Archive for the ‘Blind Spots’ Category

  • Blind Spot: Full Metal Jacket

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    Going into this film, I’d heard that it breaks cleanly into two parts, and that most people vastly prefer the first part. Coming out of it, the first statement is self-evident, but I ended up liking both parts quite a lot. The first part is set at Marine boot camp, with a hard-nosed drill sergeant putting a group of raw recruits through the wringer. The second part is set in Vietnam, following Joker, one of the more accomplished recruits, now a correspondent for a military newspaper.

    I can see why people like the first half more – it’s tightly focused and basically flawless. As a microcosm of the boot camp world and how it either makes or breaks you, it’s self-contained, intense, and brilliant. On its own, it would work just as well as an extended short film. Vincent D’Onofrio (who I didn’t even recognize) goes from adorable to terrifying, and I believed every second of it.

    The second half is much more sprawling, but that’s what war is. Boot camp is controlled, tight, and regimented. It’s supposed to prepare you for war, but war, especially a war like Vietnam, is unpredictable. There’s no way to prepare for the situations the men find themselves in once they get there, and that’s the point. The first half makes you think the drill sergeant is putting them through hell. But he’s not. War is hell.

    There are lots of other things I could say about the film – most of the music seems incongruous and yet is utterly fitting, which I love. There are a ton of great shots, from the tracking shot leading the sergeant around the barracks in the beginning to the silhouettes against a blood-red sky in Vietnam. I didn’t expect to like this movie all that much, let alone enjoy the experience of watching it, but I did. A lot. I should’ve known to trust Kubrick.

    My Souvenir: There are so many I could take from this. The sergeant’s opening monologue, Pyle’s success (albeit short-lived) with the Joker’s encouragement, the look in Pyle’s eyes in the bathroom, the intensity of the whole sniper showdown, etc. But I think I’ll take a thematic moment. After the sniper goes down, Joker’s face is half lit, half in shadow – his face showing that duality that he previously indicated somewhat facetiously with the “Born to Kill” slogan and the peace sign button. The whole movie kind of comes together at that moment, purely through visuals and symbolic means. That’s what filmmaking is all about.

  • Blindspotting: West Side Story and 42nd Street

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    One of the reasons why you may not often hear as much about plot or character when discussing musicals is that they tend to use age old stories at their core. More often than not it’s all about those tunes and performances, so those familiar tales are used to provide a familiar landscape from which to launch the song and dance routines. As I sat down to catch up with a couple of classic musicals with well-worn structures – a re-telling of Romeo and Juliet set in the big city and a backstage look at the lead up to a performance’s premiere with a big break for a young ingenue – I wondered if either of these tales could be given new life via more than just their music and production numbers…While each brought moments of wonderful creativity and sparkling entertainment (in different amounts), the stories were, for the most part, still born.

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    That’s not enough to dismiss either film though. In particular, West Side Story is a monument to production design and choreography. Just about every shot in the film is packed with colour from mixed pastels to bright primaries to everything in between in just the right combinations. As a series of stills it would make for an incredible photography exhibit. Of course, much of the secret to the film is its motion in the form of Jerome Robbins’ choreography (he’s also credited here as a co-director along with the master of many genres Robert Wise). It feels novel and exciting even 50 years down the road. It’s sharp and quick and powerful – in short, it’s incredibly physical. It’s an expression of the character’s youthful energy and their inability to find a place to put it, and so it ends up working perfectly during the confrontation and fight scenes where the dancing is essentially the fighting itself. If not every tune fully landed with me, the vast majority did and mostly kept me with the 2 and a half hour runtime. Mostly.

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  • Blindspotting in 2014

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    Let’s review…This whole idea behind the Blind Spot series (kicked off 2 years ago by top notch Toronto blogger/writer dudes James McNally and Ryan McNeil) is solely meant to poke and prod slackards like myself into finally getting around to those films that we not only feel are classics we should see, but ones we really want to see. Whether the titles are standard “Canon” fodder or some goofy grindhouse flick that you found for a dollar and have had sitting at home for 5 years, the point is to nudge us to watch something that has obviously caught our eye, but keeps getting passed over. Indeed, life is too short to watch something dull/crappy simply to “get through it” and check it off a list, but we’re talking about movies that sparked some kind of interest at some point and now vie for your attention with a vast array of other possibilities. The vast majority of the 44 blindspots I’ve seen and written about over the last 2 years (pairing movies for each post) have been well worth the wait and typically confounded expectations that had been in place for years. Even the ones that didn’t do much for me at least gave me something to consider.

    So here is my initial cut at the pairings I’m looking at for 2014 (with me reserving the right to scrap them and alter my choices based on nothing more than a whim). What about you? Any particular film or films you’ve been meaning to see, but keep avoiding?

     

    Breaking The Waves (1996)
    Shanghai Express (1932)

    One of the pairings I didn’t get around to last year, so let’s give it another shot. Almost 65 years separate these two stories of women and their sacrifices – it just takes one of them exactly twice as long as the other to tell its version.

    Best Years Of Our Lives (1946)
    Ashes And Diamonds (1958)

    The other pairing I didn’t do last year was Best Years Of Our Lives and From Here To Eternity (I decided to swap them out for a couple of Westerns). On reconsidering their inclusion again this year, I still wanted to get to Best Years, but this time out I thought I would match it up with another post-war story. I’m expecting the view from Poland to be in sharp contrast to the one from the U.S. though.

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    West Side Story (1961)
    42nd Street (1933)

    Busby Berkeley’s flights of imagination seem to be a good match for the colour and choreography of West Side.

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  • Blindspotting: Mr. Smith Goes To Washington and The Grapes Of Wrath

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    My last Blind Spot of 2013 (before picking my 2014 ones) – dedicated to the gents of MAMO.
     

    As pre-WWII statements of America, Mr Smith Goes To Washington and The Grapes Of Wrath both warn against allowing the powerful elite control over the little common man – a call to arms often heard on the cinematic landscape and relevant to today’s political and economic climate as well. But even though they were filmed within a year of each other (1939 & 1940 respectively), they reach much different conclusions about the country via very different storytelling methods. Their biggest commonality might actually be that each film was a showcase for a blooming star – a 31 year-old Jimmy Stewart looking perfectly young and naive as a hick junior senator in Mr. Smith and Henry Fonda, still with boyish good looks at 35 and piercing eyes that illuminate the black and white landscapes of Grapes, bringing some more mature depth to the strength of Tom Joad. They had each been in the business for about 5 years, had each recently come off star-making lead roles for the first time (Stewart in It’s A Wonderful Life and Fonda in Young Mister Lincoln) and then never really looked back. They became Hollywood staples now destined for big things, gorgeous starlet co-stars and future best-of lists.

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    Looking at these films for the first time almost 3/4 of a century later, only one film stands out for me with a story that equals its message – John Ford’s The Grapes Of Wrath. A big reason is Fonda’s focused take on Joad, but it may be mostly to do with the film’s staged approach to releasing its message about the rights of workers. It’s not that it’s always subtle mind you, but the plight of these migrant farm workers builds throughout the story and allows you to feel more than just sympathy for these poor homeless people. Particularly since Tom becomes someone you can respect and even attempt to emulate as he learns different ways of disarming volatile situations. The junior senator Jefferson Smith, on the other hand, starts out naive as the day is long and – though his intentions are good and “wholesome” – seems to flail against whatever he can’t immediately break through. Early on after his move to Washington, the press make fun of his hick background and Smith reacts by going around and punching every writer in the face (including an old man getting into a car). This transition from friendly aw-shucks yokel to rage-filled vengeance seeker doesn’t really endear him to you, so when he gets frustrated that his lone idea and cause is threatened due to a bill allowing the creation of a dam (on the property earmarked for his boys camp project), you can’t help feel that the day long filibuster that results is mostly a temper tantrum. He ends up on the right path fighting corruption and greed, but he stumbles into it and needs help to navigate the terrain.

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  • Blindspotting: Phantom Of The Opera and Creature From The Black Lagoon

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    Yes, this would have made more sense in October. Conspiring forces and all that…
     

    It’s odd to think that two vastly different films with 30 years between them could both be lumped together under the same generic genre banner. But that’s what happens when you start classifying anything old as “classic” – like, for example, the 1924 silent feature The Phantom Of The Opera and the mid-50s monster flick Creature From The Black Lagoon both being labelled as Classic Horror. The fact that the technical tools available to the filmmakers were worlds apart and their aims were very different don’t seem to matter. If it wasn’t for alphabetical order, you’d find them side by side on a video store shelf.

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    Of course, both films are even further removed from modern day fare. Some might claim they suffer for that, but it really does depend what you want from a horror film. Do either of these films shock or scare you? Likely not in an immediate, jump out of your seat kind of way (though the iconic reveal of the Phantom’s face can still unsettle), but that’s not necessarily the only thing horror can do to you. There’s something chilling about the idea of unseen monsters living in a foreign environment right under your feet which could – at a moment’s notice and through no fault of your own – rise up and destroy your life. As well, both films provide haunting images of their monsters in close-up that can leave rather disconcerting feelings within you (put the dead-looking eyes of the Creature alongside the contorted, deformed face of the Phantom and your sleep may be interrupted tonight). The jump scares are few and far between, but good horror leaves an impression, not just a brief quickening of the heartbeat due to the crash of sound and image. So the two films do have a good deal in common I guess.

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  • Blindspotting: Lost Weekend and Deliverance

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    When I chose Lost Weekend and Deliverance as a Blindspot pair, I did it with a vague idea of a common theme of men overcoming major obstacles. As it turns out, the biggest obstacle each central character faces and needs to overcome is staring right back at him in the mirror. That’s not to say there aren’t a few other hindrances in their way throughout each story (addiction and hallucinations in the first, raging water and crazy backwoods hunters in the other), but each man has to come to the realization that he has worth, courage and the ability to “dig deep”. For some, it takes desperate and dire circumstances to finally get the message across.

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    In Billy Wilder’s Lost Weekend, Ray Milland plays Don Birnam – a miserable alcoholic who (even though he has managed 10 days sobriety) continues to be his own worst enemy. We actually meet one of his bottles of rye (hanging out the window in one of the few hiding spots his family haven’t found yet) before we meet him. As the camera moves into the apartment, we learn that Don is preparing to go to the country with his brother for a weekend away from all temptation. However, Don has every intention of bringing along some of his favourite refreshment if he can just divert his brother’s attention for a few minutes. If he plans to get some writing done, he needs to be creative and he believes that alcohol allows his mind to “toss the sandbags overboard so the balloon can soar”. But that’s the thing about someone in Don’s condition – they can rationalize just about anything and lie as easy as most of us breathe. And not just to his brother or girlfriend (Jane Wyman with the loveliest set of cheekbones you ever did see), but mostly to himself. He may become far more loquacious when liquored up (or “tight” as they used to say in the old days), but he hasn’t made a lick of progress on his novel. “Suddenly I’m above the ordinary. I’m confident, supremely confident” he says as he riffs on other supremely artistic people and he may very well feel that way, but Don is far too scared of failure to truly commit to his writing. Hence the booze and the roadblock that is himself.

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  • Blindspotting: A Star Is Born and Cabaret

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    I‘ve likely said a lot of obvious things in my time, but I expect ranking high on that list would be saying something like “Geez, that Judy Garland can sing, eh?”. But I wonder how obvious that is these days? Sure, everyone knows that Judy’s version of “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” from The Wizard Of Oz is a classic piece of American music and that she’s been in countless musicals, but I wonder – particularly with a great deal of words being spilled over the darker aspects of her life – how many people really know that she can SING. And I mean soul-bearing, hair-on-the-back-of-your-neck-raising, pure unadulterated song emanating from her voice. I can think of no better evidence of this than her version of “The Man Who Got Away” from A Star Is Born – it raised every goosebump on my skin as I listened to a woman attempting to purge all variety of demons from inside her.

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    It wasn’t just the emotion pouring out that was impressive, it was also a deep command of her voice that she used to shift on a dime, retain her pitch and control power. Oddly enough, traits that she seemed to share with her own offspring Liza. In Cabaret, Liza Minelli’s songs are all worked into the film as part of her night job working in the local cabaret club (both films manage to make all the songs – at least the vocal parts anyway – diegetic) and essentially comment on the progress of the story at each point. Though it’s a fantastic idea to provide some context for each song, they easily stand alone as single performances because of director Bob Fosse’s creative choreography and Liza’s natural ability (and I would guess instinct) to grab the spotlight. There is more artifice in Cabaret‘s musical numbers due to them being confined to the stage, but there is no question about Minelli’s vocal chops. Like her famous mother, Minelli has slowly become known primarily as a persona, but let’s be clear – she could sing with the best of them.

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  • Blindspotting: In The Heat Of The Night and Absence Of Malice

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    As “issues” movies go, In The Heat Of The Night ranks as one of the big ones. It may not have been the first of its kind, but it solidifies its place in film history by crafting moments of subtlety and nuance while also wearing its central issue proudly on its sleeve and never resorting to being maudlin. Every movie since its release that waves a flag for a cause or makes a political point has a direct line to it as an influence – even if many of them fall victim to excessive beating of their drums. So why had I not yet seen this classic? Aside from the fact that I can’t see everything (dammit), it fell into that category of “well, I pretty much know the story…”. Of course, that’s rarely the case isn’t it? Even if the plot points match up to what you expected, there’s always all the bits in between to savour. A fine reason to keep doing these blind spots…

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    To narrow the field of potential pairings with In The Heat Of The Night, I looked for another issue film that could be considered as revolving around a central powerhouse performance. It’s hard to compete with Heat’s tandem headliners – Sidney Poitier as the Philadelphia detective stuck in a racist Southern town and Rod Steiger giving an Oscar-winning turn as the town’s sheriff – but you could do far worse than calling on Mr. Paul Newman…His Oscar-nominated role in Absence Of Malice was one I had wanted to see for awhile, so it seemed a good double bill once you combine that with the film’s focus on the power and responsibility of the press and legal system. Another trait both movies share is the way they jump quickly out of the gate. We’re not even 15 minutes into Absence Of Malice and we know: that a union boss has gone missing and is presumed dead (the film was made only 5-6 years after Jimmy Hoffa disappeared – he wasn’t even legally declared dead yet); the justice department has some suspects but is getting nowhere; they decide to focus their investigation on Michael Gallagher (Newman) since he is the son of a former criminal with ties to the suspects (and they hope to lean on him for information); a snoopy reporter named Megan (Sally Field) has discovered the investigation; the justice department lead on the case purposely leaked the investigation so that Gallagher would see it in the press; Michael is likely totally innocent and the story run in the newspaper will have assumptions and accusations leading to unjust consequences; etc. It’s a pretty packed opening and the film expects you to keep up as it drops names right and left. It does essentially follow through with where you assume the plot will go – Gallagher does indeed suffer due to the leaked story as his union shuts him down, he loses customers and his closest friend Teresa (the also nominated Melinda Dillon) is pulled into the story – but manages to keep you guessing a bit regarding Gallagher’s actual connections and Teresa’s guilt over a secret they share. Field also keeps you guessing by oddly playing the reporter at different times as confident, flighty, defiant, meek, mouthy and sexy. It’s not completely the actress’ fault (though her performance just doesn’t seem to fit at times) as the character’s behaviour is a grab bag of possibilities. It certainly keeps you a bit off balance (particularly during the scenes between the two leads), but there’s little likelihood that it was intentional. Newman for his part is remarkably consistent throughout as he plays Gallagher as stoic and very focused. Though he is initially upset at the paper and Megan for the fact-free reporting about him, he tries to settle into a moral compass for her. “You say someone is guilty, everyone believes you. You say they’re innocent and no one cares.” Her response shows he has some work ahead of him: “That’s not the paper’s fault, that’s people.”

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  • Blindspotting: La Dolce Vita and Farewell, My Concubine

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    After watching La Dolce Vita and Farewell, My Concubine back to back, several parallels became apparent. The stunning cinematography and gorgeous frames of both are obvious (one in high contrast black and white, the other using a rather generous and wide palette of colours), but there’s also a strong commonality between two of the main characters since both Marcello and Shitou simply are unwillingly to ever really commit to anything – neither ideas nor people. My favourite similarity between the films, though, is each one’s ability to make 3 hours glide right on by…

    Like most films in my blindspot list, these two had been lingering for a long time on the backburner and, to be honest, were there mostly because of their pretty epic lengths. Each is a shade over 170 minutes and appeared to be short on narrative and long on indirect references to central themes. Those, of course, aren’t bad elements in a film, but can certainly press you to “find the right time” to view them. What I hadn’t realized is that each is broken up into episodic pieces that felt like whole entities unto themselves and totaled up to something far greater. Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, for example, travels from an iconic opening of Jesus flying through the air (carried by a helicopter), through terribly desperate parties and finishes with a fourth wall breaking stare into the lens showing you that there was at least one person who understands what “the sweet life” is all about. That someone, though, is certainly not the central character Marcello (played by the great and incomparable Marcello Mastroianni). The film follows him through several evenings of existence (by the end of the movie, you feel that calling it a “life” would be somewhat charitable) in his gossip columnist job that drifts him – usually as a hanger-on – through a multitude of parties and gatherings. He never seems to work, though, since he’s only looking for that special something to startle and excite him, that something to draw out his passion, that something to finally get him to exclaim “Yes! This is it!”. He’s not actually looking that hard, so his approach is that he wants it to find him and until it does, he simply won’t commit to anything that might prevent him from scooping it up. He hangs on to his girlfriend Emma and saves her from a suicide attempt, but won’t even promise her that he’ll be home for dinner. He hates his job and talks about having been a serious journalist, but he won’t act on offers to set him up with editors at newspapers. He doesn’t seem to own anything but his car, black suit and sunglasses – tools that allow him to worm his way into any event that may attract somebody or something interesting. But aside from a gorgeous American starlet that he tries to woo (who turns out to be less than the perfect image he had in mind), nothing really interests him. Religion, art, poetry, music, booze, sex – nothing quite galvanizes him. It’s all rather tragic…

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  • Blindspotting: Shane and Gunfight At The O.K. Corral

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    I called an audible this month and decided to do a couple of classics I hadn’t listed in my initial Blindspot post back in January. It was simply a matter of circumstances – poor planning and being away from my normal supply of movies at the end of the month had left me scrambling. Fortunately, I was able to grab hold of a couple of Westerns I’ve had on the list for quite some time now (Shane and Gunfight At The O.K. Corral). Unfortunately, time started to slip away from me and I ended up being 2 weeks late with this post anyway…And though I’m just now sitting down to write and it’s been awhile since I’ve watched them, I don’t think it’ll be an issue since both movies easily left impressions. One about a man trying to avoid the violence of his past and the other all about the lead up to a violent showdown.

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    Both make lovely use of technicolor to bring out the big blue skies of the Old West, but the earlier Shane (from ’53) loses some of the grandness of the vistas around its characters by having been shot in straight academy ratio (as widescreen wasn’t quite the default at this stage). However, I could see it as having been an intentional choice by director George Stevens even if it had been a decade later. The film is very much a “small” Western and focuses specifically on this localized area and its people. From the moment Shane rides up to the homestead of Joe Starrett at the outset of the film, you know that he has a history – possibly even a legendary one – but it never supersedes the immediate story of the small community of farmers (which includes Joe, his wife and son). They are all fighting to keep their little plots of land from the clutches of a cattle rancher named Ryker and his greasy sidekicks, but tensions have been escalating even more of late since he has upped his bullying tactics. He sees all these farmers as simply squatters on tiny parcels of land that prevent him from laying claim to the entire area. His plan of driving them out one by one seems like it might just work, but just Shane happens to stumble into this simmering boil while riding through. After stopping briefly to get some water from Joe, he sees Ryker and his men make their regular muscle-flexing round to Starrett’s place and provides some needed backup as Joe stands up to them. After a meal in return, Joe asks Shane if he’d like to stay on with his family and get paid for working on the farm. Not really knowing what he’s looking for (only what he’s trying to avoid), Shane accepts. He’s quickly become fond of little Joey (who sees him as a courageous gunslinger) and is a bit smitten by Joe’s lovely wife Marian (played by the great Jean Arthur). As much as Shane wants to avoid his past fighting ways, though, it’s obvious that further confrontations are imminent. However, the story is less about Shane’s past catching up with him and more about the personal issues of trying to change your own nature.

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  • Blindspotting: Sans Soleil and Dog Star Man

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    This could be my shortest Blind Spot post ever…Though I enjoy short form experimental films, appreciate the different aspects of filmmaking that get teased out and respect the filmmakers a great deal, it is not an area in which I’m overly well-versed. I’ve seen a few other films from the two directors responsible for this post’s films (Chris Marker and Stan Brakhage) along with a few things from Maya Deren, James Benning, Cocteau, Bunuel, etc., but my knowledge of their techniques, goals and intentions is somewhat limited. Having said that, especially after viewing both Marker’s Sans Soleil and Brakhage’s Dog Star Man, you don’t necessarily have to have any background at all since these films are the perfect art form onto which you can map your own feelings and perspectives. Neither of these films has a clearly laid out narrative or real characters, so it enables you to soak in its variety of images (many of which almost seem random at times) and attempt to put your own personal spin on them.

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    Marker’s Sans Soleil, for example, feels like a freeform wander through the world’s different cultures (pausing longer with some, glancing off others) with a fascination in the activities and ways of life of its people. All the while, Marker (and his sometimes overly serious and pretentious female narrator) riffs on the meaning of memory and how it forgets, changes and shapes history (“We do not remember, we rewrite memory much as history is rewritten” and “History only tastes bitter to those who expected it to be sugar coated”). The film also plays extensively with Japanese culture by tying into the memory aspects of the film and replaying Japan’s war history (“Small fragments of war enshrined in everyday life”). It also covers cats, an extraordinary ceremony to lay the souls of dolls to rest, more cats, sexual fetishes and a couple of additional cats (not to mention cat dolls placed into sex positions). The horrors of war are explored in a variety of different fashions as well, but focusing more on the concept of horror itself (the graphic death of a giraffe is a tough watch – you can see the life drain right out of it). If this seems somewhat random, well, it did for me too.

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  • Blindspotting: Moonstruck and Fatal Attraction

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    The year was 1987. It was a tumultuous time…A breathless population tried to come to terms with the loss of Shelly Long from Cheers while simultaneously trying to choose sides in the great “Debbie Gibson or Tiffany?” debate. Fortunately Spuds Mackenzie and the announcement of Euro Disney were there to quell the public’s fears (not to mention the arrival of Prozac).

    Side note: there was also the premiere of a little upstart cartoon series called The Simpsons which created an industry of people quoting and borrowing humourous ideas from it – something which continues today unabated.

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    In the movie houses, adultery was on the minds of the American film-goer as two of the year’s biggest releases used it as a central theme. Both Fatal Attraction and Moonstruck had characters cheating on their spouses (and almost-spouses) with varying degrees of consequences – none of which appeared to be lasting. Through different approaches and styles (one a sharply written comedy/drama, the other a consistently paced thriller), they each seem to end up at the same conclusion: infidelities certainly can’t be swept away, but don’t worry since you’ll be forgiven. Since Moonstruck’s main arc really deals with two suffocating people who stumble into each other (and subsequently allow each other to blossom), that’s likely not the fairest assessment of the film. But I’ll get to that later.

    The story opens on Loretta (played by Cher), a tax accountant who seems to have the market cornered on frumpy. She’s unsure about the marriage proposal she’s just received from Johnny (Danny Aiello) because she’s had bad luck before – in fact, very bad luck since her previous husband was killed by a bus. Now she insists that everything be done just right including the actual proposal (she even makes Johnny do it all over again by getting down formally on one knee in the restaurant). When he tells her he has to fly to Italy for his dying mother, her biggest concern seems to be that they set an official date for the wedding. She doesn’t actually want or need him to help, but just agree to the date since all he’ll have to do is show up. It’s quickly established that Loretta isn’t exactly passionately in love with Johnny and even tells her mother (played in Oscar-winning form by Olympia Dukakis) that she doesn’t love him. Her Mom’s response of “Good, when you love them they drive you crazy because they know they can” sets up the issues she has with her own husband (Vincent Gardenia in a possibly too spot-on casting choice). But back to Loretta for the moment…

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