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Rating History

Places in the Heart
3 days ago via Rotten Tomatoes
½

There's a super sweetness to "Places in the Heart," but it wears it well. The characters all have little failings, but nothing that can't be quickly overcome in the space of a tender, touching moment. Though many scenes walk right up to the line, they stop short of turning that well-earned tenderness into cloying sentimentality.

The young, cherub-cheeked widow played by Sally Field is can-do-ism personified, and is perhaps more racially tolerant than the norm for 1930s Texas, especially considering that her husband has just been killed by a drunk, black youth. But the movie sells us on the idea that she has bigger problems to worry about than racial politics or even personal loss. The Depression is palpable throughout the movie, and it reshapes her life almost overnight. A neighbor is living in a car, paint on a nearby abandoned house says "Gone to California," and now, with the death of the family breadwinner, Field's character also appears to be headed for bust. Worse, she may lose custody of her two children. With no time to mourn, she has to take in a surly boarder (John Malkovich, thoroughly believable as the blind WWI veteran) and hire a black man who previously stole from her (Danny Glover) in a desperate attempt to stay afloat. If it seems all too predictable that her headstrong determination and positive spirit will prevail, that her worldly-wise black field hand will prove his worth, and that the bottled-up boarder will grudgingly reveal his sensitive side, well... it wears it well.

Perhaps these characters should be thought of in the way that many of us like to think of our grandparents and great-grandparents: a little idealized in our minds, perhaps, but people who we believe were fundamentally good and who lived through difficult and transformative years in our history as soldiers, laborers, school children, and housewives. The final scene in the movie is a creative tracking shot that emphasizes the oneness of this diverse, often fragmented and antagonistic, yet familiar community that we have come to know. It is not just a Texas community, but an American one.

It is hard to say what a slow-boiling side plot about marital infidelity, featuring a young and inscrutable Ed Harris, adds to the movie. There may be some thematic connection to a frightening sequence of a literally home-wrecking tornado. Or maybe it is a way to provide additional color by making the supporting characters flawed and allowing the main ones to remain only nominally imperfect. In any case, this B-plot is not very creatively rendered, and it takes time away from the Malkovich and Glover characters whose private lives would surely be far more interesting but are too seldom seen. This shortcoming, though, does not prevent the main plot from being as affirming and moving as it strives to be.

Blood Simple
Blood Simple (1984)
4 days ago via Rotten Tomatoes

Some filmmakers revel in the idea of "the perfect crime." Joel and Ethan Coen, on the other hand, tell stories about half-baked crimes that go terribly, grimly, outrageously wrong. Already in "Blood Simple," the first film credit for the Coen brothers and for their frequent collaborator Frances McDormand, the elements of their grisly but sardonic formula were in place. An unassuming rural setting (the film was shot in and around Austin, but only in its least populous corners), pitiful and pitiable suckers caught up in a mess of their own inept devising, double crosses, and the joyously choreographed juxtaposition of popular music with violence. The latter has become something of a cliché, thanks to heavy rotation not only in Coen brothers movies but in Quentin Tarantino films, prestige TV dramas, and so on, but few examples are as effectively jarring as the sudden, celebratory intrusion of "Same Old Song" by The Four Tops into "Blood Simple."

For the most part, though, "Blood Simple" emphasizes the sadness of its characters over humor. The tone is therefore closer to the Coens' Oscar-winning "No Country for Old Men" than to "Fargo," despite the presence of McDormand as a thickly-accented, gun-toting center both here and in the latter film. Given the Coens' flair for wordplay, of which there are glimmers here in an opening voice-over, it is notable that the most intense scenes in "Blood Simple" are virtually silent. Midway through, an increasingly grotesque sequence depicts a ham-fisted murder attempt and a messy cover-up. This long segment is full of brilliant visual misdirection; every time we're sure we know what's coming, and a new and more horrible possibility is introduced instead. The looks exchanged between John Getz's "Ray" and Dan Hedaya's "Marty" don't say much, because communication would ruin the farcical spiral of misunderstandings that drives the rest of the film. Their faces, therefore, reveal only raw feelings: the pain, fear, anger, sorrow, guilt, and jealousy that define their characters.

There is, then, more brooding here than in later Coen productions, which usually have more comic relief and do not drag out their carnage to quite the same extent. But although the Coens have tinkered with the balance of their engaging formula, they have seldom abandoned it, and in many ways "Blood Simple" feels like a far-sighted prevision of classics to come.

Paris, Texas
Paris, Texas (1984)
9 days ago via Rotten Tomatoes

The beautifully-filmed "Paris, Texas" tells a story, and tells it in a way, that is both novel and hauntingly familiar. In its opening moments it seems almost to be a spaghetti Western. It has the dusty badlands and close-ups of the cracked, inscrutable face of a mysterious protagonist (Harry Dean Stanton). He says nothing, and when others speak it is often with a European accent, reminiscent of those that were poorly dubbed over in the old Italian and Spanish gunslinger films. A German-inflected townie in Terlingua--is he a doctor? law enforcement? just a drinker? probably all of the above--is straight out of a great noir or adventure film, channeling the untrustworthy gregariousness of Sidney Greenstreet in "Casablanca" and Walter Huston's old-timer expatriate in "Sierra Madre." But the mystery the movie introduces in its opening scenes feels new and exciting: a man who will not talk, who has a history but seems not to remember it, who has walked so long through the desert that his shoes are worn through.

Director Wim Wenders tries out several different settings and speeds in the course of unraveling the story of Travis, this mysterious man, yet the information is so fragmented that for a long time each new piece only deepens the mystery. Slowly the plot proceeds, first as an almost comedic road buddy movie, then as a kind of "Kramer v Kramer" dramedy as the ragged Travis works to win the trust of a seven-year-old boy, Hunter. The character of Hunter is increasingly central to the film, and the child who plays him is uncommonly believable for an actor of his age. He has to deliver lines that resonate as both funny and poignant, as when he says "Goodnight, Dad" to two men in succession or struggles with a decision that causes pain to one of the two women he calls "Mom."

The landscapes of Texas have probably never been more faithfully committed to film. The deserts of the southwest are the hook, but soon it's all highways and isolated gas stations and endless flatness. Later scenes set on and near the tangled highways of Houston are filmed in a point-of-view manner that is mesmerizing and builds tension, much like the long driving cuts in Andrei Tarkovsky's "Solaris." By this point in the movie, enough information has been revealed about Travis that the mystery has lost some of its urgency, and both Travis and the script seem on the verge of turning inward and abandoning us to their own private musings on the unknowability of others. A reveal about a mysterious "Jane" feels too stereotypical for a movie that had up to then been using assorted tropes but tell a fresh tale. But the movie does not end without bringing its threads and themes (especially the theme of the unbridgeable distances between people, and of the jealous desire to possess loved ones, first broached through a character called Anne) to a final fruition. Some of the camera-work in the penultimate scene, involving a one-way mirror, ingeniously underlines these ideas, and there is a satisfying balance and believability to the movie's last dialogue. Ry Cooder's guitar-based musical score has a strong, appropriate presence throughout the film, and like it is artful yet accessible.

Ghostbusters
Ghostbusters (1984)
12 days ago via Rotten Tomatoes

"Ghostbusters" is a Three Stooges short by way of National Lampoon and Saturday Night Live. Nearly every Stooges routine saw the bumbling trio dressed in the garb of some profession--exterminators one day, delivery men the next--in order to get them through a client's door and into the room with the fine china, which they would promptly dismantle in slapstick fashion. "Paranormal investigators" could only have been a matter of time. Bill Murray's Dr. Venkman is the Moe of the Ghostbusters operation. To him it's a scam, a way to bag some easy bucks and meet and impress women. He thinks he's savvier than the others, but an alpha Stooge is still a Stooge. The other two, Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis, are both straight-faced Larrys (Curly is a one-of-a-kind). They are easily cowed but earnest, and might even be able to pass for pseudo-intellectuals. Then a third Larry is added, Ernie Hudson, or maybe he's a Shemp. Or maybe the analogy breaks down. In any case, much of "Ghostbusters"'s humor is as old-fashioned and corny as that of the Stooges: "We should split up." "Good idea, we'll do more damage that way." Next up, the destruction of a ritzy dining room in front of a gaggle of horrified blue-bloods.

At the same time, a great deal of "Ghostbusters"'s humor is rooted in character. The very dry lines are not brilliantly funny in their own right--the famous ones, like "Don't cross the streams" and "Are you the key-master?" make no sense out of context--but they become funny and quotable because they issue from the mouths of well drawn characters like the professorial Ramis, the dweebish Rick Moranis, and the exaggeratedly sultry Sigourney Weaver. Coauthors Aykroyd and Ramis exhibit a knack for writing distinct voices, and the film is perfectly cast even though Murray and Moranis were originally meant to be John Belushi and John Candy.

Yet two of the most celebrated of this group of 80s entertainment icons are double-edged swords. Murray's comedic persona, as well as Ramis's work for Lampoon, is characterized by condescension as much as self-deprecation, and their down-punching impulses also color the comedy of "Ghostbusters." The Stooges never displayed what might be called the frat boy side of these two admitted geniuses. Venkman's gender-specific mockery of a female-bodied demon toward the end of the film may be in character, but it also feels as if we're expected to laugh with him rather than at him (we've mostly done the latter up to that point). To so would require us to find slurs against women humorous for their own sake, and only the grossest and most simple-minded opponents of political correctness laugh just because a woman is called a bitch and a minx. The dialogue here is tonally off, misdirected, and mars an otherwise glorious climax.

Aykroyd is a different matter, and not for nothing. Though he co-wrote the film and gained fame as a Blues Brother alongside the infamously misogynistic Belushi, he was perhaps the least smarmy of the early SNL cast. He plays his "Ghostbusters" role with an almost touching naivety that is perhaps to be expected in light of his real-life passion for the paranormal. Perhaps it is his influence on the screenplay that accounts for Venkman's cynicism dropping away unremarked after two scenes. And perhaps it is his belief in the otherworldly that informs the casting of a government agent as the chief obstacle to the Ghostbusters's public service of spiritual investigations. This plotting, too, is extraordinarily silly, albeit in a different way from the Stooge-like silliness that runs through so much of the film. But it is equally charming.

The Terminator
19 days ago via Rotten Tomatoes
½

"The Terminator" is two things that are very good to be: a movie that is of its time, and a movie for all time. From the opening minutes it is almost fetishistically contemporary. A superimposed text says the events of the film take place "tonight," a rather hokey tactic, most often seen in the horror genre, that may create a sense of immediacy for some first-run viewers but that becomes increasingly ironic as time takes its toll on the fashion, the music, the hair, and so on. "Terminator"'s first act is an onslaught of such tell-tale signs of the time, and the time in question is peak 1980s. This is not a bad thing. The movie so successfully captures the spirit of its era that later movies set in its milieu often appear to be, and in many cases undoubtedly are, copying it. It wasn't the first movie to take place in fume- and trash-filled urban alleys and neon-lit dance clubs, or to feature independent women who do things like have sex and ride motorcycles without prompting censure or even comment, but it was arguably the best and best-looking and most influential movie to do these things at this time. In other words, it is an icon of 1980s film.

It is also an icon of film generally. It accomplished that even grander feat through a combination of brilliant achievements. First, the casting, particularly of Arnold Schwarzenegger. His early movie career benefited enormously from the existence of roles that nobody else could have played quite as well. Conan the Barbarian was a near-Neanderthal: strong, serious, a mythic figure of great stature and few words. The Terminator is the same, though he kills for different reasons. Arnold is menacing, darkly funny, and extremely cool in the role, all at once. Second, the script. It serves timeless lines on a silver platter for Schwarzenegger and the other two leads, and they all three seem to know exactly what to do with them. They take soundbytes and throw them at us like sticks of dynamite, and when they land we feel them. The best are "Come with me if you want to live," "I'll be back," and "You're terminated, fucker." (The last one is another reminder that we're in the 1980s, a long-ago time when action and sci-fi movies were sometimes made for adults, not just teens. The language here is strong, the violence is not all bloodless, and the sex is very much on- screen.) Third, a time-travel plot that is unusually well thought out, capable of being communicated without too much belabored exposition, and that leaves plenty of room for further exploration without raising too many unanswered questions. It is strong conceptual ground on which to build a media empire.

Like 1983's "WarGames" (which also featured a motorcycle-riding female lead), the central idea in "Terminator" is that computers might one day destroy humanity. Unlike "WarGames," which approached the subject from a software angle and took its cues from real programming concepts, "Terminator" casts a tangible piece of hardware in the role of unstoppable stalker killer. This leads to perhaps its only real weakness as a movie. Toward the end, as plot recedes and special effects (mostly stop motion) come to the fore, it begins to feel too much like the horror movies that it echoes in its opening text. The false endings that typify that genre are as predictable as ever, and the Terminator becomes just another riff on Michael Myers. But if the penultimate scenes are derivative, they are nevertheless satisfying, and the film ends on a note that provides closure and leaves you eager for more.