For Reel

The Big Picture (1989)
October 8, 2016, 12:30 pm
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Director: Christopher Guest
2 Stars
the-big-pictureChristopher Guest’s films almost unanimously tell stories of deluded people who belong to niche communities, often having little to no self-awareness of the bubble they occupy. That his first directorial effort was set in Tinseltown sets the stage for his films to come—in The Big Picture, both the aspiring young filmmaker (Kevin Bacon) and the Hollywood bigwigs (including an agent played by Martin Short and a movie executive played by J.T. Walsh) are rendered as equally ludicrous, the former being guilty if only by association. Guest’s fixation on the superficialities of Hollywood again materialized in 2006’s For Your Consideration, nicely bookending his strongest run of films with stories that deal with the medium and industry he associates with. And yet, if For Your Consideration‘s mockery mostly fell flat, The Big Picture is not quite biting enough in its satire to begin with—perhaps because Guest identifies too readily with Bacon, whose rise-and-fall is detailed with a level of affection and understanding. Guest’s greatest gifts surface when creating faux realities out of worlds he has no association with. The echo chamber that is Hollywood itself, however, might just be too close to home.

Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989)
February 24, 2016, 2:12 pm
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Director: Woody Allen
4.5 Stars
Crimes and MisdemeanorsThe 1970s took Woody Allen from a director of comedies to a man who was trying his hand at drama–1978’s Interiors is the most radical shift in his filmography, an Ingmar Bergman homage that had few of the hallmarks of a traditional Allen film at that point. The 1980s, then, were a decade where Allen continued to explore both his comic roots and the heftier themes of his more serious material. Crimes and Misdemeanors might be among Allen’s bleakest efforts, but ironically it doesn’t always feel that way–when the film follows Cliff’s (Allen) courtship of Halley (Mia Farrow), it has the feel of the doomed romance of one of his comedies, with audiences enjoying the residual pleasures of eating take out and watching old movies. But the plot involving Martin Landau’s Judah is suffocating in its dread, with Landau giving a remarkable performance as a man not only suffering with guilt, but newly aware of his potential and the impact of his decision-making. There are some problems with the juxtaposition–Judah is rewarded for his evil deed, and the picture wants us to believe that Cliff is ultimately a mench who has drawn the short straw (despite the fact that he’s bitter and enormously self-destructive)–but both halves of the story articulate how morality is measured in the modern age, the extent to which our choices define us, and how we construct our places within our social world.

Pedicab Driver (1989)
April 19, 2012, 8:32 pm
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Director: Sammo Hung

With a bowl hair-cut and a cherub face, the heavy-set Sammo Hung is a peculiar action star for those only loosely familiar with his contemporaries. Yet his charisma is often undeniable – shamefully, I couldn’t help but compare him to Po of the Kung Fu Panda series – and, as a director, he orchestrates some well-accomplished action set pieces, rife with inventive violence and inspired sight gags (including blatant parodies of Star Wars and E.T.). If Pedicab Driver might be satisfying for fans of Hong Kong martial arts films of the 1980s, however, it has little cross-over appeal for outsiders and it isn’t likely to make any new converts. The drastic changes in tone are off-putting, and the Cantonese humor can be too crass to fully embrace. Though these visceral pleasures are characteristic of the national cinema – industry conditions meant that the films were designed purely as sensation, and a film that didn’t provoke laughter, thrills, or tears was conceived as a failure – it is a struggle to look at the picture as anything more than a distant curiosity when a melodramatic, chauvinistic subplot involving a prostitute interrupts the comical proceedings. As well as some of the action scenes are choreographed – there is a reckless intensity in them that one doesn’t often see in American films – nothing would be lost in watching them isolated, particularly the confrontation between Hong and genre legend Lau Kar Leung, which serves no function other than to get the two on screen together.