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Cinemalphabet: P is for Planes, Trains & Automobiles (1987)

February 6, 2013


Easily one of the funniest films of the 80s and populated with the two of the era’s most likable comedic leads, Planes, Trains & Automobiles is my go to Thanksgiving film, the way Die Hard is my go to Christmas film. A riotous buddy road trip film for anxious people like me who get panic attacks watching The Out of Towners. Its conflicts, while troublesome, are deftly mined for their comedic absurdity.


Kevin Bacon (in one of the most hilarious John Hughes movie cameos EVER) as always, is the glue holding everything in the universe together. In this case serving as the smarmy catalyst for all of Neil Page’s (Steve Martin) holiday travel woes. Cabs scarcity, indecisive bosses and bad timing just will not allow Neil’s holiday to be great!

Neil meets a chatty shower curtain ring salesman named Dell Griffith on a crowded plane and you just know things are not going to go the way Neil hopes. After being treated to a barrage of unwanted chatter and general intrusiveness, Neil and Dell form an uneasy alliance – traumatic bonding at its best – with singular purpose of getting home in time for turkey and all the fixings. Neil Page has a beautiful wife, a huge house and a daughter I went to high school with waiting for him at home. Dell has wonderful and loving wife Marie. Despite his gregarious external, one can’t help but detect undercurrent of melancholy in Dell. The role was tailor made to showcase the late John Candy’s comedic and dramatic skills. His performance is nuanced and script mines more of its Candy moments on circumstances rather than his size.

In one of the film’s most hilarious and memorable scenes, Candy and Martin find themselves in a rental car, on a dark snowy road and every second of the scene will make you laugh until you’re out of breath. Other movies would have either run the gag on too long or not taken it far enough. Director John Hughes finds the sweet spot, giving the leads a lot of room to do what they do best.

Even with all the laughs, ridiculous situations and unfortunate run-ins with well cast character actors, Planes, Trains & Automobiles is a film with tremendous heart. The ending will have you wiping away tears, even if you’re not the kind of person who gets weepy at movies. And Blue Room’s rendition of the Hall & Oates song, “Every Time You Go Away” which plays in the background of the final scene is just so damn perfect. Probably my favorite version of this song.

Cinemalphabet: O is for Out of Sight (1998)

December 10, 2012


Blame it on Jackie Brown or my inexplicable late 90s dislike of Clooney, but I was not feeling Out of Sight upon its theatrical release. I can’t recall if I had any specific thoughts about Soderbergh, who had not yet made Ocean’s 11 or Traffic, two films I count as solid faves. That said, in the mid to late 90s adaptations of Elmore Leonard’s work or knockoffs of his flow in indie films – which all seemed to feature Stephen Dorff – were as plentiful as slap bracelets and floppy candy raver top hats. By the time Out of Sight came I was probably found the whole aesthetic fatiguing.

When I finally succumbed to Netflix’s relentless campaign to get me to watch it I instantly regretted not doing so YEARS ago. George Clooney gives one of his great ex-con-with-a-heart-of-gold performances, which he would later perfect in the Ocean’s franchise. Clooney stars as career bank robber Jack Foley who we meet on the day he manages to botch a bank robbery and land himself in jail (again). Out of Sight cleverly plays with audience’s sense of its timeline, which at time probably was totally fresh, but now kind of feels obligatory and dare I say quaint. As with Jackie Brown there is a beautiful, bad ass woman at the center of galaxy of inept, foolish greedy motherfuckers.

Jennifer Lopez is both radiant as US Marshall Karen Sisco who meets Jack Foley during the middle of his prison break. Tossed in the trunk together with their bodies impossibly close, Sisco and Foley set light to their steamy, slow burn chemistry, which at times gets the better of their judgement. What I loved about J-Lo’s characterization of Sisco is how flawed she is, without being completely being inept at her job. She is great at tracking fugitives and spends a lot of time around criminally minded people (on both sides of the law), so it does make sense she’s not always adept at making healthy relationship choices. Whether it’s pining for an emotionally unavailable and totally shady FBI agent played by Michael Keaton (reprising his role from Jackie Brown) to the dashing criminal she’s been tasked to apprehend. It’s all steaminess, ice slowly melting in highball glasses and terrible relationship choices in Sisco’s emotional world.

As for the heist itself, well that’s where things are actually less complicated. With the exception of Foley and his road dog Buddy (Ving Rhames) everyone else eyeing the uncut diamonds white collar criminal Richard Ripley (Albert Brooks wearing a bald cap or something) is pretty much a totally idiot. Maurice Miller (Don Cheadle) an ex-con wannabe mastermind assembles a group of fellow cons who are trying to get the diamonds before Jack and Buddy can. The results in a fantastic clusterfuck at Ripley’s mansion where everything that could go wrong does and in a spectacular, hilarious manner. Cheadle is a good sport as Maurice and delivers variation on his familiar on screen persona. A pre-homophobic, bigoted meltdown Isaiah Washington is also good in his limited screen time as one of Maurice’s hoods who has an unfortunate tangle with Sisco.

Because the film draws its narrative tension not in the heist or even in the relationship concerns of its leads, there are moments when the tone feels a bit uneven. Even though I was laughing at the snappy dialog and the unfortunate situations characters found themselves in, there were times when I wondered whether or not the film would actually have a satisfying resolution. Thankfully, it does, though it was not one I actually expected and I liked that. Leaving the ending ambiguous resulted in a heist film capably both elevating itself from the tropes of the genre and also having fun with them.

Cinemalphabet: N is for Nighthawks (1981)

November 30, 2012


There are a lot of things I could say about this French Connection knockoff, but most of them would probably give the impression the film is not very good. In fact it is quite thrilling, interesting and gritty the way so many other films tackling its subject matter are. Nighthawks is a film I associate with the early days of premium cable where I’d watch whatever the hell aired because the novelty of cable television was still fresh. No doubt what initially attracted me to this film as a tween was its fabulously coiffed leads – Sylvester Stallone and Billy Dee Williams – in their prime.

It’s hard not to think Serpico when Deke DaSilva (Stallone) shows up with impressive facial hair, leather pimp coats, Barry Gibb hairs and aviator sunglasses. But that’s just styling. His work here is very subtle and all his well known Sly-isms are completely sublimated. Billy Dee Williams is excellent as DaSilva’s partner – did I mention they’re NYPD cops – with the unintentionally lulzy name of Matthew Fox. Stallone and Williams have wonderful chemistry, but not in a way that feels cloying like many buddy cop films do.


Nighthawks concerns itself the containment and apprehension of an discotheque loving, international terrorist played by hobo with a shotgun himself, Rutger Hauer. I remember being TERRIFIED of his character in this film when I was a kid. Something about a blond haired, icy stare terrorist who loves himself some Michael Zager Band and doing the hustle, I don’t know just seemed extra crispy scary to my tween self.

It still floors me that Stallone managed to slip in Nighthawks a year before the one two punch of First Blood and Rocky III. I recall that I had seen Rocky III during the time where Nighthawk was relentlessly airing on premium cable and I was obsessed with all things Rocky Balboa related. I wish I could recall what I thought about seeing him bearded, subdued and not punching slabs of meat. I’m certain it must have been hilarious.

Cinemalphabet: M is for Moonraker (1979)

November 12, 2012

As the glorious Skyfall arrives in theaters stateside and with all the 50th anniversary celebrations, I saw it fitting to revisit what is arguably the cheesiest canonical Bond film ever made. I am pretty certain my older brother took me to see Moonraker when he was probably supposed to take me to see something else. It was my very first Bond experience and I can’t imagine what I must have thought of it. I was six years old. I’m sure my attention was rapt, despite every single reference going completely over my afro puffs.

After the usual unrelated cold open, Moonraker‘s stirring title credits awash the viewer with Dame Shirley Bassey’s lush theme. Goldfinger might be her most memorable, Diamonds are Forever her most playful, but Moonraker is her most stunning vocal performance. Despite its haunting beauty, the theme is at odds with the tone – ridiculously silly camp – of the film.

Moonraker finds Bond doing battle with an industrialist – so you know he’s a bad guy – by the name of Sir Hugo Drax (played with aplomb by the fabulous Michael Lonsdale). Drax is easily my favorite Bond villain, because he’s so incredibly mannered, but also quite bananas. He just up and decides one day he’s going to create a master race and force them to wear impossibly tight and skimpy blinding white tennis outfits, which honestly seems like the cruelest part of his plan. Drax retains almost nothing from his characterization in Fleming’s novel; Moonraker retains almost nothing (except title) from Fleming’s novel. Instead, the title is used to cover a litany of sci-fi sins in what can only be described as a cynical cash grab attempt at the sci-fi/space excitement created by the success of Star Wars.

Lois Chiles stars as the main Bond girl, Dr. Goodhead, which is quite possibly the worst Bond girl name ever. Chiles is great as the freeze dried lady scientist working for Drax. An air of elegance permeates her every scene, which is hard to do saddled with such a prOnny name. Anyway, Dr. Goodhead and Bond join forces (as is often the case with Bond and his ladies) in order to thwart Drax’s plans for world domination via perky youths in tight, white booty shorts. In addition to Bond and Dr. Goodhead, Bond’s old nemesis Jaws inexplicably turns up, but Moonraker‘s much better for it.

While the performances are capable and the stunts thrilling, none of this compensates for the farce otherwise known as the third act, which takes place in outer space. Well on spaceships. It’s just too ridiculous, even at the time it was panned by critics. Sure it’s fun and funny, but it also goes a long way of explaining why so many Bond fans remain sharply divided over both the film and Moore’s tenure as Bond. For me, however, Moonraker remains my favorite Bond film. I can’t exactly explain why. It’s a mixture of nostalgia, dubious taste and a soft spot for the underdog.

Cinemalphabet: L is for Live Free or Die Hard (2007)

November 7, 2012

There it is!

There is always a moment in a Bruce Willis film (except perhaps The Jackal and Unbreakable) where he flashes that iconic shit-eating smirk at the camera, which contrary to popular belief is not his default facial setting. At rest, Willis’ face is as impassive as a slab of granite, but – you know – in a good way. I don’t recall it every showing up so early in a film! We’re talking less than six minutes in and the ink on the credits hadn’t even dried. That was really exciting. I love seeing age on actor’s faces and Bruce has such a great face. It was nice enough when he was on Moonlighting and seems to have gotten much more cuter as he’s gotten older. I love the lines and folds and that starburst of crinkles that border the outer corner of his eyes. Willis doesn’t really have to do much talking; his face can do most of the talking for him.

What I’ve always loved about the character John McClane is that he doesn’t know anything about anything other than being a cop. He doesn’t keep up on the latest fashions, trends in parenting, pop culture phenoms or technological advances! To him a fax machine is as baffling as the cockpit of a 747, neither of which he knows how to work! As a cop, McClane knows a lot about people; their motivations, their tells when they’re lying, etc and he’s incredibly perceptive and sharp minded. Nevertheless the fact that McClane is an analog man living in a digital world is brought home in the most unpleasant way in a series of events starting with McClane’s discovery of the Lojack tracking device in his squad car and culminating with a shootout with snarky, informed “sociopath” (you can tell by his obsession with holding your gaze a beat too long without blinking) played by the dishy Timothy Olyphant! I won’t front, Timothy Olyphant always seems kind of bonks to me, so like many other typecasted actors his appearance in a film is often its own spoiler.

Olyphant stars as Thomas Gabriel a bitterlicious computer expert who like every other villain John McClane encounters claims not to be interested in various forms of wealth. And like every other villain John McClane encounters Gabriel is a big ole liar. Well technically speaking, Hans Gruber did self identify as a “thief” despite others calling him a terrorist. In any event, Olyphant’s Gabriel is not a particularly nice person. The gorgeous and talented Maggie Q co-stars as resident babe and ass kicker in manner of A View to a Kill‘s Mayday. By law Die Hard movies are only allowed two females in major roles, so it is with great sadness that I inform you of the disillusion of the marriage between John and Holly Gennaro McClane.

Hello, Lucy McClane!

Fortunately, McClane still has a female in his life who is all about busting his chops! Little Lucy McClane is all grown up and attends Rutgers. She also doesn’t wish to be called “Lucy McClane” except when bound and gagged by Gabriel and his merry band of cyber hackers. The Mac himself, Justin Long plays Clane’s annoying charge Matthew Ferrell and I wanted to hate him, but he won me over with the line, “Good luck at the bad timing awards!” and then I just enjoyed his performance. Long is really adorable as the hacker sought by the FBI and Gabriel for different reason, which I’ll be honest I never manage to catch nor care about whenever I watch this film. There is one amazing comic relief actor who is too hilarious to spoil here. Rounding out the cast are old friend Zeljko! and the glorious actor of Maori descent Cliff Curtis, who I vividly remember from both The Runaway Jury and the stunning film Once Were Warriors.

The stakes are high and the action is over the top. Yet somehow it stills retains a shred of realism. Well except for the part where McClane hurls I believe a car at a helicopter and brings the chopper down. But the parts of Matthew Ferrell being geeky and having asthma and knowing other geeky folks who live with their moms seemed kind of real. As an occasionally whiny asthmatic myself, Long’s portrayal of one seemed pretty authentic. In fact all of his dialogue sounded as though he’d taken a hit or twenty of his puffer before speaking. He was kind of wired! Long and Willis seem to get along fine and their chemistry is the classic “old and busted/new hotness” dynamic. Willis’ acting is so effortless and he slips back into McClane’s world weary skin with ease and a respectable level of snark. Curiously, Willis, who I tend to think of as a performer who underutilizes his inside voice, delivers most of his dialogue in a husky honey drenched sotto voce! Of all four films in the series, Live Free or Die Hard boasts Willis at his most gorgeous and athletically impressive. He’s in great shape and believable as an aged cop with a few tricks up his sleeve. Live Free or Die Hard is the kind of film that even if you don’t like action movies or – Xena forbid Bruce Willis – it manages to suck you in with its well scripted characters and dazzling action sequences. And look, when you basically changed the action movie game – as the original Die Hard did in 1987 – you don’t have shit to prove to anyone. Play on, playa, play on!

Cinemalphabet: K is for The Kid Stays in the Picture (2002)

November 5, 2012

If you have ever wanted to spend an hour or so listening to a legendary studio head mumble about himself have I got a docufilm for you! Based on the best selling tell-all memoir of the same name, the documentary begs the question, “would shadow puppets have been more compelling?”

The irony of the film is the Robert Evans of legend would never have greenlit such a shoddy looking piece of cinema. The life of Robert Evans is big and showy and glamorous, befitting of a splashy big budget Hollywood film. You know, the kind he used to produce. Instead rubberneckers are treated to visually confusing mess, that distracts more than it aids the narrative. This is Robert Evans for corn’s sake; the story doesn’t need a lot of embellishment. I wanted to like the style of filmmaking but found it to be a tad to precious for the subject. Especially knowing what a crash and burn story being told. Having said all that I do think the film is valuable for other reasons.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. I am assuming you children actually know who Robert Evans is! Well, he was lovingly sent up by his good friend Dustin Hoffman in the film WAG THE DOG and right here at the end of The Kid Stays in the Picture More importantly, Evans embodies the bubbly hot tubby goodness of 70s filmmaking and the films are some of cinema’s finest. We’re talking The Godfather, Chinatown and to a lesser degree…Love Story. The film which is part cinema history and part cautionary tale is fascinating and unflinching. There is no glossing over the reversals of fortune or the terrible events that would later define his legacy.

If you read the book, the film offers nothing new, but hearing these stories in Evans’ own words has an impact the book didn’t really have for me.

Cinemalphabet: J is for Jeremiah Johnson (1972)

November 3, 2012

Let’s get one thing out of the way: without the involvement of 70s hot Redford and my beloved Sydney Pollack, this movie was never going to happen for me. I kept shuffling it up my queue, getting so close to clicking play only to find something more pressing to do like laundry or decluttering my closet. There’s something about unflinching use of 70s Westerns as a lens to critically examine the Vietnam war that has always made me uncomfortable and perhaps that’s the point. There’s a troubling erasure of the complexities of white folk going off grid to live with Native folk. I think Jeremiah Johnson skirts the line, slipping on the wrong side in a couple of places and for me that does affect my overall experience of the film. It is a visually exciting, well crafted film, but it feels dated. Its commentary seems naive, given all we know in 2012, but ultimately because it’s Pollack and Redford it was worth at least one viewing.

Also, can we talk about that awesome beard?

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