For those who remember what life was like in 1980, Ordinary People will be a real trip to the past. For those who are too young to know, this movie will give you a brief tutorial in clothing, hair styles, cars, and so on. For both types of people, this will be an extraordinary family drama, full of terrific performances, raw and deeply moving.
When a movie has as its basis such an incredible novel as Rachel Cohn and David Levithan’s Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist, there should be no way that it could fail, yet this insipid teen comedy manages to toss aside all of the best stuff from the novel, including, amazingly, some of the best comedy. It changes the course of events and ends without a single note of the beauty that gave the book such raw power.
Freedom can be understood in many ways, but anyone who ever worked a factory job before the advent of unions understands freedom as the right to be treated as a human being, rather than as a machine part that can be worked to death and then thrown away. Martin Ritt’s 1979 movie, Norma Rae, shows the difficult road to obtain that freedom.
Mistaken identity, an innocent man, bloodthirsty spies, a long train trip, a beautiful, sexy blond, and suspense building to a nail-biting conclusion—all these staples of legendary director Alfred Hitchcock drive his epic 1959 film, North by Northwest.
The sexiest and most mature of all Alfred Hitchcock’s films, Notorious is also one of his most suspenseful movies. It’s a torchy love story set among dangerous ex-Nazis in Rio de Janeiro, with Ingrid Bergman putting her life in danger to prove to the American agent she loves that she has become an honest woman. Beautifully shot in black and white, all of Hitchcock’s mastery drives a story that is thrilling right up to the end.
The Spectacular Now aims much higher than any run-of-the-mill teen romance and its success in achieving a film that goes beyond the limits of genre is to be highly commended, yet there are problems in the movie and it would make the film an excellent study for any film theory class. Because this is a special film in many ways, this review contains spoilers, so beware if you haven’t seen the movie.
Sutter Keely (Miles Teller) is a high school senior who is the life of the party. His girlfriend, Cassidy (Brie Larson), just happens to be the coolest girl in school. He sits down at his computer to answer an essay question for a college entrance exam. What was your greatest challenge and how did you face it?
His answer centers around how Cassidy has just dumped him. Always helpful, he had been trying to set up a friend with a girl, but she happened to come with another girl and he just happened to be sitting with her in his car at lakeside drinking when Cassidy discovered them. He’s almost always drinking, but he doesn’t see that as a problem and he figures that he’ll get Cassidy back pretty quickly, but she has already hooked up with the star athlete, Marcus (Dayo Okeniyi) and has left Sutter in her dust.
He goes out to party and ends up enormously drunk. The next morning, he is awakened by a girl who finds him laying in someone’s yard passed out. The girl, Aimee Finecky (Shailene Woodley) is also a senior at his school, although he doesn’t remember her name. A semi-geeky girl who likes science fiction and graphic novels, Aimee is way too normal for Sutter, but he can’t find his car so he helps her do her mother’s paper route and ends up having a lot of fun. He asks her out to lunch, then to a party. He still isn’t over Cassidy, but she can no longer deal with his lack of ambition and drinking. Aimee, who has never had a boyfriend, is just happy that he likes her. He might be a good student, but he just doesn’t care. There is a certain ennui about him, even though he puts up a good front. Part of his problem is that his mother, Sara (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is a single parent and she keeps him apart from his father. Sutter remembers playing baseball with his dad and completely blames his mother for “kicking him out of the house.” His sister, Holly (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), who is married to a lawyer, doesn’t really care about their father.
Aimee falls in love with Sutter, but he continues to drift, fantasizing about getting back together with Cassidy. He gradually comes to love Aimee as well, but he does not think he is good enough for her. The sad thing is that he’s right. Sutter doesn’t know what to do with himself. He’s drifting through high school, he doesn’t want next year to happen, and he doesn’t want to make any plans. In a scene with Cassidy, she begs him to think about the future, but he tells her that all that matters is the “now,” enjoying each moment as it happens.
Accepted into a college in Philadelphia, Aimee tells him that she can’t go because her mother won’t let her so they make a pact: if Aimee will stand up to her mother about going to college, then Sutter will confront his own mother about seeing his dad. He asks her to the prom and gets her to start drinking alcohol, giving her a personalized flask when he picks her up. Later, she tells him that she has decided to go to Philadelphia and tells him he should go there with her, that they could get a place together and get jobs while she goes to school. He doesn’t commit himself to it, but he also doesn’t tell her “no.” Marcus confronts Sutter about Cassidy, but Sutter tells him that there’s nothing between them. When Marcus wishes he could make her laugh like Sutter does, Sutter advises him that all he needs to do is relax, to live in the “now.”
When Aimee badgers him into investigating his father, Holly finally gives him the phone number. Sutter calls his dad (Kyle Chandler) and arranges a meeting, bringing Aimee with him when he goes to visit, but when he discovers that his father is an alcoholic skirt chaser, he sees his own future. Depressed, he drinks heavily as he drives them back home. Aimee tries to comfort him, telling him that she loves him, but he belligerently tells her to get out of the car. When she does, she gets hit by another car.
Although she’s not seriously injured, Sutter’s depression reaches a whole new level. They graduate, but he feels no joy in it. She waits at the bus station for him to join her, but he drives by and lets her go off on her own. Drunk again, he plows down the mailbox in front of his house and gets into a violent argument with his mother. When he screams at her that she doesn’t love him, she comforts him and tells him that he is a gentle and giving man. Sutter breaks down and sobs in her arms.
Confronting the computer screen and the question of what his greatest challenge is and how he overcame it, he types in a confession that he is his own greatest problem and that it is a problem he must solve every day going forward, finally recognizing that the “now” will come again tomorrow. In the final scene, he joins Aimee in Philadelphia.
Even though this film is riddled with problems, there are also many things to like about it. There is a simplicity in the script by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (adapted from the novel of the same name by Tim Tharp) that is quite engaging and the realistic approach of director James Ponsoldt keeps the viewer constantly involved in the story. Sutter is a complex person and I have to give high marks to the creative team for making such a deeply layered character and wonderfully consistent throughout the entire film. Surely, the temptation to make the film a pure romance must have been quite strong, but the movie works hard to keep Sutter real and to deal realistically with his problem, which is immense for a boy of his age.
It is dramatic, it contains a theme that is built and explored in a way that many other films should aspire to, it is very carefully written and well-thought out.
In addition, there are a couple of excellent performances in the movie by Jennifer Jason Leigh (I didn’t even recognize her) as Sutter’s mother and Kyle Chandler as his father. Each of these actors brings a depth and a reality to their roles that goes even beyond the well-crafted script. All of the other supporting actors do a good job as well.
The problems are mostly in the production, but one problem in the writing really holds the movie back. There is nothing likable about Sutter. As I watched the movie, it was easy to identify him as the protagonist and to feel a certain amount of angst for him, but the writers did nothing to help me like him or really care about him. My first instinct was to blame the performance of Miles Teller, but I realized at some point that the story should have shown something else to make me care about what happened to him. That was missing.
Shailene Woodley gives a fine performance as Aimee, but I believe she may have been miscast. Given the beauty of the actress and Aimee’s terrific personality, I found it simply impossible to believe that she never had a boyfriend or that she was a wall flower. Girls that special rise to the top because those around them inevitably recognize what’s great about them and give them a special position in the social order. In fact, Aimee is so special that it is really difficult to believe that in her isolation she could love someone like Sutter.
In his desire to make the movie realistic, I believe that Ponsoldt must have encouraged Teller and Woodley to improvise much of their dialogue because it seems so genuine, however, the constant use of “awesome” and “amazing” and “cool” becomes almost funny at some points. Sure, it’s probably realistic. One can imagine real teens talking this way, but it sure makes them seem a lot less intelligent. There should be an argument on this point because the question of realistic dialogue comes up over and over again. My own personal opinion is that the clever screenwriter will use just enough teen clichés to make the dialogue believable, but back off before it becomes a running gag. I think what happened in this movie was improvisation on the actor’s parts. I don’t know that for a fact, but it feels that way. Good and bad.
The ending probably should have been retooled as well.
Although the scene of Sutter writing his new answer is effective, I never had the feel of a real denouement, a crystal moment of realization in which Sutter knows how he needs to change his life and dedicates himself to doing so. Maybe it is more realistic that he has a hint of what he needs to do and points himself in the right direction, but in the interval between breaking down with his mother and writing his new answer, I would have liked to see something that really gave him a positive direction.
Even given all of these problems, I still recommend this film, not only to film students, but to people who want to see a teen romance that has some backbone to it, a film that challenges itself to do better and makes a very positive footprint in the right direction.
The good outweighs the bad.
If you are looking for the meaning of life, this movie is not for you. Indeed, if you are looking for any meaning at all, this is not your movie. Rather, it is a completely kinetic film. Directed by William Friedkin, it echoes the French cinema of the 1950’s, which itself echoes the American gangster films of the 1930’s. It is all movement and action, with practically no dialogue, moving in a steady arc of energy toward a violent ending.
In Marseille, a powerful French drug dealer, Alain Charnier (Fernando Rey) sets up a major deal in the United States by bringing in a famous French television star, Henri Devereaux (Frédéric de Pasquale), to be the front. An undercover policeman following him is assassinated by his heavy, Pierre Nicoli (Marcel Bozzuffi). Meanwhile, in Brooklyn, two narcotics policemen, Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle (Gene Hackman) and Buddy “Cloudy” Russo (Roy Scheider) are sick of all their small busts and are looking for a big score. Noticing that a local small-time hood, Salvatore “Sal” Boca (Tony Lo Bianco) and his young wife Angie (Arlene Farber) are courting the mafia, they begin to tail the couple and find that they are leading a double life, running a small neighborhood deli by day and carousing at night. As they follow the Bocas around, they see Sal make a connection with Joel Weinstock (Harold Gary), a suspected big-time drug trafficker. From their sources on the street, they find out that the city has been pretty dry, but a big connection is supposed to be arriving soon. With this information, they convince their boss to wiretap the Bocas and find themselves saddled with Federal involvement, in the form of a man named Mulderig (Bill Hickman), who blames Popeye for the loss of a policeman on a different bust.
When the French arrive, they beef up their operation, putting permanent tails on both the Bocas and the French, but Charnier loses Doyle in the subway and flies to Washington to meet with Boca, who tries to stall him because Joel Weinstock is worried about the police. Charnier is determined that the deal will go through on his timetable. Back in Brooklyn, Nicoli attempts to assassinate Doyle, but misses. As he roars off on an El, Popeye follows him on the street using an appropriated automobile in a chase that comes off as one of the best ever done in film. Nicoli loses control of the situation and shoots several operators on the train, then escapes when the train collides with the one in front of it, but Doyle is waiting below. When Nicoli attempts to flee, Doyle shoots him in the back.
Henri Devereaux has brought his car, a Lincoln, to New York, so Doyle impounds it and they tear it apart looking for the junk, finally finding it in the rocker panels. Replacing it, they put the car back to together and return it to Devereaux, who loans it o Charnier as a part of their deal. Charnier drives the car to Wards Island where the dope–several hundred pounds of world class heroin–is extracted from the rocker panels and replaced with the cash that Weinstock pays for it. The dope is hidden in the old factory, but when Charnier attempts to drive back to New York, the bridge has been blocked off by Popeye, Cloudy, and the police. Charnier returns to the Island, but a shootout follows in which Doyle follows him into an abandoned building and accidentally shoots the Federal agent. Charnier escapes and most of the hoods get off, but the one innocent man, Devereaux, gets prison time. Doyle and Russo get reassigned off of the narco squad. As the French might say, “this is life.”
Any student of chase scenes or the building of tension in a movie can look to The French Connection almost as a textbook because it is done brilliantly. The kinetic nature of the film won it a handful of Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Hackman), Best Film Editing, and Best Adapted Screenplay (Ernest Tidyman). It was nominated, but did not win, other awards, but neglected was the great score by Don Ellis.
For me, though, it just didn’t add up to anything. No real theme is explored, no light is shed on the dreary, meaningless lives of the cops or the dealers. Hitchcock would have admired the extreme lack of dialogue and the way the tension built, but there is nothing to carry away with you except that life sucks. I can recommend this movie to film students and to those whose only value in cinema is kinetic energy, but there is no depth. It is a one hour and forty minute thrill ride, full of action, but with no meaning or real entertainment value whatsoever.
Jenna (Keri Russell) is an amazing pie-maker in some unnamed southern town. She works at Joe’s Pie Diner with her friends, Becky (Cheryl Hines) and Dawn (Adrienne Shelly), under the management of Cal (Lew Temple) and the ownership of Joe (Andy Griffith). She’s married to a domineering redneck man named Earl (Jeremy Sisto), who takes all of her tip money and bullies her relentlessly, but she’s been hiding away some of the money and she hopes to enter a pie contest where the prize is $25,000–with the intention of leaving him as soon as she can. This plan gets derailed at the very beginning of the movie when she discovers she’s pregnant.
This brings on the inspiration for her to make tomorrow’s featured pie, the “I Don’t Want Earl’s Baby Pie.” Dawn remarks that she shouldn’t probably write that on the menu board, so Jenna changes the name to the “Bad Baby Pie,” a quiche with Brie cheese and a smoked ham center.
She considers making an “I Hate My Husband Pie” made of bittersweet chocolate–unsweetened–made into a pudding and drowned in caramel. Deciding to keep the baby, she goes to see her doctor only to find that her gynecologist has gone into semi-retirement and most of her cases have been taken over by young, attractive Dr. Jim Pomatter (Nathan Fillion). When he congratulates her, she tells him that she doesn’t really want the baby, but is having it anyway, so please don’t be all happy for her. “It’s not a party.”
Her mother taught her to bake as a child, singing this little song (written by Adrienne Shelly):Baby, don’t you cry, gonna make a pie Gonna make a pie with a heart in the middle Baby, don’t be blue, gonna make for you Gonna make a pie with a heart in the middle Gonna be a pie from heaven above Gonna be filled with strawberry love Baby, don’t you cry, gonna make a pie Hold you forever in the middle of my heart.
Everything is about pie creation. She brings the doctor her “Marshmallow Mermaid Pie” that she created when she was nine years old. She makes a “Falling In Love Pie” (chocolate mousse) for Dawn’s date, and she fantasizes about new pies night and day. At one point, she considers making a “Baby Screaming Its Head Off in the Middle of the Night and Ruining My Life Pie” that would be a New York cheesecake brushed with brandy and topped with pecans and nutmeg.
“I Can’t Have An Affair Because It’s Wrong and I Don’t Want Earl to Kill Me Pie”
Finding Dr. Pomatter irresistible, she begins an affair with him and considers making an “Earl Murders Me ‘Cause I’m Having An Affair Pie” made with smashed blackberries and raspberries in a chocolate crust, but decides it would be better to make an “I Can’t Have An Affair Because It’s Wrong and I Don’t Want Earl to Kill Me Pie” with vanilla custard and banana–no–hold the banana. Among the other pies mentioned in the movie are the “Spanish Dancer Pie,” the “Naughty Pumpkin Pie,” the “Singing Tuna Casserole,” and “Jenna’s Special Strawberry Chocolate Oasis Pie.”
After she discovers that Becky is having an affair with Cal, she asks him, “Are you happy?” He answers, “I’m happy enough. I don’t expect much, give much. I don’t get much. I generally enjoy whatever comes up.” Dawn finds happiness with a little accountant named Ogie, but Earl continues to make Jenna’s life miserable, forcing her to have sex with him, slapping her around, and controlling her. In fact, she conceives of the “Pregnant, Miserable Self-Pitying Loser Pie,” made of lumpy oatmeal with fruitcake mashed in and served flambé.
In spite of the comedy, the movie holds a very dark side. Earl, for example, though an ignorant bully, has unexpected depth. He’s never really been loved and he depends on his control over Jenna to give meaning to his life. Joe, the owner of the Pie Shop, is himself an old loser, but he advises Jenna to leave Earl and start all over. “This life will kill you,” he says. “Make the right choice.”
The script contains many unexpected depths and Shelly’s deft direction and control of the story arc keep the movie on point through its one hour and forty-eight minutes. Keri Russell is beautiful, with a big heart that makes you love and root for Jenna to find a way out of her mess. Nathan Fillion is charming as the nervous, tender Dr. Pomatter. Cheryl Hines and Adrienne Shelly are funny and poignant as her waitress friends and Andy Griffith is terrific as Joe–again providing unexpected depths.
But the pies are magnificent. Every pie in the movie looks absolutely beautiful and each one acts like a Greek chorus, providing commentary on the action.
Unfortunately, Adrienne Shelly did not live to see her movie appear at the Sundance Film Festival or to see its critical success. Three months before it was due to open, Shelly discovered a thief in her apartment. The man panicked and killed her. A foundation has since been established in her name to help young female filmmakers fulfill their dreams and you man contribute at The Adrienne Shelly Foundation.
Everyone should see this movie! It’s a film that can be seen over and over again with a kind of sensual culinary pleasure, with laughter and tears, and lots and lots of love.
Funny, touching, tough.
Jack (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) is a shy and sensitive New York limo driver who works for his uncle and lives in his uncle’s basement. He listens to raggae, tries to whirl his blond locks into dreads, and dreams about working for the MTA. His best friend, Clyde (John Ortiz) also works for his uncle as a limo driver and is married to Lucy (Daphne Ruben-Vega) who works in the office of a mortician.
The couple sets Jack up with Lucy’s new co-worker, Connie (Amy Ryan), a shy, nervous girl who seems to be right for him. Their own shyness really works to their advantage as each one takes it nice and slow, careful to make sure of each other before taking any big steps at all. As Jack walks Connie to a cab on their first date, she mentions that she’d like to go boating some time. They are walking through the snow at the time and Jack remarks that it might be better to wait for summer. But he takes it seriously and Clyde sets out to teach him how to swim at a Harlem pool.
Connie is approached by a strange man in the subway on her way to work and she violently resists, breaking her nose. Lucy calls 911 and she is taken to the hospital. Jack buys a little stuffed koala bear for her and they talk about a second date, maybe for dinner. She tells him that no one has ever cooked for her, so Jack decides to learn how to cook and make a splendid meal for her. Clyde recommends a chef he knows from the Waldorf Astoria that he calls “the Cannoli.” Without Jack prompting him, Clyde then volunteers that Lucy had an affair with the chef that lasted two years. It’s obviously bothering him, but he tries to pretend that they’ve worked the problem out.
Applying himself to his swimming and cooking lessons, Jack gets good at both. After a few initial problems, he gets his application into the MTA and waits to hear whether he will be called for an interview. As he and Connie become more intimate, he comes to understand that she has serious psychological issues about sex, but he is understanding and goes slow, much to her relief.
Without revealing how the movie ends, I will say that both situations come to a head when Jack finally cooks his big meal for Connie at Clyde and Lucy’s apartment.
Phillip Seymour Hoffman directed this moving film, based on the stage play he appeared in, adapted for the screen by the playwright, Robert Glaudini. The study in opposites is very funny at times, but a feeling of tension runs underneath the surface and it kept me on the edge of my seat wondering what would happen. At an hour and twenty-four minutes in length, the pacing and timing are perfect.
Hoffman’s performance as Jack is just amazing. It is a pleasure to watch such a gifted actor creating such a layered character. Amy Ryan gives a great performance as Connie and she works as a perfect foil for Jack. You find yourself hoping that these two gentle, injured people will find a way to make their relationship work, even as it hurts to see what can happen to a relationship at the other end of the scale. John Ortiz is excellent as Clyde and Daphne Ruben-Vega compliments him very well as the two cope with a relationship that doesn’t have the glue to hold it together.
I’m an innocent when it comes to betrayal. I’ll never understand how partners in a marriage can turn away and wound the other so deeply. Jealousy remains one of the great emotional themes of art.
This is a very fine movie and it should be seen. When it was released, it kind of slid by me–and pretty much everyone else, I gather, but it is really good filmmaking. It’s a story well-crafted and well-filmed and it deserves far more attention than it has gotten. I highly recommend it for adult audiences.
For those who remember what life was like in 1980, Ordinary People will be a real trip to the past. For those who are too young to know, this movie will give you a brief tutorial in clothing, hair styles, cars, and so on. For both types of people, this will be an extraordinary family drama, full of terrific performances, raw and deeply moving. It won four Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Director for Robert Redford.
Conrad Jarrett (Timothy Hutton) is a high school senior in Lake Forest, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. Plagued with insomnia, he is a loner who shuns his friends and can barely communicate with his father Calvin (Donald Sutherland) and mother Beth (Mary Tyler Moore). Recently released from a psychiatric hospital following a suicide attempt that was foiled by his father, Conrad has been home now for over a month, but still has not started therapy. The false happiness and optimism of his parents grates against him as they all attempt to cope with the incident that started everything down this crazy road: the death of Buck, the older son in the family. Calvin pretends that life can go on without regard to the death, while Beth seems to have retreated into a coldness that allows for no emotion whatsoever.
Finally, Conrad goes to see a therapist, Dr. Berger (Judd Hirsch), but all he can talk about is maintaining control over his life. Berger would like to see the boy experience some emotion, to face his own anger, terror, and remorse, but Conrad tries desperately to hold on. Remembering how much he liked his time in the hospital, Conrad seeks out a girl that he had been friends with there, Karen (Dinah Manoff), but she seems reluctant to find a relationship with him. She tells him that she is happy now and that he should be optimistic, too. “Let’s have the best year of our lives,” she tells him. At school, he continues on the swim team, which had been previously dominated by his brother, with all of the awards to prove it, but Calvin is, at best, a mediocre swimmer. He finds it impossible to relate to his old friends, who were all friends of Buck’s, too.
The girl who stands in front of him in choir, Jeannine (Elizabeth McGovern) makes friends with him and a mutual attraction develops. For the first time since the accident that killed his brother, Conrad begins to have a sense of optimism. But the tension within the family contains more than just Conrad’s angst. Calvin has serious trouble dealing with Beth’s apparent lack of emotion and he goes to see Dr. Berger himself, discovering that he still has lingering grief over his son’s death and openly questions why his wife didn’t cry at the funeral.
As Christmas approaches, two dynamic incidents explode the plot wide open. Beth discovers that Conrad quit the swim team a month earlier and hadn’t told them, then Conrad finds out that his friend Karen has committed suicide.
Director Robert Redford handles this emotionally charged story very deftly. It could very easily have gone maudlin and mushy, but it always seems real and always completely honest. There’s no fancy camera work or other tricks to divert us from the story, but Redford has a keen sense of pacing. Two hours and four minutes of emotionally charged angst could have been way too much, but I never noticed the action dragging for one moment. To be perfectly honest, I don’t really like dramas, but I couldn’t stop watching this one. It is superbly crafted and Redford was deserving of the two Academy Awards.
The heartbeat of the story is provided by Timothy Hutton. His performance as Conrad is one of the best dramatic performances ever and he was given an Academy Award for it. I’m not sure why they gave him Best Supporting Actor, when he is clearly the lead in this movie, but he would have deserved either one. Donald Sutherland is terrific as Conrad’s father, giving a deep, heartfelt performance. I felt a little bad for Mary Tyler Moore, because her character was so emotionally in control that she didn’t have the opportunity to really reveal her talents. Nevertheless, she did an awful lot with very little to go on. I kept wishing that they could have gotten Beth in to see the psychiatrist, because I felt that she was the one of all three that actually needed therapy more. Hirsch is very good as the psychiatrist and both McGovern and Manoff are believable as the two girls.
The fourth Academy Award went to Alvin Sargent for his adaptation of the novel by Judith Guest. It is a really good screenplay, very tight, and beautifully crafted.
The title of the movie is enigmatic. On one hand, this really isn’t an ordinary family. They are quite wealthy. The parents golf, they are members of the country club, and their friends are all equally rich, if not more so. But the title isn’t “ordinary family,” it’s Ordinary People and the title rings true on that level. Stripped of their wealth, these people are just like everyone, struggling with their problems, trying to figure out how to live their lives in the face of adversity, trying to pretend that things are better than they really are so they won’t have to think about them.
One revealing scene occurs on Calvin’s first date with Jeannine. As they sit in McDonald’s eating burgers, she asks him what it was like to commit suicide. He looks at her and remarks that she is the only person–outside of therapy–who has asked him about it. That one stretch of dialogue speaks volumes about the level of disconnect that exists in this family, their utter refusal to face Conrad’s problems.
This is a great film and it is certainly one of the best domestic dramas of all time. Everyone should see it!