetrator.  In a small but memorable role, Richard O’Rourke, plays Father Paquin, a retired priest who not only freely admits to molesting children, he claims that he was the victim.

But the end of the film was like both a vindication and a victory for the victims.  The Spotlight team finally gathers enough evidence to run their story that not only goes after Cardinal Law, but the Catholic Church and its policy of ignoring the sexual abuse being perpetrated by hundreds of its priests.  As part of their article, they give the number of the Spotlight Office as a victim hot-line.  The morning the story runs, they arrive at the office, expecting strong legal opposition from the Catholic Church.  Instead, they are inundated with hundreds of calls from people all over the Boston area who want to come out of hiding and tell their stories, revealing that the abuse was even more widespread than they had even imagined.  The time was right and the story had to be told.  The Church was clearly guilty and had no defense.

After the screen went to black, but before the actual credits started rolling, the following text was shown on the screen:  “Over the course of 2002, the Spotlight team published close to 600 stories about the scandal.  249 priests and brothers were publicly accused of sexual abuse within the Boston Archdiocese.  The number of Survivors in Boston is estimated to be well over 1,000.  In December of 2002, Cardinal Law resigned from the Boston Archdiocese.  He was reassigned to the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome, one of the highest ranking Roman Catholic Churches in the world.  Major abuse scandals have been uncovered in the following places…”  The names of 206 cities around the world were then listed.  I think screenwriter Josh Singer did his job.  He showed just how powerful real journalism can be.

1978 – Heaven Can Wait

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Heaven Can Wait – 1978

This is a remake of a movie that I didn’t really care for in the first place, 1941’s Here Comes Mr. Jordan.  I tried to go into it with an open mind.  Maybe they had found a way to improve the story or fix the plot holes.  But, sadly, they did not.  The changes they made were no more than cosmetic.  In fact, the only thing they really changed was the sport that the main character was playing.  In 1941, the character of Joe Pendleton was a boxer who wanted a shot at the champion title.  In 1978 Joe was a quarterback for the Los Angeles Rams who wanted to lead his team to a Super Bowl victory.  Why the change?  Aside from that, most of the differences were insignificant.  The inherent problems with the script remained.

Heaven Can Wait starred Warren Beatty as Joe Pendleton.  It is his life’s dream to be the quarterback for the Rams in the Super Bowl.  Unfortunately, an inept angel called the Escort, played by Buck Henry, sees Joe heading toward an accident, and takes his soul from his body about 50 years ahead of schedule.  Ok, here is my first real problem.  According to the rules of this film, there is a schedule that tells when people are going to die.  But if Joe wasn’t even scheduled to die for another 50 years, why was the Escort even there to collect his soul in the first place?

Then there was the saxophone.  Joe loved to play the saxophone, but he didn’t have it with him when his soul was taken.  But for some reason, he is carrying it at the way-station.  He is still wearing the same clothes he was wearing when the accident occurred, suggesting that he is supposed to appear as he did at the moment of his death.  But then, why the saxophone?

Because of the Escort’s mistake, soul collection supervisor, Mr. Jordan, played by James Mason, is called in to review the situation.  He corrects the error by making a deal with Joe, saying that he will give him the body of a person who is about to die.  Joes dream of taking the rams to the Super Bowl are so strong that he refuses every candidate who is not in top physical condition.

Ever patient, Mr. Jordan keeps looking and they eventually settle on Mr. Farnsworth, a multi billionaire whose wife, Julia, played by Dyan Cannon, and his personal secretary, Tony Abbott, played by Charles Grodin, are having an affair.  They are murdering Mr. Farnsworth for his money, of course.  Then, Betty Logan arrives, played by Julie Christi.  She is coming to yell at Mr. Farnsworth for being a mean billionaire.  When Joe sees her, he instantly falls in love with her and decides to take the Farnsworth body.  Inexplicably, the saxophone shows up in the hands of his new body.  But he is still obsessed with playing quarterback for the Rams at the Super Bowl.  So he goes into training and hires his old trainer, Max Corkle, played by Jack Warden, to get the Farnsworth body into shape.

I’m sorry to say it, but the potentially good plot is ruined by the lack of attention to the details of good story telling.  Add to that, some pretty ridiculous acting by Dyan Cannon, and I have a hard time taking the film seriously.  Something else I noticed was that this is the first nominated film in which I can recall seeing the style and the fashions turn towards that classic early 80’s aesthetic.  For example, the horribly ugly hairstyles for the women really stood out to me, especially the ridiculous perm they gave Julie Christi.  It looked awful!

As I was watching the movie, I was rolling my eyes at some of the costumes they were making Warren Beatty wear as the wealthy Mr. Farnsworth.  He was dressed in pseudo-military sailing uniforms.  They screamed, “His character is rich!  He needs to look rich!  This is what rich people wear!”  He ended up being a parody of a rich man.  At least the character questions the clothing and stops wearing it.

As with the 1941 film, the biggest problem I have with the film has to do with the character of Max Corkle.  Joe has told him the secret of his real identity.  But in the end, the Farnsworth body is successfully murdered by Tony and Julia, and Joe is given the body of the Ram’s star quarterback, Tom Jarrett who is killed on the football field at the Super Bowl.  After Joe wins the game, he forgets who he is.  But Max still has knowledge of the afterlife!  It was never addressed in either film!  While it doesn’t break any rules, I guess, it just looks like a loose thread that should have been tied off.  But hey, what do I know.  Someone thought it was a good enough story to remake the film, and they were BOTH nominated for Best Picture.  But I have to ask… what am I missing?