LITTLE MAN TATE (1991) – Amazing movie about an amazing young man

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The following is my contribution to Girl Week 2018, hosted by Dell on Movies from Nov. 19-25, 2018. Click on the above banner to read bloggers’ takes on female-centered movies, with women in front of and/or behind the camera!

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In her directorial debut Little Man Tate, Jodie Foster exhibits the same innate, glorious intelligence that she has personified so beautifully as an actress in movies such as The Accused and Contact. In her best movies, she comes across as a no-nonsense woman who is sometimes too blunt because she has no time or patience for social niceties. That approach works perfectly here, particularly in Foster’s supporting role as a single mom who is clueless about how to handle her prodigy-son.

The title character is played by Adam Hann-Byrd, who is one of those Hollywood rarities — a child actor who doesn’t give off the slightest sense that he’s acting. Fred, the child prodigy, is a genius, and of course, he is branded as a freak by his more average classmates because of this. Dianne Wiest plays a teacher who wants to encourage Fred by enrolling him in a summer course for such prodigies. Thanks to the teacher’s snooty attitude, Fred’s mom is immediately suspicious of her motives. But both women, through the film’s many trials of Fred, provide what he needs: the teacher provides the means for Fred to express himself with like-minded students; Fred’s mom provides his nurturing and love at all costs.

That includes making Fred unsympathetic at some points. One scene, a conversation between Fred and his mom, shows Fred belittling her for not being as smart as he is. Rather than letting Fred have it with a you-don’t-talk-like-that-to-your-mother speech, his mother sits there and takes it — not because she’s a wimp by any means, but because she knows that Fred is lashing out at not being accepted by his peers and she is, unhappily, his closest target. Their reconciliation scene is touchingly directed by Foster, too — the teacher tries to nose into their business one more time, realizes what’s happening, and backs off.

Those scenes, and many others, are so refreshing because they treat everyone in the movie, from Fred on down, like real people. Harry Connick Jr. plays a college-age student who sympathizes with and befriends Fred, and yet he and Fred also have a confrontation. Nobody in the movie is spared from being human (read: losing his/her temper, even with someone he/she loves). That alone makes the movie a rarity in mainstream films.

1991 was a beautiful year for female-directed movies, including Barbra Streisand’s The Prince of Tides and this one. In fact, these two would make an ideal double feature. Just keep a generous supply of Kleenex nearby while watching them.

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Cafe Society Photocall - Cannes Film Festival 2016

Photo: Paul Smith / Featureflash

Here is a link to a short story Woody Allen wrote for The New Yorker in 2009. I had not known of its existence until I came across it on the Internet today, which I’m glad I did.

(SIDENOTE: For some reason, I’ve had Allen on the brain lately, as evidenced by my recent review of his movie Interiors on this blog. My interest in him was probably rekindled by my recent read of David Evanier’s biography of him. I’ve had a touch-and-go interest in Allen for the past couple of decades. I was a rabid fan of all of his work when I was younger. My interest waned after his 1992 controversies about his alleged molestation of his adopted daughter Dylan and his controversial relationship with one of Mia Farrow’s daughters, and for years my interest petered out altogether after a long string of Allen movies featuring elitist characters in whom I had not the slightest interest.

I have voluminous opinions about these Allen-related incidents, and I’d be glad to share them on this blog if anyone cares. In the end, all I can say with certainty is that, as an artist, Allen has at least been true to himself for all of his career, not taking the easy money to pander to any audience.)

In any case, if you’re at all a Woody Allen fan, please read the short story to which I’ve linked. It’s a terrific, darkly comic look at the injustice of life, and it should make you laugh uproariously, as his best work has always made me do.

INTERIORS (1978) – Woody Allen’s first foray into drama

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(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

Let me go on record as one of the few people in America who liked Interiors.

I first saw it a few years after its initial release, by which time the furor about comedian Woody Allen having dared to film a laugh-free drama had died down. But it continues to inspire hostility among many of Allen’s followers. In his recent biography about Allen, David Evanier deemed the movie “practically unwatchable” and “dead on arrival.” While I concede that the movie is often very tony and talky, and it certainly makes countless nods to Allen’s idol Ingmar Bergman, I’d hardly call the movie unwatchable.

The story concerns an upper-class family whose members could finance some analysts’ sessions for several years. The family has three sisters, all of whom crave respect: Flyn (Kristen Griiffith), a successful actress who feels she’s wasting her talent in vapid TV dramas; poet Renata (Diane Keaton), also successful, who worries that her work isn’t enough to earn her immortality; and Joey (Marybeth Hurt), who flits from job to thankless job and wishes she could express herself creatively. These women have been raised in the dark shadow of their mother Eve (Geraldine Page), who is obsessed with perfection in the aesthetic world around her as she leaves her daughters’ psyches in tatters.

Eve is in the midst of estrangement from her long-time husband Arthur (E.G. Marshall), who has finally come to regard his seemingly perfect home as an “ice palace.” Eve holds out a naive hope that Arthur will come back to her, but in a low-key yet tense scene, he announces to the family that he wants what he euphemistically calls “a trial separation” from Eve. It’s a pivotal scene in the movie, as we watch hostility and sorrow quietly boil over at the family dinner table. It gets even worse for the daughters when, at the movie’s halfway point, Arthur brings home his new girlfriend Pearl (Maureen Stapleton), whose bohemian ways and zest for life throw the family and the home completely out of kilter.

I can see why moviegoers find Interiors off-putting. The family is obsessed with upper-middle-class concerns (what people these days would call “First World Problems”), and they express themselves all too verbosely. (At one point, Joey tells her mother, “There’s been perverseness, and willfulness of attitude in many of the things you’ve done” — not exactly the kind of sentiment you ought to express to your mentally ill parent.) The movie’s naysayers have said Woody Allen seems to have cribbed this kind of dialogue from the subtitles of Bergman’s movies. Yet I truly believe that this is exactly the kind of way that these women’s repressive mother has probably taught them to express themselves.

David Evanier opines that “The family in Interiors was a family that Allen knew nothing about.” Perhaps you’d have had to live with a woman like Eve to believe that such people really exist. (I did live with a mother figure like Eve, about which the least said the better.) But I found this family all too believable, and Allen does a superb job of showing his characters as tortured and often hostile, but not unlikable. And Allen (expectedly) does not cop out with a happy ending for the movie; it depicts several “life lessons” from which one would expect the characters to have learned something about themselves, yet they remain rigid and frigid right to movie’s end.

I can’t help thinking that if this movie had been released anonymously and that we hadn’t known that it came from a man best known for his all-stops-out comedies, the movie might have gotten a little more credit. (Two years after Interiors came out, movie star and first-time director Robert Redford earned plaudits and Oscars for Ordinary People, which explored a similarly repressive middle-class milieu.) Befitting the movie’s austere setting, Allen’s direction is appropriately spartan, with shots and scenes that quietly make their points and then move briskly on rather than wallowing in melodrama (as Allen, in interviews at the movie’s time of release, feared he was doing).

Interiors might not be to everyone’s tastes, but don’t tell me it isn’t lifelike, because I’ve met too many pretentious people with the same kinds of hangups. It’s an excellent foray into pure drama from a man who found that he can’t always use comedy to soften life’s harsher moments.

 

A farewell to alcohol

(FOREWARD: Usually on this blog, I post movie reviews or other musings in order to get feedback. In the following instance, I’m writing this mainly to sort out an issue I’ve been grappling with for several years. So don’t think that I’m posting this to get kudos. I’m just trying to work this issue out by writing about it.)FINAL

A month ago today, I said goodbye to an old friend. Her name was Pinot Grigio.

I am an alcoholic, though mine is not a completely typical story. At the time that I was growing up, the legal age in Florida for drinking alcohol was 18. As soon as I hit that magic age, I started drinking as much and as often as I could, with the typical results of drinkers at that age. One morning, I vomited after a night of overindulgence, and I was sure that would stop me from ever over-imbibing again. Of course, it didn’t.

For the next 20 years, I drank frequently and would probably rate myself just a cut above being a “social drinker.” It never kept from me from my daily duties, although I probably drank more than the average person.

After experimenting with several kinds of alcohol over the years, I finally decided to settle on white wine, and eventually on pinot grigio alone. For no good reason, it was in the year 2001 when I finally started to go over the edge. I got to the point where I’d finish off a .75-liter bottle of pinot every night, sometimes more.

I’ve never raged or abused anyone while in my cups, more often drinking to the point where I simply passed out. But I can’t say that my behavior never affected anyone. There was the night when I passed out in my reclining chair, and my young son, worried that I was dead, kept shaking me and pleading for me to wake up. His older sister, having grown wearily accustomed to my bad habit, resignedly assured my son that I’d be okay. There was the time when one of my older sisters, who lives in Kansas and whom I hadn’t seen for years, came down to attend my sister-in-law’s funeral and brought her grown-up kids with her. One night before the funeral, we all got together for dinner and drinks. I’d been so nervous about the reunion that I quickly downed a lot of wine and frequently stumbled around and fell off the couch I was sitting on, slurring what few words I could get out.

By this year, it had gotten to the point where I got in the habit of buying 12 bottles of “Two-Buck Chuck” from Trader Joe’s and finishing off the case in 12 days or less. My wife wasn’t crazy about it, but she reasoned that as long as I was able to go to my job every day, she’d put up with my functioning alcoholism.

It finally got to the point that I’d wake up sweating profusely every morning and usually continued doing so throughout the day. A few weeks ago, I was in such miserable shape that I was shaking a lot and actually showed symptoms of a coming heart attack. When I called my doctor and told him this, he told me I should go straight to the emergency room.

Here’s the strange thing. I spent two nights in the hospital, where they gave me a CAT scan and ran a battery of tests — and it turned out I was fine in every way. In fact, once I got checked in at the hospital, I immediately felt better and showed no signs of physical ailment — probably because I wasn’t drinking.

When I got home from the hospital, I actually gave the pinot one more try, getting loaded for the night. When I woke up feeling miserable, I reached the obvious conclusion: I wasn’t suffering from any malady other than the one I was pouring into myself. So I just quit drinking, period.

Of course, any doctor will tell you that going cold turkey is the worst way to wean yourself off alcohol, as it might result in delirium tremens, seizures, or even death. But I have shown no signs of any of those symptoms for a month. So I guess I got lucky, and my body just told me to stop drinking without putting me through physical hell for doing so.

So how do I feel now about drinking alcohol? Sometimes I’ll miss it and wish I could go back to my old ways. But, just like thinking about an old girlfriend who caused me such pain that I had to break it off with her, I just let the moment pass, and pretty soon I’m back in a normal frame of mind.

My wife and others have noticed that I’m a lot more amenable and sociable now. I haven’t talked about it with my now-grown kids, but they seem quietly grateful that I no longer hide in my man-cave after 5:00 each day to drink myself silly.

I’ve also heard that people like me can become “dry drunks,” former drinkers who are angry and lash out at others because they’re resentful that they can’t imbibe like they used to. Surprisingly, that has not happened. I don’t begrudge anyone who can handle their liquor better than I could. That would be like having an allergy to a particular food and then getting mad when I see others who can eat the same food without any side effects.

My primary regret is that I didn’t come to this realization sooner in my life. It would probably have allowed me to enjoy a lot more good times with my family and friends. But I can only regard it as a heavy-duty learning experience. It’s like getting married or becoming a parent — if you wait until you’re a perfect person to do so, it’ll never happen.

So I’m grateful that my family has stuck with me through a very ugly episode in my life. I’ve previously written on this blog about my suicide attempt from years ago. Between that and my drinking, I’ve tried very hard to kill myself and have failed quite notably. So now, I often think of Dorothy Parker’s darkly humorous poem “Resume”:

Razors pain you;

Rivers are damp;

Acids stain you;

And drugs cause cramp.

Guns aren’t lawful;

Nooses give;

Gas smells awful;

You might as well live.

WINGS (1927) – After 90 years, it still sends viewers soaring

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The following is my entry in The World War One on Film Blogathon, being hosted at the blog Maddielovesherclassicfilms on Nov. 10 & 11, 2018. Click on the above banner to read bloggers’ tributes to movies depicting various aspects of the First World War!

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For years, I’d heard about Wings, a silent feature film that was the first movie to win the Best Picture Oscar. For some reason, I imagined that it would seem as cliched as it sounded, perfect for its time but not aged well. Moral: Don’t listen to everything your subconscious tells you.

Wings is breathtaking and is one of the most beautifully composed movies I’ve ever seen. William Wellman was hired to direct it because at the time, he was the only director in Hollywood who had World War I combat pilot experience — and it shows in the movie’s details. This sprawling, 144-minute film has every kind of shot you can imagine — conventional, specially framed, documentary-style war footage — and there isn’t a wasted shot in the movie. Every frame is there to either push the narrative forward or make you stay bolted upright in your seat to see what happens next.

The movie’s main storyline is a bit more predictable than the eye-popping aerial footage, but even this part of the movie is put forth effectively. Neighborhood boys Jack Powell and David Armstrong (Charles “Buddy” Rogers and Richard Arlen) have two things in common: they both want to become airplane pilots, and both of them vie for the same neighborhood girl, Sylvia (Jobyna Ralston). Meanwhile, frisky Mary (Clara Bow) flits around David like a cute hummingbird and can’t figure out why Jack can’t see she’s madly in love with him — the stupid man!

The movie’s original story was rewritten to play up Clara Bow, who was America’s “It” Girl at the time. This is the first time I’ve ever seen a Clara Bow movie — sorry, folks, I’m not the hardcore silent-film buff I pretend to be — and it’s easy to see how and why she won moviegoers over. She radiates joy and happiness throughout this macho-based scenario, and you quickly get the feeling that if she can’t win Jack over, he doesn’t deserve her.

Kudos also go to Rogers and Arlen as the military rivals who can’t seem to make up their minds whether they should like or despise each other. Even the supporting actors add weight to the story. In an early but memorable role, Gary Cooper displays the charisma that gained him fame in the movies. And comic relief El Brendel takes a hoary stereotype — the silly Dutchman — and imbues him with character and charm.

As expected, the sweeping aerial footage is mesmerizing, shot from so many different angles that it looks as though it would take a general to make sense of it — but as Hollywood noted, Wellman certainly was the man for the job. And even though you can see the climax of the love-triangle subplot coming a mile away, it turns out to have an almost Shakespearean inevitability about it.

The best silent movies still hold up after numerous decades of viewing, and Wings certainly makes the grade.