A (Not-So) Brief Note On WELCOME TO MOOSEPORT (20th Century Fox 2004)

Sometimes while scrolling through the channels one come across a pleasant surprise. So it’s Saturday afternoon,a thundershower has cancelled my plan to hit the beach, the Red Sox don’t start for awhile, and I’m clicking the old clicker when I land on WELCOME TO MOOSEPORT. I wasn’t expecting much, just a way to kill time; instead, I found an underrated little gem of a comedy that kept me watching until the very end.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying WELCOME TO MOOSEPORT is an undiscovered classic or anything like that. It’s just a solidly made piece of entertainment about small-town life starring Ray Romano (riding high at the time thanks to his successful sitcom EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND) and Oscar winning Gene Hackman. Romano uses his nebbishy TV persona to portray Mooseport, Maine’s local hardware store owner “Handy” Harrison, who gets involved in a mayoral campaign against Hackman’s Monroe “Eagle” Cole, ex-president of the good ol’ USA, who’s running so his grasping ex-wife will keep her paws off his vacation house. The race to the corner office takes a U-turn when Handy’s girlfriend Sally, tired of his inability to make a commitment, dates the former leader of the free world to make Handy jealous!

OK, it’s not exactly groundbreaking stuff, but the movie has more than it’s share of chuckles and some out-and-out guffaws. It kind of reminded me of something that Don Knotts would’ve starred in 30 or 40 years earlier, with Romano taking the small-town Everyman role in his stead. Ray’s funny here, and so is Hackman, who could play just about anything. This was Hackman’s final film before retiring and he nails it as usual. The supporting cast is top-notch as well, including the delightful Maura Tierney (ER, INSOMNIA) as tough State-of-Mainer Sally, Marcia Gay Harden (Oscar winner for POLLOCK) as Hackman’s trusted assistant (who of course carries a secret torch for him, just to even things out in the end), Fred Savage (THE WONDER YEARS) as a nerdy political operative, and the great Rip Torn as a sleazy consultant brought in to crank up the political heat. Christine Baranski pops up as the president’s vindictive ex-spouse, adding her own comic touch to the silliness, and that’s an uncredited Edward Herrmann as the debate moderator. And let’s have a shout-out please for the delectable Canadian actress Reagan Pasternak (BEING ERICA) in the small part of Mandy, who’s got a crush on her boss Handy!

I found out there was just as much talent behind the cameras as in front. Director Donald Petrie was responsible for a couple of old favorites of mine (MYSTIC PIZZA, GRUMPY OLD MEN); his father Daniel did both features (A RAISIN IN THE SUN, BUSTER AND BILLIE, FT. APACHE THE BRONX) and TV Movies (A HOWLING IN THE WOODS, MOON OF THE WOLF, the excellent MY NAME IS BILL W) of note. Screenwriter Tom Schulman was also an Oscar winner (DEAD POETS SOCIETY), penned the Disney comedy HONEY I SHRUNK THE KIDS and the insanely hilarious WHAT ABOUT BOB?, and served as writer/director of the cult classic 8 HEADS IN A DUFFEL BAG.

So yeah, WELCOME TO MOOSEHEAD was a pleasant diversion, a well made comedy with an impressive cast giving their all. Sure, it can be a little corny in places, but there’s nothing wrong with a little corn now and then – just ask Frank Capra. The movie seems to have been made in that Capra spirit, and I’m pretty sure Frank would’ve enjoyed it. I know I did!

40 Years of SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE (Warner Brothers 1978)

Unlike today, when superheroes dominate at the box office and your local multiplex, costumed crusaders were dead as the proverbial doornail in theaters of the 1970’s. The last was 1966’s BATMAN, at the height of the camp craze, but after that zer0… zilch… nada. I didn’t care; my comic book reading days were pretty much at an end by 1978, driven away by other distractions, like making money, girls, beer, and girls. I had moved on.

But when Warner Brothers announced they were making a new, big budget Superman movie, I was intrigued. I’d always loved the old 50’s TV series starring George Reeves as the Man of Steel, corny as it was, and with a cast featuring Marlon Brando , Gene Hackman , and Glenn Ford , not to mention that girl from Brian DePalma’s SISTERS as Lois Lane, I wanted to see this new version. I also wanted to see this new guy, Christopher Reeve. Never heard of him (no one had!), and we speculated whether he was cast because his name sounded like Reeves, the TV Superman. The advertising was telling us all “You’ll believe a man can fly”, promising cutting-edge special effects, and there was a buzz in the air. I had to see it. Everyone, even my non-comic book loving friends, wanted in, too.

We weren’t disappointed. The all-star lineup was a treat, the story balanced action with humor, and the new guy knocked it out of the universe – Christopher Reeve WAS Clark Kent/Superman! Those special effects were fantastic, seamless in their execution. SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE was a blockbuster, and produced three sequels (SUPERMAN II was as good, maybe even better than, the original; the other two, not so much). All this was forty years ago, and movies have evolved since then, with CGI effects (for better or worse – you make the call) and visual innovations unthought of back then. Does it hold up compared to all those costumed cavorters battling in today’s big screen epics? Recently, Fathom Events re-released SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE to theaters, and I took the trip out to Swansea, MA to find out.

I made the half hour trip down the highway on a Monday night, grabbed some popcorn, a soda, and a box of Chocolate Peanut Chewies (hey, it’s a long movie… I’ll be at the gym tomorrow, I promise!). I settled in and prepared to be transported back… back to 1941, it turned out, as the show began with the animated Superman short THE MECHANICAL MONSTERS, a treat in itself! Then SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE started, and I’d forgotten all about that pre-credits black-and-white sequence with the kid flipping through a copy of Action Comics, a throwaway bit, for sure, but it helped set the film’s tone.

The first few notes of John Williams’ iconic score hit, and those eye-popping credits roll (I always smile when I see “Superman created by Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster”, knowing what a raw deal they got from DC). The first thing we see is Brando as Jor-El, still commanding the screen with his sheer presence (even when he’s later in hologram form), and setting up the sequel by sending General Zod and company to the Phantom Zone. I still love the way he pronounces ‘Krypt’n’ with his faux English (or is it a Kryptonian) accent.

Those Oscar-winning, “cutting edge” special effects hold up astoundingly well about 98% of the time: the destruction of Krypton, Kal-El’s journey through “the 28 known galaxies”, and Superman saving Lois from impending doom in that helicopter are standouts. The film introduced the then-new process of front projection, which gives the effects their seamless look. The final cataclysm at the San Andreas Fault was the only part that looked a bit on the cheesy side, but for the era it’s more than passable. Best of all for me was Superman taking Lois out for a fly, which in my opinion is one of the most romantic scenes in ANY film genre. You really will believe a man can fly!

Highlights among the cast are most certainly Gene Hackman’s turn as the evil genius Lex Luthor. He makes a diabolical villain, and his crazy wigs are a funny touch. Lex and his motley crew in their subterranean lair are a mismatched trio to be sure, and while I enjoyed Ned Beatty’s moronic henchman Otis, it’s Valerie Perrine who truly shines as the ditzy (but ultimately heroic) Miss Teschmacher. Glenn Ford and Phyllis Thaxter make a perfect Ma and Pa Kent, with both  giving understated performances. Jeff East as the teenaged Clark Kent doesn’t get a lot of attention from fans, but his performance is vital to the character’s back story. Veteran Jackie Cooper makes a blustery Perry White, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the brief but memorable cameo by Kirk Allyn and Noel Neill as young Clark rushes past the train they’re on; film buffs know they were the original Lois & Clark in the 1948 serial.

When Christopher Reeve first appears onscreen in the Fortress of Solitude, you knew you were watching the birth of a star. His dual role as the shy, bumbling Clark Kent and the heroic Man of Steel is a joy to behold, imbued with a sense of humor without going the camp route. Reeve’s interpretation of the character is the measuring stick for all screen superheroes; compare him to Henry Cavill – there’s no contest! The chemistry between Reeve and Margot Kidder’s Lois is palpable, and rewatching that wonderful scene of Superman and Lois in flight I mentioned earlier brought a tear to my eye, knowing the tragedies that befell both these fine actors later in life. That scene alone will have you wishing they were still with us.

Several screenwriters (Mario Puzo of “The Godfather” fame, Robert Benton, David and Leslie Newman) tried to capture the essence of Superman, but it took a rewrite by Tom Mankiewicz to polish this gem. His witty, knowing take on the Superman legend is pitch perfect, and Robert Donner’s superb vision as director brings it all to life. John Barry’s production design is outstanding, and cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth captures it all beautifully. The film is “dedicated with love and affection” to Unsworth, who died while filming TESS the following year. Altogether, SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE not only holds up extremely well, it’s a classic fantasy film that has stood the test of time. It’s got heart, humor, and most importantly characters you care about. While I do like some of the superhero films of today (and I’m sure you do, too), I can’t help but wonder… will audiences of the future be heading out to their local theaters to see the 40th anniversary of any of them? Only time will tell…

 

Recipe for Disaster: THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE (20th Century-Fox 1972)

Although 1970’s AIRPORT is generally credited as the first “disaster movie”, it was 1972’s THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE that made the biggest splash for the genre. Producer Irwin Allen loaded up his cast with five- count ’em!- Academy Award winners, including the previous year’s winner Gene Hackman (THE FRENCH CONNECTION ). The special effects laden extravaganza wound up nominated for 9 Oscars, winning 2, and was the second highest grossing film of the year, behind only THE GODFATHER!

And unlike many of the “disasters” that followed in its wake, THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE holds up surprisingly well. The story serves as an instruction manual for all disaster movies to come. First, introduce your premise: The S.S. Poseidon is sailing on its final voyage, and Captain Leslie Nielsen is ordered by the new ownership to go full steam ahead, despite the ship no longer being in ship-shape. (You won’t be able to take Leslie too seriously if, like me, you’ve watched AIRPLANE! way too many times!)

Next, introduce your all-star cast: We’ve got Hackman as a rebellious priest having his dark night of the soul, Ernest Borgnine as a belligerent NYC cop and Stella Stevens as his ex-prostitute wife, Red Buttons as a lonely, health-food nut bachelor, Jack Albertson and Shelley Winters as an elderly Jewish couple sailing for Israel, Carol Lynley as a young, aspiring singer, and Roddy McDowell as a steward. Add youngsters Pamela Sue Martin and Eric Shea on their way to meet their parents in Greece for good measure.

Then, add your disaster: a sub sea earthquake that triggers a freak tsunami, hitting the Poseidon with devastating force on New Year’s Eve, right after the singing of “Auld Lang Syne”! The ship capsizes, and now in order to survive our stars must make their way to the bottom (which is now the top) of the ship and reach the engine room to be rescued or, like all the rest of the supporting players and extras, they’re doomed to die in the frigid waters of the Atlantic Ocean!!

Oh, and let’s add some conflict for dramatic effect: Hackman and Borgnine are constantly at odds, bellowing at each other like bull elephants. Winters is old and overweight; the others think she’ll drag them down. Lynley’s suffering from trauma because her brother was killed, MacDowell’s got a wounded leg, Shea’s an obnoxious little know-it-all. There’s enough suspense, thrills, and terror put before our ten heroes for three disaster flicks, and it all works thanks to the steady hand of  director Ronald Neame (who later helmed one of the worst in the disaster cycle, 1979’s METEOR ).

Let’s talk a moment about Shelley Winters’ performance as Mrs. Rosen. During the late 60’s and early 70’s, double Oscar winner Shelley (THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK, A PATCH OF BLUE) began giving way-over-the-top performances in whatever she did, and was becoming more and more a parody of herself. Granted, she had recently suffered a nervous breakdown, and was taking roles beneath her considerable talents. Yet here Shelley toned down her act, giving a subtly emotional portrayal, and her bravery and self-sacrifice in saving Hackman’s life, especially after enduring all the cracks about her weight through the film, deservedly earned Winters an Oscar nomination (though she lost to Eileen Heckart for BUTTERFLIES ARE FREE). THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE may be just a big-budget popcorn movie, but it does have a heart and soul; its name is Shelley Winters.

Let’s also have a tidal wave of applause for the stunt crew, set designers, and special effects wizards who made THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE a visual delight… no CGI necessary! Veteran SPFX men L.B. Abbott and A.D. Flowers were given a Special Achievement Oscar for their fantastic technical work, and the film also won for what I consider one of the most annoying songs of the 70’s, the perennial soft-rock snoozer “The Morning After” (well, as Joe E. Brown said in SOME LIKE IT HOT, nobody’s perfect!). Despite that lame title tune, THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE is just as enjoyable today as it was upon first release,  an exciting, fun piece of Hollywood filmmaking that’s endured the storm-ravaged test of time!

Rough Justice: THE FRENCH CONNECTION (20th Century Fox 1971)

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First of all, I’d like to thank Kellee Pratt of Outspoken and Freckled for inviting me to participate in the 31Days of Oscar Blogathon. It’s cool to be part of the film blogging community, and even cooler because I get to write about THE FRENCH CONNECTION, a groundbreaking movie in many ways. It was the first R-Rated film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture, and scored four other golden statuettes as well. It also helped (along with the Clint Eastwood/Don Siegel DIRTY HARRY) usher in the 70’s “tough cop” genre, which in turn spawned the proliferation of all those 70’s cop shows that dominated network TV back then (KOJAK, STARSKY & HUTCH, BARETTA, etc, etc).

The story follows New York City cops Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle and his partner Sonny “Cloudy” Russo as they investigate a large shipment of heroin being brought in from France. The detectives focus on Sal Boca, a small time hood suddenly spreading big money around, and connected to mob lawyer Joe Weinstock. They get a tip the drugs are coming in, and follow Frenchman Alain Charnier. The cat-and-mouse game is on, and the film essentially becomes the race to find and stop the shipment from hitting the streets, including an iconic scene where Doyle commandeers a car to chase down an elevated train carrying Charnier’s murderous associate.

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Gene Hackman won the Oscar for his portrayal of Popeye Doyle. He’s Archie Bunker with a badge, spewing profanity-laced ethnic slurs at every perp he comes across, tossing in non-sequiturs like “You ever pick your feet in Poughkeepsie?” to keep them off-balance. Doyle breaks the rules with abandon, doing whatever it takes to clean up his city. Popeye Doyle may be a flawed human being, and you may not agree with his methods, but he’s an honest cop doing a tough job. He’s an anti-hero, and Hackman deserved his Oscar for his stark, realistic performance.

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The rest of the cast is outstanding as well. Co-star Roy Scheider (Russo) went on to lead roles in JAWS, ALL THAT JAZZ, BLUE THUNDER, and 2010. Spanish actor Fernando Rey (Charnier) worked in many of Luis Bunuel’s films. Tony LoBianco (Sal) is a dependable character actor who never quite made the leap to stardom. The real life Popeye and Cloudy, Eddie Egan and Sonny Grosso, appear in the film, with Egan playing Doyle’s superior. R&B group The Three Degrees (“When Will I See You Again”) are featured in the nightclub scene.

William Friedkin’s career was stuck in neutral before THE FRENCH CONNECTION. He made his debut directing Sonny & Cher in GOOD TIMES, followed by a few artsy films that went nowhere at the box office. He took on THE FRENCH CONNECTION after getting some advice from his then-girlfriend’s father. You may have heard of him… Howard Hawks. Friedkin’s direction here is like Hawks-on-steroids, and nabbed him an Oscar as well. His next movie was an even bigger blockbuster, 1973’s THE EXORCIST. Friedkin’s other films have been uneven; some of his better ones are SORCERER, THE BRINK’S JOB, and TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A. (a personal favorite of mine).

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Bill Hickman has a part as Mulderig, a Federal agent at odds with Doyle. Hickman was primarily a stunt driver, noted for the chase through San Francisco in Steve McQueen’s BULLITT. He staged the chase here as well, filmed on the streets of Brooklyn. It’s a crazy, tense thrill ride that ranks with the screen’s best chases, and part of the reason DP Owen Roisman and editor Gerald Greenburg took home Oscars, too. Let’s not forget the gritty screenplay by Ernest Tidyman, which gave THE FRENCH CONNECTION five Academy Awards all totaled.

THE FRENCH CONNECTION is a hard, in-your-face movie that helped Oscar grow up, with a remarkable performance by Gene Hackman as Popeye Doyle, a character who was a product of his time. It’s one of the best crime films of the 70’s, and still holds up well, unlike some other cop movies of the era. Just writing this review makes me want to watch it again!

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