Blog-a-thons

#31DaysofOscar #blogathon – Ellen Burstyn in “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore”

indexAlice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974; Dir.: Martin Scorsese)

GRADE: A-

By Daniel Barnes

In the recent Australian chiller The Babadook, Essie Davis plays a widowed mother who feels trapped by parenthood, and eventually becomes a bigger threat to her screeching son than the titular monster. I thought about The Babadook while I was watching Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, the 1974 film that won Ellen Burstyn the Academy Award for Best Actress (against formidable competition, too – Gena Rowlands of A Woman Under the Influence and Faye Dunaway of Chinatown were among her fellow nominees). Separated by four decades, both films are about redefining genre templates – The Babadook takes on horror tropes while Alice… updates the classic Hollywood “women’s picture” for the era of liberation – but they both deal with the same basic theme: a modern woman’s struggle to reconcile her need for self-fulfillment with the overwhelming demands of mothering a troubled child.

images2Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore is a film about complication and tension – marriage as an end, death as a beginning, open roads leading to dead ends, Monterey dreams in an Arizona piano bar – and perhaps the most exciting tension is the unlikely collaboration between Burstyn and director Martin Scorsese. Burstyn helped to develop the material at Warner Bros. as her follow-up vehicle to The Exorcist, and she was instrumental in bringing aboard Scorsese, then hot off of his little seen but widely respected 1973 film Mean Streets. It’s fascinating to see a young Scorsese as a sort of James Mangold-ian director-for-hire, and you can feel him struggling against the limitations of studio filmmaking like a trapped bird, just as Alice frantically and helplessly flaps her arms against the sliding glass door of her suburban prison.

Scorsese takes an intensely personal approach to his films – if he can’t find himself in the material, he can’t envision the movie – and I love that the demands of the project forced him to forge an intense personal identification with a complex female character (and a lonely Southwestern housewife at that!). There’s really nothing else like it in his repertoire – he’s had great female characters, but after this film and New York, New York in 1977, the closest that Scorsese would come to having a female lead in any of his films was probably Michelle Pfeiffer in The Age of Innocence, and there he’s more interested in fetishizing the character than understanding her.  You can feel Scorsese try to assert himself on the material with ostentatious Steadicam shots and T. Rex music cues, but to his credit, his cinematic audacity never overshadows or overwhelms Burstyn’s excellent performance.

index2Her Alice is an unhappy New Mexico housewife and mother whose loveless march to the grave is disrupted by the unexpected death of her Coke truck-driving husband. Out of money and stuck with her bratty son, Alice intends to move them to her childhood home of Monterey, with a wispy dream of restarting her pre-marriage job as a lounge singer.   However, she gets waylaid in Arizona, first by a lack of money, and then by a succession of smarmy suitors. Burstyn is the perfect actress for the role of Alice – Faye Dunaway or Gena Rowlands could have carried the emotional weight of the character, but probably not the layers of humor and vulnerability that Burstyn brings to the part. The passive-aggressive, sarcastic tone that Burstyn takes with her son, even as he pounds his fists on her psychological buttons, is a key to the character, an emotional shield used to keep her real feelings inside. “I don’t have to show all my emotions,” she tells him, seconds before an emotional outburst.

Burstyn never strays from the truth of the character, even when the Robert Getchell script does. Alice is “re-entering” the single/working scenes for the first time since her teens, into a new world of options that are mostly unavailable or unappealing. In almost every scene, Burstyn has to play Alice on multiple levels – responsibility, desire, excitement, longing, and fear exist in the same moment. Stuck in Phoenix, Alice is propositioned by a smarmy young dope played by Harvey Keitel (credit Scorsese for having the vision to cast Keitel as a yee-haw Arizona cowboy), and Burstyn shows us both Alice’s weary skepticism and the melting effect of his adolescent flattery. She can smell his bullshit from a mile away, and falls for it anyway.

Keitel’s cowboy turns out to be a married psychopath, making it an easy decision for Alice and her boy to move on down the road towards Monterey. But when they get stuck in Tucson, Alice finds work waitressing at a bottom-rung diner, where she meets a sweet-talking rancher (Kris Kristofferson) who presents a more substantial impediment to her Monterey dreams. In a film that opens on a ridiculously artificial soundstage, transitions into Mott the Hoople helicopter shots of the New Mexico suburbs, and shows slight traces of magical realism throughout, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore turns unintentionally surreal in this second half. The diner scenes, and the dynamic of an Arizona single mother/waitress who longs to become a singer, inspired the TV show Alice (there was even some casting crossover, including Vic Tayback as Mel). It doesn’t derail the picture, but it is retroactively bizarre that this idiosyncratic Scorsese film about reexamining classic Hollywood female roles suddenly overlaps and swaps DNA with a laugh track-heavy 1970s sitcom.

indexA young, pre-Taxi Driver Jodie Foster also shows up in this final third, offering Ripple to Alice’s boy and calling Tucson “a hellhole” (between this film and Hamlet 2, the Tucson Tourism Board has not fared well). As her son makes some tentative inroads into juvenile delinquency, Burstyn grows closer to Kristofferson, but she is unable to commit – she longs to have it all, and is terrified that she may get it. They have an artificial public reconciliation scene in the diner where all the customers applaud, and while it’s a rare moment of falseness, it’s also quite telling that the film does not end there. Instead, it’s Alice and her son who get the last long lover’s walk into the sunset, ready to settle for life in Tucson, their visions of Monterey existing only as a neon hotel sign on a dingy main drag.  The hopeless cynic in me thinks that the Burstyn character in Requiem for a Dream might be the Burstyn character in Alice… after a quarter century of enabling her son’s awfulness and forestalling her own hopes and dreams.  But the hopeless optimist in me prefers to believe that they all lived happily ever after.

The End.

Be sure to check out some of the other #31DaysofOscar blogathon posts HERE

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#31DaysofOscar Blogathon

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Every February, Turner Classic Movies runs its 31 Days of Oscars marathon, in which they devote their entire programming to honoring the past nominees and winners of the Academy Awards. Another tradition that has began running concurrently with the TCM festival is the #31DaysofOscar blogathon, hosted by Kellee, Paula, and Aurora. They will be hosting the blogathon all month long, with the related articles and reviews concentrating on actors the first week, Oscar snubs next week, and moving on to technical awards and Best Director/Picture as the month goes on.  One of my blogging goals for 2015 is to participate in more of these online community events, so I volunteered to write about one of my all-time favorite Oscar-winning performances for the blogathon – Ellen Burstyn in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, an early film from Martin Scorsese.

 My review is up!  Read it HERE.

Check out links to all of the #31DaysofOscar #blogathon posts HERE.

#84athon – “Tank”

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Tank (1984; Dir.: Marvin J. Chomsky)

GRADE: D

By Mike Dub

*NOTE: This is Mike’s contribution to the 1984-a-thon at Forgotten Filmcast.  Over 100 bloggers are participating in this week long blog-a-thon, so please check out their site for links to more reviews of films from 1984.  Read Daniel’s review of  Against All Odds HERE.

The mid-1980s was a strange time for Hollywood’s military movies.  Despite the success of New Hollywood features likeThe Deer Hunter and Coming Home at the end of the 1970s, the 1980s were couched in Reagan-era gumption, and produced more reassuring mainstream war films that sought to reinvigorate faith in American military prowess.  Tapping into the most valuable target market, movies like Red Dawn turn to America’s teenagers to protect their country after the pacifist failures of their parents have left the U.S. vulnerable to a cold war invasion.  Top Gun and Iron Eagle, while defining air combat as the coolest thing ever, also feature young men who surpass their fathers’ dogfighting skills in order to save the day.  And, in more explicit terms, films like Missing in Action and Rambo: First Blood Part II depict American soldiers returning to Vietnam to reclaim their military potency by saving POWs leftover from the war.

Somewhere amid those intense, glossy blockbusters sits the relatively modest curiosity of Tank.  Produced in 1984 by Lorimar (the fine folks who brought you the lion’s share of ABC’s “TGIF” schedule in the ‘90s), Tank is a vapid, ridiculous action-adventure romp that revels in the exhibition of military might making right.  A pointless film without any sense of perspective or value, it somehow still manages to capture the infantile glee for American military machinery that permeates the other war films of its time.  Given the forthrightness of its unimaginative title, there is no confusion as to the real star of Tank.

tankUnfortunately, rather than simply showcase the eponymous vehicle in nihilistic exuberance (as would likely happen in an exploitation action film made today), Tank provides a contrived, brain-dead storyline to justify its existence.  Army Sergeant-Major Zack Carey (James Garner), notorious throughout the Army as the only person in the country to own his own Sherman tank, moves his wife LaDonna (Shirley Jones) and son Billy (C. Thomas Howell) to a base in Georgia to finish out his service while his retirement papers are being processed.  Much in the first half of this two-hour long movie plays like a domestic drama, with old man Carey (“Everything’s got to be a disco – I don’t want to go to a disco!”) doing his best to ease family tensions and adjust to his new surroundings.  Before long, though, Carey runs afoul of the cartoonishly sadistic, corrupt local sheriff (G.D. Spradlin), which leads to Billy’s arrest and imprisonment on false charges.  And that’s when he turns to the tank.

Carey uses the tank to bust Billy out of prison, along with the help of gold-hearted hooker Sarah (Jenilee Harrison – the short-tenured Cindy on Three’s Company), and the three of them hop in the tank and head for the state line (“We’re not running from the law,” Carey explains for the benefit of any impressionable kids in the audience. “We’re running to the law”).  As they race for the safety of Tennessee, the news media get ahold of the story and the trio become outlaw heroes – there is even a parade waiting for them at the state line, complete with marching bands and cotton candy.

tank-1984-james-garnerIn a movie like Tank, it is difficult to know exactly when the story moves from stupid to preposterously stupid.  Is it when Carey destroys the town jail with his tank?  Or when, as punishment for a lifetime of severely violent abuses of authority, Carey forces a deputy to strip in public?  Or is it the absence of any federal law enforcement presence on a case that involves a man breaking out of prison in a tank?  Maybe it is Billy’s public apology to his dad, delivered during a CB radio interview, which concludes, “I don’t have to prove anything to him.  I love him.”  I’m not sure, but by the time we reach the climax of the film, during which the sheriff plans to massacre three innocent, unarmed people in front of a carnival of citizens at the state line, it doesn’t matter.  The only pertinent question, beyond how much time is left in the movie, is how little can this film possibly think of its audience.

As idiotic and incoherent as it is, Tank does tap into the resurgence of American military pride in the post-Vietnam era. Early on in the film, we learn that Carey is the father of two sons, but one of them died under circumstances that are never made clear.  While that plot point imbibes Carey with extra motivation for saving Billy (as though that were necessary), it also instills a hint of loss and regret into Carey.  Fortunately, Carey is a true, stiff-upper-lipped soldier, and he’s got no time to dwell on the past.  Tank makes it clear that military power is still in the hands of those who use it, and love it, best.  Most importantly, it provides that lesson in a family-friendly package suitable for children – er, viewers – of all ages.

#84athon – “Against All Odds”

1984_blogathonAgainst All Odds (1984; Dir.: Taylor Hackford)

GRADE: B-

By Daniel Barnes

*NOTE: This is Daniel’s contribution to the 1984-a-thon at Forgotten Filmcast. Over 100 bloggers are participating in this week long blog-a-thon, so please check out their site for links to more reviews of films from 1984. Mike Dub’s review of the 1984 James Garner vehicle Tank will be published here on Wednesday morning.

The first few notes of synth-bass on the soundtrack and the fire engine red color of the opening credits unmistakably announce Against All Odds as a product of Reagan/Orwell’s 1984, but the film has its roots in the postwar disillusion of the late 1940s. Although only the skeletal outline of its source material remains, Taylor Hackford’s languorous “modern” noir is based on the 1947 Jacques Tourneur classic Out of the Past (#47athon), which starred Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer (who also appears here) and Kirk Douglas.

Rather than simply update Out of the Past for the oversized sunglasses and pink polo shirts of the mid-1980s, however, director Taylor Hackford and screenwriter Eric Hughes (whose only other significant screen credit was the Hines/Baryshnikov dance thriller White Nights – #85athon) opt for a more sprawling narrative focused on corruption, class war and kinky sex. Against All Odds posits that you haven’t truly made love to a woman until you’ve made love to her in the sweathouse at the Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza while the Dad from Webster watches. After viewing the film, I’m only moderately inclined to agree.

indexHackford and Hughes sacrifice the clean narrative lines and dreamlike potency of Out of the Past for something less personal and far more epic in scope, and for a while it works beautifully. Jeff Bridges (in the same year he made John Carpenter’s Starman, no less) is the perfect noir patsy as Terry Brogan, sexy, sex-starved, and self-destructive, equal parts good intentions and flimsy morality. We trust him, even when he proves unworthy of it.  He has strong values, but they are always negotiable.

In Out of the Past, the protagonist played by Mitchum was a sharp-tongued, quick-witted, iron-tough detective in a snappy fedora, but Brogan’s detective skills are more in line with Bridges’ signature role as The Dude in The Big Lebowski. As the film opens, he is shuffling around a Mexican beach town, showing a picture of a smiling couple to ice vendors and fisherman, mumbling the same phrase over and over again in phonetic Spanish. When the film flashes back to show how Brogan got to the island, we discover that he is a washed-up football player, intentionally injured by his own team before getting unceremoniously waived.

index2The pro football angle is entirely invented for Against All Odds, and it’s kind of a pleasant shock when it comes, as it updates the story to the unscrupulous world of 1980s high finance and physical perfection without sacrificing the essential genre trappings. It also presages the Los Angeles-based football thriller genre mash of Tony Scott’s The Last Boy Scout (#91athon) by almost a decade. “It’s a different ball game,” says the team’s trainer, and he’s not referring to the fact that the crackback block Terry gets chewed out for missing would get him penalized and fined in today’s NFL.

Terry is totally stuck – he can’t play football due to an injury, his agent won’t talk to him, he wasted all of the money he earned as a player, and he is still in debt to a slimy, beach volleyball-obsessed bookie played by James Woods (note to self: if Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind-style [#2004athon] technology is ever developed in real life, use it to erase the image of James Woods playing beach volleyball). Woods’ character has a problem that should sound familiar to anyone who has seen Out of the Past – his girlfriend stole a wad of his money and took off for Mexico, and he needs an ethically flexible, off-the-payroll stooge to fetch her back.  The first third of Against All Odds is close to great, creating a world that oozes corruption out of every pore, and where danger and self-immolation are the only forms of integrity left.

Eventually, Terry finds his femme fatale, a lithe and smoldering con woman named Jessie who is played by Rachel Ward.  It does not suffice in the least to say that Ward is no Jane Greer – she may not even be Phoebe Cates.  Forget the fact that Jessie is clearly the Australian daughter of American parents (if you can), and just imagine how much this film would have been elevated if Sigourney Weaver, Debra Winger, Nastassja Kinski, Jamie Lee Curtis, or any number of other enticingly androgynous female stars of the 1980s had been cast instead.  Ward was hot off the huge TV success of The Thorn Birds (#83athon) when this film was made, but her acting career plummeted pretty swiftly afterward, and it’s not hard to see why – the film starts its precipitous slide downhill the moment she shows up on screen.

After some token banter, Terry and Jessie become sexually involved, forgoing their responsibilities back in America to frolic on the beach and make goo-goo eyes at each other in absurdly opulent beach huts.  This is where the film is probably most familiar to fans of 1980s pop culture, as these scenes form the bulk of the Phil Collins video for “Against All Odds (Take a Look at Me Now)”, a #1 hit that was also nominated for an Academy Award (it lost to “What’s Love Got to Do With It” from Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, so no harm no foul there), with a steamy music video that played in heavy rotation on MTV.

These scenes are silly but still pretty sexy, and they do lead to the aforementioned canoodling in the Mayan ruins.  It’s in the final third where Hackford fumbles the ball, relying on an overwrought electronic score and pretentious jump cuts to convey psychological turmoil, while still reveling in the hoariest of genre cliches.  Against All Odds has its moments, but too often the film plays less like an official remake of Out of the Past and more like an unofficial prequel to Tequila Sunrise (#88athon).