For Reel

Radio Days (1987)
April 29, 2017, 6:59 pm
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Director: Woody Allen
3 Stars
Radio DaysOn the heels of one of his most narratively ambitious features (the much lauded Hannah and Her Sisters), Woody Allen released this equally ambitious piece of nostalgia that serves as a series of anecdotes about what it was to grow up in the 1940s. Santo Loquasto’s set design recreates a crowded, rambunctious house of the period—a place where the radio was always on, its legends inevitably burrowing into the inhabitant’s psyches. Allen’s wistful voiceover confirms that the film’s ambition is to serve as a sharing of memories rather than to string the audience through a typical narrative, and as such Radio Days admirably suggests the ways that memories (already prone to half-truths) can intermingle with media in unusual ways. That is, as much as it recounts what it was like to grow up in the 40s, Radio Days spends much of its runtime detailing anecdotes relating to radio, such as the fact that a famous gunslinger could actually be voiced by a man with the stature of Wallace Shawn. And yet, if the radio could lie to the listener, it was a lie that its devotees truly believed in—a relationship not far removed from the ways we interact with our own histories. If Radio Days is successful in independent vignettes, however, its aimlessness comes to its detriment. Memories are founded not only by the “tone” of a specific period, but by the hopes and dreams of the people you surround yourself with. In Radio Days, the supporting characters are largely comical afterthoughts, whose interactions with the Allen stand-in are largely forgettable. For a film that celebrates humanity, none of the people in it particularly resonate. We can take Annie Hall similarly as a film about memory, and if that film lacks the obsessive tone control of this one, it more profoundly deals with how our interpersonal relationships shape the people that we come to be.

Ishtar (1987)
June 1, 2016, 11:04 pm
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Director: Elaine May
3 Stars
IshtarNeither the failure nor the masterpiece that hopeful revisionists have touted it as, Ishtar is the least consistent of director Elaine May’s pictures, which still ranks stretches of it alongside the best comedies of the 1980s. It is a terrific satire of failed masculinity, here expanded into the failure of America’s dealings with the third world—Chuck Clarke (Dustin Hoffman) and Lyle Rogers (Warren Beatty) are so convinced of their genius that they continue to see themselves as masters of their domain even after arriving in Morocco, where they will blunder their way through arms auctions and CIA conspiracies. At the time of its release, critics like Roger Ebert argued that Hoffman and Beatty seemed tortured to be in the film, with Ebert going as far as saying they had, “all wit and thought beaten out of them.” If anything, what makes Ishtar so interesting (and such a failure in moments) is their blind over-eager enthusiasm—Beatty, in particular, seems overjoyed to be playing against type, and Hoffman goes so over-the-top in the auction sequence (the film’s only significant misstep) that one simply can’t argue that he’s sleepwalking. If the bad stretches are definitely bad, the first act of Ishtar is a remarkable feat of American comedy, acting as a short film about the fragile male ego and the birth of a friendship. To top things off, this section is particularly fruitful in demonstrating the brilliance of Clarke & Rogers’ bad songwriting. It is a difficult task to write a bad song where honest intentions can still be assumed, and May and Paul Williams never step too far into the preposterous.

Raising Arizona (1987)
February 22, 2016, 1:04 am
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Director(s): Joel & Ethan Coen
3.5 Stars
Raising ArizonaThe juxtaposition of Blood Simple and Raising Arizona would set the tone for the careers of Joel and Ethan Coen, who surprised critics in 1987 by following a crime thriller with a madcap comedy. As time has gone by, it has become clear that the differences between the Coens’ two major modes of operation are mostly superficial–if their dramatic films tend to be more accomplished, the comedies similarly play with distorted, often incongruous levels of reality. Furthermore, their commitment to a gag is no less a sign of their unique authorship than their storytelling devices in dramatic films. In Raising Arizona, for example, they employ a baby’s perspective point-of-view shot to make more of a clown out of Nicolas Cage, and later indulge John Goodman and William Forsythe’s howling as they erupt from the primordial mud. Even if these decisions are so outlandish that they risk alienating some, the Coens are unwilling to compromise to a more palatable mode of film comedy–this is the very persistence that backfires in more controversial efforts like their remake of The Ladykillers. Even as Raising Arizona embraces a certain Looney Tunes aesthetic, however, the film is actually as politically-charged as any in their oeuvre, playing out as a broad satire of the state of economics (the capitalist Nathan Arizona opposed by the McDunnoughs, who are interested in the redistribution of wealth). The Coens would go on to make funnier and more pleasurable films, but Raising Arizona is impossible to ignore as a marker of their arrival, and Holly Hunter’s Ed is one of their most hilarious inventions.

RoboCop (1987)
April 3, 2011, 11:49 am
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Director: Paul Verhoeven

One of the most unusual blockbusters of the 1980s, RoboCop is a difficult-to-categorize genre piece that successfully defies one’s expectations at every turn. It is a film that alternates between trashy slapstick, sharp satire, and philosophical ruminations without batting an eye. With influences that can be traced all the way back to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis through its juxtapositions of class and Verhoeven’s wariness about a future techo-utopia, RoboCop demonstrates how little our current blockbusters are willing to risk. Encompassing the frustrations of the Reagan years while leaving room for the over-the-top Kurtwood Smith to shout lines like “Bitches, leave!”, RoboCop is wholly absorbing until it abandons humor for the action set pieces of the latter half.