Only one week until the MY FAVORITE MOVIE THREESOME BLOGATHON!

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Who is your favorite movie trio, either actual (such as a comedy team) or fictional (three movie characters who work together or are friends)? Blog about them in our My Favorite Movie Threesome Blogathon, coming in just one week! Click here for the blogathon rules.

Preston Sturges’ UNFAITHFULLY YOURS (1948) – A great symphony of a comedy

 

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(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

Though he directed a few more movies over the years, Unfaithfully Yours (1948) was the last great hurrah from one of Hollywood’s greatest comedy writer-directors, Preston Sturges. But Lawdy, what a way to go out.

The movie stars Rex Harrison in what might be seen as a kindler, gentler cousin of his egomaniacal diction professor in My Fair Lady (1964). Here, Harrison is Sir Alfred de Carter, a world-renowned symphony conductor who is still astoundingly infatuated with the woman he refers to as his “bride,” Daphne (charming Linda Darnell). The movie never declares how long or short of a time the Carters have been married, but judging from their passion level, one would guess they’re still in the honeymooning stage.

(The far more down-to-earth married couple, Alfred’s in-laws August and Barbara, are portrayed wonderfully by Rudy Vallee and Barbara Lawrence. Barbara gets all the great barbs off against her husband, who is only too happy to show his ignorance of them.)

One day, August accosts Alfred with the unfortunate news that he paid a detective to tail Daphne while Alfred was out of town. Alfred is so convinced of his wife’s fidelity that his reaction starts at outrage and goes haywire from there. Little by little, though, Alfred is given reason to think that Daphne might have needed some spying-on after all. At his concert that evening, Alfred conducts three pieces by Rossini, Tchaikovsky, and Wagner, and with each piece, Alfred imagines the stylish revenge he will extract upon Daphne for her presumed cheating.

From this sober-sounding scenario, Sturges — as he always did — goes all over the place, from sparkling dialogue to skittering slapstick to rich drenches of sentiment. And the melange has never worked better than it does here. Just for kicks, take three of the movie’s set-pieces (the first of which — SPOILER! — is shown below): Alfred’s achingly funny dressing-down of August for siccing a detective on Daphne, the first fantasy where Alfred hatches an elaborate murder scheme, and Alfred’s drunken attempt to carry out the scheme. Three scenes of completely different tones, and they all plausibly fit into the same movie. Now try to imagine any modern-day comedy-maker whose work would display the wit of any of those scenes.

The Criterion Collection DVD of the movie does it full justice. It includes a seemingly irrelevant but nonetheless enjoyable critique of Sturges’ work from Monty Python alumnus Terry Jones. And an interview with Sturges’ widow Sandy, as well as copies of voluminous memoes to Sturges from uncredited producer Darryl Zanuck, demonstrate why the movie was initially a colossal box-office failure. Zanuck hounded Sturges to the point that the gifted creator of (to name but two) The Palm Beach Story and The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek began doubting himself as a writer, resulting in the final humiliation of Zanuck cutting the film on his own. Then a timely scandal involving Rex Harrison forever killed the box-office chances of a black comedy starring Harrison as an ostensible woman-murderer.

Happily, Unfaithfully Yours, like Chaplin’s similarly dark Monsieur Verdoux, survived its prudish times and has become renowned as a great movie. Alfred’s take on Delius might be delirious (as professed by one of his fans, played by the great Sturges alumnus Edgar Kennedy)…but Sturges himself remains stupendous.

GUN CRAZY (1950) – Annie Laurie Starr, get your gun

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(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

I enjoy hearing stories about how people met their spouses. It gives me a little insight into both the couple and the person who’s telling the story.

In Gun Crazy, Bart Tare (John Dall) meets his future wife, Annie Laurie Starr (Peggy Cummins), while he’s shooting at her head at a carnival.

But I’m getting a little ahead of myself. The movie begins with flashbacks of the young Bart, showing how interested he is in guns. He doesn’t want to kill anyone or anything with them. At the risk of sounding Freudian, in Bart’s view, a gun seems to be a piece of security in life — which Bart could certainly use, having been raised only by his sister.

Bart pays a price to society for his gun obsession and is then set free. On his first day of freedom, Bart and his old friends go to town to attend a carnival, where Bart sees Laurie performing as a sharpshooter. Sparks (and bullets) fly quickly between the two.

Through the usual film-noir machinations, Laurie is eventually as free and beholden to no one as Bart is. So she decides to make Bart beholden to her. She figures that, with their joint expertise with guns, they can get whatever they want in life. At first, Bart hesitates at getting that down-and-dirty, but when Laurie threatens to leave him, Bart caves.

From there, an ever-spiralling series of circumstances make it doubtful that Bart and Laurie will make it to their first wedding anniversary.

Even by noir standards, this is one of the most pervasive weird movies I’ve ever seen — and one of the most riveting. Its most fascinating aspect is how the movie’s POV nonchalantly observes this in-over-the-head couple going on an increasingly violent robbing and shooting spree. Cinema’s Production Code guaranteed that the couple would pay for their actions in the end — but that doesn’t mean that viewers don’t get some titillating and voyeuristic thrills along the way.

John Dall is strangely touching as Bart, depicting how Bart’s pacifism slowly gets swept away by this woman who’s giving him the romance he thought he’d never have (in more ways than one). And Peggy Cummins long ago entered film-noir history as the ultimate manipulative dame. She offers us Laurie at face value, with no reasons or apologies for her grubby, grabby behavior — and just like Bart, we get swept up in her quiet fury.

I’ve never owned a gun or even fired one, for the same reason that many people give: I fear that it would be too easy to give into its temptation as an easy answer to an otherwise low-key conflict. Gun Crazy takes that premise to its ultimate extension. If only Bart had been more obsessed with marbles or coin-collecting when he was young…

AMERICAN GANGSTER (2007) – No-holds-barred look at a smooth, ruthless drug dealer

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It’s astonishing how far dysfunctional families will go to convince themselves that they’re not living a lie.

In American Gangster, the dysfunctional family is the American heroin market. The head of the family is druglord Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington). And the outsider and truth-teller is Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe), an estranged police detective.

Roberts’ and Lucas’ stories are told in mesmerizing parallel. Roberts is cherry-tree-era George Washington when it comes to being a cop. He does something major, seemingly a good deed, that brings him eternal enmity among his fellow cops.

Lucas does something major, too — dealing heroin in Harlem. Yet he is looked up to by his family, his “employees,” and even the Italian mobsters from whom he steals the drug trade. Seemingly, the only person in the world interested in bringing Lucas to justice is Roberts.

Lest these men sound cliche, it’s only because I won’t spoil the movie by divulging its rich character details: The way that Roberts bluffs magnificently to rescue a fellow cop from his certain murder. The way Lucas goes to elaborate lengths to obtain the pure heroin he deals. And best of all, the telling bit of flashy clothing that finally tips Lucas off to Roberts.

Such details are the result of another razor-sharp script from Steven Zaillian (Schindler’s List) and direction from Ridley Scott (who only seems to be getting better in his fourth decade of movie-making).

Among the supporting players, the nicest surprise is Ruby Dee as Lucas’ elderly mother. At first, she seems like a typical, saintly old lady. Then there’s a scene in which she encapsulates an entire movie’s worth of characterization in about three minutes. Beautiful.

Denzel Washington delivers another personal best. Watch Lucas’ sleek suavity boil over into frightful anger. Or watch his face subtly droop when he realizes his drug kingdom is starting to decay.

I had feared that Russell Crowe, as in L.A. Confidential, would play his cop as a one-note good guy. But Roberts’ noble detective work is just one strand of his DNA. As the rest of his life shows us, he’s not terribly virtuous; he’s just driven to do this deed.

Most amazing aspect is how the movie makes us identify with these opposing extremes of the same coin. If you can stomach the violence — and from the start, the movie pulls no punches — American Gangster will richly reward you.

THE RIGHT STUFF (1983) – Machismo in space

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The Right Stuff gives us a 1980’s gloss on America’s first astronaut heroes, warts and all.

The story begins in the 1940’s, with the Air Force trying to find a pilot who could break the sound barrier and live to tell about it. Near the beginning of the movie, Chuck Yeager (Sam Shepard) rides his horse to an Air Force base to inspect the plane intended to break the barrier. The plane’s ignition is spewing flames and looks as though it could take off on its own. The symbolism is none too subtle: Test pilots were the last American cowboys, and Yeager is going to have to lasso this wild horse on his own.

Eventually he does so, leaving other test pilots with new worlds to conquer. “Hot-dog” pilots descend upon Edwards Air Force Base to break Yeager’s records, and Yeager counter by topping the record-breakers. It seems as though there are no more frontiers to tame, until the Russians get a man into space before the Americans. Soon NASA is looking for space jockeys who have “the right stuff,” which means having the guts to fly into space and also look good for the press while they’re doing it.

While The Right Stuff has drawn raves over the years, its critics have contended that the movie displays broad caricatures instead of characters. (Lyndon Johnson, then the vice-president who helped get the space program started, is shown as a yahoo, though his most riotous line of dialogue is said to be based on fact.) I prefer to think that the movie shows its heroes to be all too human, rather than the standard movie heroes of perfection. The space program was obviously making up its rules as it went along, and it asked its pilots to do things that hadn’t been asked of them before. (When a nurse gives Gordon Cooper [Dennis Quaid] a test tube to fill with a particular type of bodily fluid, his reaction is one for the books.)

The cast in uniformly good. Like the pilots they portray, Shepard, Quaid, Scott Glenn, and especially Ed Harris as John Glenn, all come through with flying colors. As NASA housewives who could have come off as drab, Barbara Hershey and Pamela Reed, among others, give nice shadings to their roles. Best of all are the Washington bureaucrats trying to save face — Donald Moffat savoring the role of Vice-President Johnson, and Jeff Goldblum and comedy veteran Harry Shearer as Washington’s answer to Laurel and Hardy.

The movie is not quite perfect. At a little over three hours, it could have used a little trimming. It has a couple of endings too many, and some gaps in continuity. (One scene depicts bar-hopping women hoping to “conquer” all of the astronauts, and the scene inexplicably cuts from John Glenn eyeing the women to Glenn lecturing his fellow astronauts on abstinence.)

But the movie is never less than engrossing, and if you can tolerate the machismo banter, it’s worth it to see a portrait of some flawed men who nevertheless had what it took to conquer space.

CONTACT (1997) – Jodie Foster makes us believe

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After seeing Jodie Foster wasted in piffle such as Sommersby and Maverick, I worried that the gloriously intelligent actress of The Accused and Little Man Tate was gone for good. Happily, she made her triumphant return in a vehicle worthy of her extraordinary gifts: Robert Zemeckis’ Contact.

Based on Carl Sagan’s novel, the movie sports what was then the latest in cutting-edge special effects (including a visit from Pres. Bill Clinton, a la Zemeckis’ Forrest Gump). But it hardly matters, because as Ellie Arroway, Foster is the movie’s best special effect. Whether she’s in a love scene or on a trip to outer space, there’s not a moment where you don’t believe Foster is really living it.

Ellie has been sending radio signals into space since she was a kid — first on ham radios, then later on satellite dishes. She’s not sure where or why she’s sending them — she’s just driven to do it. But as an adult astronomer, she’s thwarted at every turn by David Drumlin (Tom Skerritt), her former mentor. When Ellie’s work yields nothing, Drumlin shuts off her funding; when Ellie’s signals start getting replies, he hogs all of the credit.

We’ve read for years about smart females who know the answers in math class but, when they raise their hands, are overlooked in favor of the male students. Those males grow up to be David Drumlin. Drumlin is dashing, knows just enough to get by, and has all of the smart answers (just not the right ones). And for a while, the story appears to be a contest between the outspoken woman and Mr. All-American.

But Contact never gets that cliched — its twists are fresh and entirely plausible. It even takes on some philosophical issues, and happily, it does not cop out on any of them. Suffice to say, the outcome is a refreshing antidote to no-brainers such as Men in Black (which was released shortly before Contact), where anything alien exists only to be zapped.

And for once, Zemeckis’ ensemble work overshadows his effects stunts. Foster, Skerritt, McConaughey, James Woods, and Angela Bassett all shine. Among the movie’s many surprises, one of its nicest was the movie debut of young Jena Malone. As the young Ellie, she makes you see how the ache in this inquisitive child’s heart turns her into the ultimate stargazer.

Contact makes you believe in its miracles — or at least, in the miracle of Jodie Foster’s intuitive acting. Pragmatic Ellie comes to experience a revelation. And thanks to Foster, so do we.

 

ACROSS THE UNIVERSE (2007) – Julie Taymor, what have you done?

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Call me overly reverent if you must. But the music of The Beatles means a great deal to several generations of listeners, and I am sad and angry to see it so thoroughly mangled in Across the Universe.

The movie’s bald literalness and its wounded-heart-on-its-sleeve demeanor are enough to make a Beatles fan retch. All of the characters are named after Beatles songs as a shorthand to bring in the music. For example, one girl is named Prudence, just so that her friends can coax her out of her room by singing, “Dear Prudence, won’t you come out to play?”

The movie’s imagery makes countless allusions to Beatles films, videos, and icons (the Apple logo, John and Yoko in the buff, etc.). There’s even an eye-rolling moment where a character asks how a stranger got in the room, and the reply comes: “She came in through the bathroom window.”

I guess this is all meant to pat the loyal Beatles fan on the back for catching the references. But it only made me think of The Bee Gees’ 1978 movie massacre of the famed Beatles album Sgt. Pepper. It’s a movie that director Julie Taymor would have done well to study, because Universe falls into the earlier movie’s booby-traps (and with many of the same songs, yet).

I’ve not yet mentioned the movie’s characters, who barely exist anyway. There’s Jude (Jim Sturgess), a Liverpool dock worker who travels to New York and gets caught up in the ’60s revolution. The girl he falls for, though she doesn’t live in the sky with diamonds, is named Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood, the snotty teenager from Thirteen). There’s Lucy’s wisecracking brother Max (Joe Anderson), whose smugness drains away once he gets his draft notice for the Vietnam War.

There are many more characters, but none of them makes any impact beyond the three minutes it takes them to sing a Beatles tune. Take Prudence as an example. We first see her as a loner cheerleader, longing for a football star from afar and singing “I Wanna Hold Your Hand.” The next we see of her, she’s hitchhiking to New York. Why? Just because she couldn’t get the football player? And Prudence’s adventures in New York and beyond are just as enigmatic. Every character in the movie plays this way.

It doesn’t help that the actors warbling classic tunes could barely pass an “American Idol” audition. Only three big-name celebs appear in the movie, with varied degrees of success. Actor Eddie Izzard talk-sings “Mr. Kite” like a stoner Rex Harrison. And Bono goes way over the top as a carbon copy of famed druggie Ken Kesey. Only blues singer Joe Cocker acquits himself admirably, with a funky version of “Come Together.”

The acid test for musicals is: If you took away the music, would you still care about the characters? If you took the music out of Across the Universe, the characters would evaporate.