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The Last Picture Show (1971)
...the coffee cup shakes in her hand...
Without mentioning the beautiful cinematography, the melancholy that lurks beneath the surface of all the characters' lives, the amazingly accurate production design, or the top-notch direction...this movie is a classic to me for one reason: Cloris Leachman's performance in the final scene. I think it's the single greatest "Telling Him Off" scene in film. I am absolutely spellbound by her work. In this final scene, she completely is this woman in the dingy bathrobe, with the uncombed hair and unkempt house. But the appearance is only the icing. The true strength of the performance comes from the words. Her voice is at first passive and compliant, but after a moment of awkward politeness, the coffee cup shakes in her hand, and She unleashes this woman's anger, hurt, frustration, and sadness not only for her failed affair with the young Timothy Bottoms, but for all the years of whatever disappointments she has known in this dying Texas town. The anger passes to calm and a resolution of sorts between herself and Bottoms develops, and she gently takes his hand. Just moments after unleashing her pent-up fury, she has again become a sort of surrogate mother to this messed up boy. Leachman seamlessly careens through a scale of emotions, culminating in one of the most deserved Oscar wins of all time. Yes folks, "Phyllis" really is a hell of an actress.
Lone Star State of Mind (2002)
stereotypes galore...and a few laughs (w/spoilers)
The screenwriter of 'Lone Star State of Mind' should be commended for cramming as many southern stereotypes into one movie as was humanly possible. For starters, characters named Baby, Junior, Jimbo, Tinker, and Sheriff Andy, who live in trailers or houses with junked cars in the yard. And, oh yes, we ALL sit in the bathtub with our cowboy hats and boots on too. And then there's the slightly bothersome fact that Earl is sleeping with his step-sister, which no one seems to find a real problem with. Yep, you know those Southerners, our family trees don't fork. Junior, who seems to have the IQ of a houseplant, also appears to be the product of inbreeding. Baby's sole desire in life is to become 'the next Susan Lucci', and the fat bellied, good-ol-boy sheriff bums a beer off the folks whose cars he stops. Don't get me wrong, I enjoy a movie with funny, realistic trashy southern characters (like 'Sordid Lives'), but these folks were just too stupid to live. Joshua Jackson's charm carries him over the silliness of the screenplay, and Jimbo is the most refreshing 'gay buddy to the lead' character I've seen in a long time. There are some laughs here, just not as many as there should have been.
The Haunted House of Horror (1969)
Sequential Throw Pillows....Oh the Horror!
Showtime aired this howling dog of a flick Monday afternoon, and like a car accident, I knew I shouldn't look, but I couldn't turn away. It aired under it's alternate title "Haunted House of Horror", yet the house itself doesn't seem haunted, and the horrors (both of them) are not very horrifying. Despite some other comments about this movie, these characters are NOT teenagers! Frankie Avalon is already fighting middle age spread as the sole American in a cast of British never-heard-of's who split from a groovy mod party to a dusty deserted old house where naturally, a murder happens. And later another, and another...ending with a resolution that feels like the writer thought it up on the last day of filming.
The spookiest things in this movie don't even happen at the old house, and most involve the female cast. At the party, glum, chubby, bucktoothed Madge dances around with a feather boa, nicely displaying a big bruise (or birthmark) on her arm. Grim Suzanne, who's ended an affair with a strange older man, can't stay at the old house because she simply must go for coffee, and spends the entire movie looking disinterested (or perhaps constipated). Dorothy, the blonde with the panda eye makeup, and Sheila, the blonde with the massive hair are respectively the sweet waif and the cunning minx. Both are horribly miscast, although both Dorothy and Madge get nice little breakdown scenes. Madge's is especially moving. In a move that I'm sure won her a few supporting actress votes that year, she weeps, gnashes her teeth, lets her stringy hair fall into her face, and nearly rends the fringed hem of her blue party dress. Despite this glut of talented ladies, most of the supporting male cast are interchangable, in their staggering assortment of mismatched clothes, the exception being Gary, who forgets what movie he's in and seems to be auditioning for the road company of "Equus".
And then there's Frankie. What on earth possessed Frankie Avalon to ditch Annette on the beach and journey to England for this film? He even brought his 'Beach Party' hair with him. He sticks out like a sort thumb, and there's never a reason given for why these cool Brits hang out with this goon. I kept waiting for one of them (preferably Madge) to accidentally call him 'The Big Kahuna'.
The set designer for this film deserves a special honor for the sequential throw pillows that appear in Sheila's apartment. Each has a different design on it and when placed beside each other, they form a lovely image.
This movie is laugh-out-loud funny...too bad it's supposed to be a suspenseful horror film.
Gosford Park (2001)
Want intelligence and wit in cinema? Visit Gosford Park
Movies are getting dumber all the time. We walk into a theater, and put our brains on hold for two hours, yet there still appears, every once in a while, a film that manages to be smart, funny, and literate. 'Gosford Park' is a delight from start to finish, especially for fans of Altman's filmmaking style, or the talented, nearly all Brit ensemble of actors. The murder mystery plot is definitely secondary to the real story, which is the comparison of the serving class to the leisure class. Thank you Robert Altman, for continuing to be one of the most dynamic directors, this endeavor ranks just below the masterpiece 'Nashville'. Thank you Julian Fellowes for an intelligent, witty screenplay that requires a bit of thought, patience, and maturity to really appreciate it. Thank you to the magnificent Dame Maggie Smith, Helen Mirren, Emily Watson, Alan Bates, Kelly MacDonald, Clive Owen, Ryan Phillipe, Jeremy Northam, Eileen Atkins, etc. for performances that were both entertaining and engrossing. A thoroughly enjoyable experience.
The Subject Was Roses (1968)
Bouquets for the Weary
Martin Sheen returns home from the war to the New York apartment of his parents Patricia Neal and Jack Albertson. The return of the soldier brings to the head unspoken hurts and slights that have flamed within this family circle for years. Neal's first role after recovering from several strokes finds her shaky yet determined as the long-suffering wife/mother, while Jack Albertson is full of spit and vinegar as the husband/father who longs to be king of his 2-bedroom castle. Sheen finds himself used as a weapon by each of the parents against each other, yet he sees that deeper than the sparring and disappointments is a deep love between Neal and Albertson. There is a truly moving section of the film, when Neal leaves the family for a day with no explanation and wanders along the beach while the soundtrack plays Judy Collins' haunting "Who Knows Where the Time Goes". I saw this film for the first time last year on TCM, and it has become one of my favorites, due primarily to the emotional performances of Neal, Albertson, and Sheen.
Crazy Mama (1975)
A hidden gem disguised as a 70's drive-in flick!
Cloris Leachman was spinning off from a supporting role on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" to headlining her own series "Phyllis" in 1975, the same year this goofy road movie was released. Leachman stars as Melba Stokes, who runs a beauty parlor in Long Beach, California with her mother Sheba (Ann Sothern) and her daughter Cheryl (Linda Purl). When the shop is repossessed by banker Jim Backus aka Thurston Howell III (a great little cameo) Leachman and ladies head back to Arkansas and the family farm which was stolen away from them when Melba was a girl. Along for the ride is Cheryl's boyfriend, surfer boy Donny Most aka Ralph Malph who finds out he's going to be a daddy thanks to Cheryl. The ladies knock over a filling station, which sets about their plan to rob their way back to Arkansas earning the money to buy back the farm.
Stopping over in Las Vegas, Melba hooks up with Jim Bob Trotter (Stuart Whitman). Cheryl falls for greasy biker Snake (Bryan Englund, Leachman's real life son), and Sheba makes a friend in elderly Bertha (Merie Earle) who believes that the secret to casino winning is to spout cliches before she pulls the handle on the slot machine. Jim Bob and Melba decide to have a phony wedding so the makeshift gang can rob the chapel, and then it's back on the road!
The ladies continue their crime spree, knocking over a grocery store and a bank. Meanwhile, back in Texas, Jim Bob's depressing wife (Sally Kirkland) is startled to hear that he's been kidnapped. Another plan by Melba and company to raise money, this one turns out in a bad way for the group. When Melba and her gang finally return to Jerusalem, Arkansas they are disappointed to see that the farmland of their youth has been turned into a country club. Needless to say, there is a hijacked wedding and more car chases.
This is a funny movie (with a GREAT final scene) that is given spirited performances by Leachman, Sothern, and especially Merie Earle as the nursing home escapee who finds a few thrills in her last days. There is some surprising violence, an eclectic 50's soundtrack, and control over the whole crazy-quilt through the direction of Jonathan Demme. The most touching scene in the film is when the weary travellers stand under a tree and remember their fallen friends by "shouting them into Heaven".
Hopefully, this one will be released on DVD in my lifetime.
Toys in the Attic (1963)
More southern fried family drama, with some powerhouse acting
Lillian Hellman's play "Toys in the Attic" was adapted for the screen in 1963. The story is reminiscent of Williams, as it concerns a southern family with lots of hidden secrets. Dean Martin stars as Julian, a man who's made a career out of losing jobs and money. He returns to the family home in New Orleans with his young bride (Yvette Mimieux) with a plan to make a quick fortune. Martin is ok in this role, and Mimieux plays her part as the naive bride very well. But the reason to see this is the powerful acting of the two ladies who play Julian's sisters. Oscar winners Wendy Hiller (Anna) and Geraldine Page (Carrie) are amazing in this picture. Anna is the more mature, careful sister, while Carrie is emotional and dramatic. Carrie's obsession with Julian is unhealthy, and Anna realizes this. And there is also some conflict with Julian's mother-in-law, and the people he's scheming to make money with. Honestly, unless Ms Hiller or Ms Page is onscreen, then this film bores me. As Carrie, Geraldine Page gave another of her incredible screen performances. From "little girl flirty" to "self righteously indignant", Ms Page doesn't strike a false note once in this picture. Carrie's obsession with her brother causes trouble for everyone else, and in some ways resembles the character Alma that Page played in "Summer and Smoke". As Anna, Wendy Hiller perfectly plays the older sister who's spent years worrying and caring for her siblings, yet all the time knowing what the deep secret is in her family's attic. Gene Tierney is impressive in a small role as Dean Martin's mother-in-law, as is Larry Gates as the vengeful businessman Martin deals with. But despite Dean Martin's top billing, this is a show for the talents of two gifted actresses, with Geraldine Page and Wendy Hiller making the most of this Southern gothic melodrama.
The movie that made me love movies
For the first time in my adult life, I completely lost myself inside a film. I wasn't sitting there watching it...I was overhearing these private conversations, seeing the interplay between people drifting in and out of each other's lives. It did, and still does, take my breath away. After so many viewings that even I have lost count, "Nashville" remains my favorite movie of all time. At the time of it's release in 1975, I was 4 years old...but when I discovered it as a teenager in 1986, I was hooked. The story is so loose and free-flowing, and the performances so original, that I get excited whenever I can coax a friend of mine to give up 2 1/2 hours to experience this film. But to really appreciate it, you have to watch it more than once. There is simply so much going on that you miss tiny moments that grab you on a later viewing (i.e. Lily Tomlin watching from the background as her husband Ned Beatty leads his star client away from trouble instead of her- It took several viewings before I caught this one. Both Lily and Ronee Blakley deserved their Oscar nominations (and either one should have won) ,but Henry Gibson, Gwen Welles, Barbara Baxley, Keenan Wynn, and Barbara Harris all perform at such a level that they create complex individuals rather than just characters. The 70's left us many films hailed as classics today, and "Nashville" is a true American classic.