Terms of Endearment (1983)

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I owe a comedic debt to James L. Brooks and that’s for the basic fact that he’s made me laugh countless times, namely because of his work with sitcoms. The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Taxi are two prime examples. The casts he brought together and the writing, the writing is just absolutely superb, orchestrating that tricky balancing act between humor and heart.

When I look at Terms of Endearment from a purely objective perspective it looks like a wonderful picture. James L. Brooks, the mastermind of so many great projects is writer, director, and producer. It’s his first time behind the camera for a film and his cast is what most others would only dream about. Looking down the cast list is like a hit parade.

Shirley MacLaine as the widowed Aurora, the quirky mother who is strangely difficult, looking for love and still somehow detached — with both her daughter and a plethora of male companions. The always spirited Debra Winger as her daughter Emma. Her husband, the fresh-faced lawyer, Flap is played by Jeff Daniels. The always devilishly grinning Jack Nicholson plays the washed-up astronaut next door who makes the strangest and somehow most viable of suitors for Aurora. And the other nooks and crannies are filled in by the likes of Danny DeVito and John Lithgow. So with such a rank and file, there’s no question that this film should be remarkable.

But for some reason, it just doesn’t come off. It’s not that it doesn’t have its moments or that it’s not intermittently funny, romantic, and moving. There are tinges of those qualities that this film is undoubtedly looking to elicit. But for some reason, one that is somehow difficult to articulate, Terms of Endearment never brought me in like the truly great films have a habit of doing.

Was the plotting too slow? Were there too many characters? Was it due to the fact that I have never been a huge admirer of Shirley MacLaine’s work? To each of these, I would have to give a fairly decisive “No.” In fact, for me, this is one of MacLaine’s finest roles (along with The Apartment) to date. She’s somewhat perturbing, inscrutable you might say, but that also makes her the most interesting character. Watching her cold maternal figure evolve is one of the interesting aspects of this story.

Because she is trying to learn what it is to love and in a sense what it is to show that affection which comes second nature to most. Over time I’ve become increasingly impressed with Debra Winger because there’s always something so dynamic about her — a certain vitality that allows her to do comedy and tragedy equally well.  Both are on display here but for that same unknowable reason, Terms of Endearment did not move me as much as I expected. That’s no criticism just the simple, honest truth as clearly as I can lay it down.

But I respect this film because any film about people, their relationships, and how they navigate the tragedies of life is worth at least a little bit of trouble. Parsing through those very relationships is what this story cares about like Brooks’ earlier works. Maybe it did not affect me as much as I might have expected but that does not take away from the fact that mother-daughter bonds are worth exploring as are marital turbulence and personal tragedy. Because each of these is a very real circumstance and there’s something incredibly honest in trying to examine such things. For that, I commend Brooks as well as his film.  I will not be singing its praises necessarily but we all can respect Terms of Endearment for the very fact that it’s sincerely trying to dissect our world with wit and grace. Whether it succeeds is very subjective indeed. But then again, that’s part of the magic of the movies. At their very core, they are subjective.

3.5/5 Stars

Purple Rose of Cairo (1985)

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“How many times is a man so taken with a woman that he walks off the screen just to get her?”

This line spoken by one of Jeff Daniels’ characters is really the key to opening up the fantasy that is Purple Rose of Cairo. Here is a film where Woody Allen most blatantly gets to parade his love for the movies and it revolves around the Depression, a love story, and a movie theater. Cecilia (Mia Farrow) is a woman who gets by working in a diner with a bum of a husband (Danny Aiello) who beats her more than he loves her. Her one getaway is the escapist thrills derived from the weekly romances and melodramas found at the local theater. She’s one of the most faithful attendees making it out to the movies religiously and she goes back out into the world reciting all that she has seen to anyone who is willing to listen.

And there is a bit of Buster Keaton’s Sherlock Jr. here as well. It’s not as inventive visually but several scenes that include the firing off of dialogue between the screen and reality work to great effect.  That’s something Keaton could not do in a silent picture, have his movie characters and audience members interact so directly.

It’s striking that the scenes that have been constructed as “film” really do look like films of old. There’s an attention to the craft rather than the shoddy caricature of grainy black and white that we’re often accustomed to. Even the striking resemblance of Edward Hermann to Edward Everett Horton as well as the makeup work complete with black eyeshadow lends itself to the whole charade.

And Purple Rose of Cairo is literally about a man coming off the silver screen to interact with one of his viewers — one of the people who is devoted to him — and he loves her. The woman is, of course, Cecilia, and the man off the celluloid is Tom Baxter (Jeff Daniels the first time around) a man who was written as a supporting character, an archaeologist.

That in itself might be enough to play with but Allen takes his story a step further so it’s not simply about this unlikely romance of worlds colliding. But it gets even more intriguing when the famed actor who plays Tom in “real life,” the man Gil Sheppard (Jeff Daniels again) crosses paths with Cecilia. At first, he’s interested in her because she has a way to assist him in his predicament since she knows his unruly alter ego. However, over time it turns into a certain amount of awe because she is devoted to his characters and by a certain amount of transference, him as well. The question that is then raised rather obviously is, do you take the perfectly constructed fantasy man or do you go with reality? That which is right in front of you, both living and breathing and fully human.

It’s also a commentary on the rigid conventions that storytellers are often forced to adhere to. Aside from “art-house,” there can be little to no films with people talking or dealing with philosophical issues. That’s too mundane. Of course, Allen is notably one who matches his comedic delivery with his own philosophical quibblings. And this film is light but it still raises some of the questions he is often preoccupied with. Whether or not he comes to a satisfying conclusion is for only the viewer to decide, and if the film itself is any indication they are the ones who must decide. The viewer, in this case, has great agency. They are the focal point of this film, again, in the literal sense.

As is Woody Allen’s penchant, the film opens with an old standard, in this case, the crooning voice of Fred Astaire knocking off a few bars of “Cheek to Cheek.” And the story ends with Astaire & Rogers dancing the night away. While Purple Rose of Cairo cannot quite top Top Hat, it’s a bittersweet dose of 30s nostalgia all the same. It shows once more that Woody Allen truly does love movies with a passion. That’s one thing that’s difficult to take away from him, but it does beg the question, can movies really be your be all, end all?

Some of the implications are rather troubling as we leave Cecilia completely immersed in a film, her real life completely ripped to shreds without a marriage or a job or really anything else. But she has a movie. Except movies can only go so far in how they emulate reality. They cannot replace it or perfectly replicate what is real. They can only help us understand it better. That is why, while movies can and should be entertainment at times, they should not only be pure escapism. Because the reality is that life is still right outside our door. We cannot get rid of it or lose sight of our role in it — both in good times and bad.

We are probably all just as messed up as the next person and perhaps little better than Woody Allen in some ways, still, if we don’t simply love movies but hope to glean a little from them about life then we are better off. They cannot be the ultimate thing in life but they can direct us towards the important things.

3.5/5 Stars

Pleasantville (1998)

pleasantville 1This was not the film I expected from the outset, and oftentimes that’s a far more gratifying experience. Nostalgia was expected and this film certainly has it,  even to the point of casting the legendary funny man and cultural icon Don Knotts in the integral role as the television repairman.

However, with this there was a degree of apprehension, because while paying homage to the past, Leave it to Beaver, Father Knows Best, Andy Griffith and so on, there seemed to be a certain amount of denigrating of such classics– a tongue and cheek way of approaching the quaint television past of the 1950s. There was little reverence for these admittedly quaint but still respected programs.

My fears were seemingly confirmed minutes later with black and white imagery being equated to repression as the beautiful colors of the town became unfurled with greater enlightenment and personal expression. But that’s not quite right. The story goes both ways. And to understand that we have to take a closer look at our two diverging main characters.

When Garry Ross’s film begins in the present day, David (Tobey Maguire) leads the life of a bookish TV nerd, watching old reruns and cataloging trivial factoids in the cavernous crevices of his mind. At this point he’s relationally stagnant and based on this social life, he looks to be going nowhere fast. His sister Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon) is on the complete opposite spectrum, infatuated with boys, imbued with sexual freedom, and dare we say a tad superficial.

But to make a long story short, these two siblings get thrown into the life and times of David’s favorite TV show Pleasantville, complete with black and white cinematography and vintage ’50s lifestyles. The interesting part is watching them learn how to find another part of themselves contrary to what they initially found their identity in. It means freedom of not only body but mind too and that extends to all the other people who they influence.

In a pinch, it also makes for a handy allegory on race, with literal color being of such a high concern among the paranoid townsfolk. Because as more people become “colored” it creates a degree of unrest in the community. They hold to the belief that “different” is not good — to be “other” is to be frowned upon. It’s Jennifer first and then David who begin to change the status quo, including their mother (Joan Allen), the local diner owner (Jeff Daniels) and many of the other teenagers.

So on second glance, Pleasantville is a film that says television reruns and nostalgia are quite alright, but then again, there’s so much to be lived and experienced in the present moment too. There will be bad just as there was bad before and there will be good things that will manifest themselves still more abundantly like previous generations. Those are the universal rhythms of life, and they should free us up to live with supreme confidence in who we are, breaking out of the tedium that is our comfort zone. And that’s a lesson that not only revels in the glories of previous generations but still gives us hope for the future millennium, now well underway over 15 years after Pleasantville was originally released.

It’s not a story without flaws, but it’s the fact that it has flaws that actually make it worth watching. We need a little bit of rain in our lives — the inconsistencies and the idiosyncrasies to add greater depth, not only to our character but in turn to our relationships. It then becomes absolutely necessary to come up with a clear definition of pleasant or even to concede that not everything can or should be pleasant. Because you need the darkness to bring out the full spectrum of colors — all those colors commonly referred to as human emotions.

4/5 Stars

The Martian (2015)

The_Martian_film_posterThe Martian is not the film you first expect. It’s a space thriller. It has tense moments assuredly, but it also has an astute sense of humor that pulses through the film as its lifeblood. It makes Ridley Scott’s latest endeavor, based on the novel by Andy Weir, all the more palatable because it lends a fresh face to space exploration.

I’m not sure if I quite buy Matt Damon as a scientifically savvy astronaut and world-class botanist, but he makes it go down easy with a mix of resourcefulness and charm. Despite the casting of Matt Damon and Jessica Chastain, it soon becomes obvious that this is no Interstellar and that’s a good thing. Both films fly high on their own merit and both work due to their unique human component.

Our narrative opens on the metallic surface of mars where the crew of Ares III is going through their normal daily regimen as part of their expedition for NASA. As with any film of this nature, there must be a malfunction and a subsequent wrench in the plans. Initially, everything is secure enough, but a wind storm hits with a vengeance. In an instant team member Mark Watney (Damon) is pummeled by debris that sends him flying. His mission commander Lewis (Chastain) makes a last-ditch effort to search for him, but she must reluctantly call for an evacuation of her crew. They somberly begin their journey back to earth as NASA head Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels) prepares to feed the news to the press.

Little do they know what is going on back on the red planet. Watney is alive and resolves to stay that way by taking stock of his resources, maintaining a video log, and beginning the arduous process of growing potatoes on Mars. It’s all part of a bigger picture, though, because he knows Ares will be returning on another mission. His time increments are denoted as Sols and he knows he has to stretch out his resources for well over 500 Sols if he’s ever to get back home. It’s going to be close.

Once they get over the initial shock, NASA’s mission control, led by Sanders and mission director Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor), look to do all they can to get to Watney in time. There are tough decisions ahead of them as they figure out when to notify Watney’s colleagues about his status, while also building up communication with the isolated astronaut so they can devise the best plan to reach him. All cylinders are powered up with the best and the brightest in NASA attempting to devise the most efficient solution, but everything comes down to some crucial tactical moves.

Watney on his part, maintains his good humor, grows sick of the ship’s vast catalog of disco tunes, and continues to cultivate his food stock, while also doing some creative problem-solving in order to prepare to rendezvous with the next mission. But time in this scenario is an evil bedfellow, and following the destruction of Watney’s cash crop and the annihilation of a NASA rocket carrying provisions, it looks like dire straits ahead. That’s when it comes down to a brainiac of an astrodynamicist (Donald Glover) and the crew of the Aries led by Commander Lewis to salvage the rescue operation.

By now it seems almost second nature for Ridley Scott to direct films in space and once again he looks perfectly at home in the vast expanses of the Milky Way. The trick, like any respected director, he brings the story down to earth. Back to the people who make up the story. And truthfully, the casting is ceaselessly interesting and Matt Damon might just be the most unsurprising pick of all. But going down the line we have the likes of Jeff Daniels, Kristen Wiig, and Donald Glover. They each hold varying degrees of importance at different junctures in the narrative, but each one of them comes from a comic background. Thus, it becomes an interesting change in environment, because we get to see them function in a different type of capacity altogether. Otherwise, the film has a fun disco-filled, David Bowie-accented, ABBA-infused soundtrack that feels perfectly at odds with outer space.

The Martian goes out with a wonderfully fitting denouement giving a nod to all its cast members, continuing the ongoing exploration of space, and leaving us with some quintessential O’Jays. Who would have thought a film such as this would have ended with “Love Train” and “I Will Survive” back to back? It’s pretty fantastic. Mars is cool too.

4/5 Stars