Archive | November 2009

nostalgia necessities: AN AMERICAN TAIL: FIEVEL GOES WEST (1991)

Proof that Disney doesn’t have a monopoly on fun, energetic, musical, nostalgia-worthy pictures, An American Tail: Fievel Goes West is a joyous and oftentimes hilarious ride from the Bronx to Green River, Wyoming. First thing’s first — I haven’t seen the first American Tail movie. I, like everyone else, have of course heard the anthem “Somewhere Out There” countless times, but I’ve never seen the 1986 original. What I do know, though, is that this sequel features a stellar voice cast — Dom DeLuise (hysterical!), John Cleese (despicable!), and, you heard right, Jimmy Stewart as Sheriff Wylie Burp. And aside from featuring a few surprisingly great musical numbers (Cathy Cavadini is lovely on the vocals for both “Dreams to Dream” and “The Girl I Left Behind”), this movie is somehow still funny to me as an adult.

Chalk it up to my now-ability to appreciate the fact that James Stewart is in this sort of movie (and that it’s his last film performance) and that DeLuise’s character Tiger delivers some pretty gut-busting lines throughout the movie — the “How… do you do?,” the barking lessons, and, of course, the Lazy Eye. And then there’s the strange occurrence of Amy Irving playing the New Yawkese seductress Miss Kitty, while her recent ex-husband Steven Spielberg produces. Gotta love behind-the-scenes awkwardness!

So say what you will about most non-Disney animated efforts, but Universal did us a service with this one. It’s a fun and adventurous western tale with a noble and lovable hero, an endearing and sweet-voiced chanteuse, a silly and laugh-peddling feline sidekick, and a distinguished and heartwarming turn from a classic actor who still had it. It’s too bad the studio didn’t cash in on potential for more “American tails,” since after this one, it was relegated to the direct-to-video cemetery with fellow excellent non-Disney fare like The Land Before Time. But hopefully we can all remember Fievel fondly as the aspiring cowboy who saved the mice from becoming mouseburgers.

Memorable Scene: When Tiger first encounters Chula the spider, his response is pretty entertaining. Thanks again, Dom DeLuise.

best films: #66: THE FIRST WIVES CLUB (1996)

Confession: I’m fairly certain that I’ve never seen any movie as many times as I’ve seen The First Wives Club. Now the question I ask you is why on earth would this not be the case in anyone’s life? It features three hilarious comedic performances from three very talented women — Diane Keaton, Goldie Hawn, and Bette Midler; it has cameo and bit part appearances from some other talented folks — Maggie Smith, Eileen Heckart, and Sarah Jessica Parker, to name a few; and Robert Harling‘s script is one of the funniest and most quotable I’ve ever encountered in my movie viewing. Following the frienassance of three buddies from college who find themselves in the same divorce-ridden predicament, First Wives Club is about these ladies’ retribution against their money-grubbing ex-husbands-to-be. It’s watching movies like this that makes me wonder, why is it that Hollywood doesn’t bring powerhouse talents like this together more often? It’s like planets aligning, as far as I’m concerned. And thanks to this, this, and pretty much all of this, First Wives Club is one of my all-time favorites.

Standout Performance: Midler and Keaton are hysterical (as usual), but for me, this show was all Hawn’s, whose drunken aging actress is cheeky, silly, and pure genius.

merylfest: ANGELS IN AMERICA (2003)

Delving a bit into the television work that Meryl has dabbled in over the years, I viewed the HBO miniseries, Angels in America. In this series, Streep played several characters, including a male rabbi, infamous Ethel Rosenberg’s ghost, and a disapproving Mormon mother. And the great thing about these three very different performances is that they really can be dealt with separately in terms of reactions. Let’s begin with Ethel. Aside from the fact that the hair and makeup artists did a remarkable job making her the spitting image of Mrs. Rosenberg (and though her supposed 37-year-old character looked a bit more aged, I learned from the wonderful Parker Posey in You’ve Got Mail that she looked far older than she actually was), Streep’s take on the semi-bitter, semi-droll executed New Yorker was surprisingly amusing. And to see her give the despicable Roy Cohn (played erratically by Al Pacino) was satisfying to say the least.

Meryl also played the role of sexually confused lawyer Joe Pitt’s (Patrick Wilson) mother, whose initial disgust in the choices of her son provided easily the most intriguing and undeniably interesting parts of the miniseries. She cast as a villain in her counteraction with Wilson’s character, but it’s when she meets Prior (Justin Kirk) that her no-nonsense, faithful nature is tested with dramatic results that most actors would kill for. She’s made to look as matronly and pesky as possible, so it’s hard to fall for her oftentimes frustrating character, but it’s hands-down the best one in the movie.

The third of her three characters gets the least screen time. But it’s okay, since it’s definitely the weakest one. Sure, it’s a nice comic relief to have a distinguished, beautiful woman play a wrinkly, old rabbi with a sharp tongue and lilting wit. And that bearded physical transformation is something to behold. (Liver spots?! Oy vey!) But unfortunately this role is relegated to the silly. It’s hard to take too much from it, unless I missed something deeply important…

Meryl’s Rosenberg Performance: B+
Meryl’s Mormon Mama Performance: A
Meryl’s Rabbi Performance: B-
The Film: A-

25 best movie tearjerkers

In honor of the tissue-use-inducing, lip-quiver-causing flicks that we know and love, the following is the 25 best tearjerkers in filmdom…

Honorable Mention: Regarding Henry (1991), Vera Drake (2004), Love Story (1970)


25. Milk (2008) — 24. The Bridges of Madison County (1995)
23. Where the Red Fern Grows (1974) — 22. My Girl (1991) — 21. Boys Don’t Cry (1999)


20. In America (2003) — 19. Away from Her (2007) — 18. Hoosiers (1986)
17. Whale Rider (2003) — 16. The Pianist (2002)


15. Young @ Heart (2008) — 14. On Golden Pond (1981) — 13. Steel Magnolias (1989)
12. Schindler’s List (1993) — 11. Terms of Endearment (1983)


10. Marvin’s Room (1996) — 9. Titanic (1997) — 8. The Color Purple (1985)
7. It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) — 6. Dead Man Walking (1995)


5. Brokeback Mountain (2005) — 4. Up (2008) — 3. E.T. – The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
2. Sophie’s Choice (1982) — 1. Life is Beautiful (1998)

characters: MARGO MARTINDALE

She’s been awfully entertaining as best pals, strange relatives, and both helpful and aggravating shrinks, and Margo Martindale is truly an unsung hero of the character actor world. She’s ace at playing the mumsy type with a little wisp of dignity that makes her characters out to have more depth and intrigue than they probably every deserved to have based on how they were underwritten. The Rocketeer (a guilty pleasure of mine since childhood) comes to mind, in which she plays Millie, the motherly diner owner who corrals in the male patrons when they’re pushing the leading lovebirds to much and who wields a mean frying pan when the occasion calls for it.
And this buddy neighborly type is seemingly what she most often finds herself doing — Linda Bennett in Practical Magic, Mrs. Latch in The Hours, etc. There is an argument, though, for her seeming tendency to constantly play characters who work in hospitals of some kind. In 28 Days she played the rehab clinic’s receptionist (in true droll Martindale fashion), in Marvin’s Room she played the inquisitive therapist to Leonardo DiCaprio (“What do you think I mean?”), and in the recent so-bad-it’s-damn-entertaining Orphan she played the frustratingly dense therapist to Vera Farmiga‘s desperate heroine.
But the truly great moments for this unique actress come when she’s stepping away from her motherly/doctorly roles to play a curveball. Though I’m never one to champion Million Dollar Baby in any way, Martindale’s take on the young boxer’s down-and-out mother was probably the most breathtaking thing about the movie. Yes, she’s in the role of the mother yet again, but it’s certainly not “motherly” in any way. And then there’s her bit part in Dead Man Walking, in which she plays Susan Sarandon‘s character’s nun pal. She’s definitely subtle in her role, but it’s a quiet intrigue that plays out best when she’s relaying the division in the church that her volunteer work is causing.

best films: #67: BACK TO THE FUTURE (1985)

Though it’s been spoofed, quoted, homaged, and referenced to probably a nauseating extent in the years since, Back to the Future is a quintessential ’80s popcorn flick for a variety of reasons.  For starters, you can’t quite find a charmer just like Michael J. Fox – though he has his detractors out there, he’s a spritely, sassy teen with just the right amounts of too-cool and sweet-natured in this flick.  And though he chews every bit of scenery there is, Christopher Lloyd is of course fast becoming an iconic image of ’80s nostalgia thanks to his insane Einstein hair, gawky-eyed stares, and “1.21 jigowatts!” hammed up exclamations.  But thanks to some excellent adventure direction from Robert Zemeckis and a killer score that other fantasy movies tend to envy by Alan Silvestri, Back to the Future is more than just a trifle – it really is an experience.  Where it truly seems to succeed most is in its ability to create memorable imagery.  From the time-traveling Delorean to the handmade “Moonlight Under the Sea” dance posters to the aural imagery of Huey Lewis belting out “Power of Love,” this movie becomes something of a cultural experience.  One that, it seems, is impossible to recreate with modern cinema.  With wham-bang effects and more cynical audiences, movies with the same heart and chutzpah as Back to the Future, The Goonies, and Adventures in Babysitting (a.k.a. movies that somehow get away with putting teens and children in mortal danger and making it downright hilarious) are virtually impossible to pull off.  But at least we have the magic of DVD to let us take a trip back whenever we feel like it.

oscar rehash: best actress 2005

Judi Dench as Mrs. Laura Henderson in Mrs. Henderson Presents
Dench plays a recent widow who’s looking for a steady paycheck and finds it in the form of a nude burlesque house in Mrs. Henderson Presents. Sort of unconventional as Dench roles go, but the film is at the very least relatively humorous and entertaining. The star has great chemistry with Bob Hoskins, who plays her business partner and the manager of the house. Quite frankly, this is no Shakespeare in Love. It’s no Chocolat either. In fact, it’s probably not even on par with her performances as M in the Bond movies. But it’s endearing enough, if probably not deserving of making the top 5 of the year. Dench has seen better roles, and this one is merely an amusing garnish. Grade: B-

Felicity Huffman as Bree in Transamerica
Now this one came with a LOT of buzz by the time I got to it, but it turns out that Huffman‘s performance in Transamerica is mostly for shock value. She plays a pre-op transsexual who goes on a little road trip with her newly discovered estranged son (Kevin Zegers of Air Bud fame) who happens to be a street hustler. Huffman is wooden and awkward, which sort of fits her character. The problem lies in the strange screenplay that plays as a sort of comedy with weirdly dark subtexts. Huffman is a talented actress (see her work in the first season of Desperate Housewives or Sports Night for proof), but this is hardly the tour-de-force role to remember her by. Grade: C-

Keira Knightley as Elizabeth Bennett in Pride and Prejudice
Knightley had an awful lot to live up to in this one; in fact, she had dozens of adaptations of this literary character from Pride and Prejudice to be compared to (namely Jennifer Ehle’s in 1996 and Greer Garson’s in 1940). And though she doesn’t quite live up to the ultimate adaptation (Ehle, in my opinion), she’s able to take what could be a five-hour miniseries role and make it her own in an under-two-hour film version. Though Knightley has had some growth to do as an actress, this is easily her first well-crafted role. Her waifish, dowdy air could’ve easily served her poorly in this period piece, but she shines as the headstrong heroine of Jane Austen’s classic story. Grade: B+

Charlize Theron as Josey Aimes in North Country
I’m not yet convinced of the fortitude of Ms. Theron and her work. So confession – I haven’t seen Monster, but what I’ve seen of Charlize in her lighter work and in North Country, there’s hardly anything too astounding and revolutionary to be found. She plays a sexually harassed factory worker who files a landmark class action suit against her company. But unlike Sally Field in Norma Rae and Meryl Streep in Silkwood, Theron doesn’t bring anything exciting and new to the table. She’s simply a typical “rah-rah” hero of which we’re meant to get swept up in the drama. This just seemed all too much like a hasty second nomination to prove that giving her the Oscar in 2003 was no fluke. Grade: C-

Reese Witherspoon as June Carter Cash in Walk the Line
Witherspoon, the eventual winner, brought a little extra to the often dull affair of biopics. Though movies about real-life singers have become tiresome of late, in Walk the Line she took the not-so-familiar story of Carter and molded her into a multi-dimensional character (and it didn’t hurt that she has a nice set of pipes on her). I would definitely say she’d proven herself a talent moreso in earlier work (see Election, Pleasantville) this was nonetheless a fine performance that begs for a follow-up fine performance that, sadly enough, has not yet come (chalk it up Catherine Zeta-Jones syndrome). Grade: B+

The Verdict: I, boringly enough, would probably still opt for Witherspoon on this one (she was also my own personal choice for winner that year), but I’d’ve liked to see she and Knightley joined by the likes of Naomi Watts in King Kong, Radha Mitchell in Melinda and Melinda, and Lisa Kudrow in Happy Endings.