Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Lavender Hill Mob (1951)

Henry Holland has dreamed of becoming very, very rich for many years.

No wonder. The low-ranking bank employee has escorted bullion worth tens of thousands of pounds for nearly two decades. Meanwhile, he lives in a rooming house in Lavender Hill.

Holland (Alec Guinness) knows he's ridiculed by his co-workers, ribbed as "the man of millions." But that's all part of his plan.


His mental wheels have turned for some time. Holland wants to stage a heist, one that would leave him with enough cash to spend the rest of his years enjoying his ill-gotten gain in sunny South America and far away from the daily toils of work and rush hour crowds.

But the job is too big for just him. Enter The Lavender Hill Mob


Holland needs to get the gold out of England. That's where exporter Alfred Pendlebury (Stanley Holloway) comes in. He does a steady job crafting souvenir Eiffel Tower paperweights to be sold at the landmark French tourist attraction. The pair cook up a scheme to round out the gang with two experienced petty thieves, Sid James (Lackery Wood) and Shorty (Alfie Bass).

That's about where things stop going right for these middle-aged schemers wanting a big score.

Holland gets tapped for a new job. The four have just days to put their plan in action. Pendlebury is mistaken for a petty thief as the robbery gets underway. The gang's sneaky plan to ship the gold off to France hits a major snag that could give away the whole plot.

Holland and Pendlebury's efforts to get back to England when they discover that serious breach is a major hoot. With a ferry preparing to leave for England nearby, they're forced to complete a series of time-wasting requirements before they can board. It, and an earlier mad dash down the Eiffel Tower, are two of the best in director Charles Crichton's film.

A third furious set piece soon follows when the pair of thieves have to crash an exhibit at a police college to snag a key piece of evidence. Everyone seems to be doing a good job of following advice to keep calm from a public address system, except police.

The Lavender Hill Mob was released the same year as The Man in the White Suit, another Ealing Studio comedy starring Guinness. That film, heavier on the social commentary about business titans and union leaders, was reviewed earlier by Reel Popcorn Junkie.

Rating: 8/10

FUN FACTS: The Lavender Hill Mob features one of the first screen appearances of the late Audrey Hepburn. Director Charles Crichton also directed 14 episodes of the television sci-fi series, Space: 1999.

Crossing Delancey (1988)

Crossing Delancey is a real treat.

Here's a romantic comedy that delivers on both fronts. There's a sweet romance and some very sold laughs in this 1988 effort from director Joan Micklin Silver.

Isabelle 'Izzy' Grossman (Amy Irving) loves her job working at a major independent bookstore in New York City. She rubs shoulders with major writers and is more than a little interested in one scribe, Anton Maes (Jeroen Krabbe).

Her grandmother, Bubbie Kantor (Reizl Bozyk), isn't as impressed. Grossman, 33, doesn't have a husband. She doesn't appear in a major rush to change her marital status. "If I wait for you, you'll never do it," Kantor complains. She taps matchmaker Hannah Mandelbaum (Sylvia Miles) to find Grossman's better half.

Mandelbaum suggests Sam Posner (Peter Riegert), who recently took over his father's pickle business.


Grossman is less-than-enthused by what her potential suitor does, and where he does, it in New York's Lower East Side. For a career woman used to moving in some pretty impressive circles, Posner is a major step in the wrong direction. A sign posted outside his business, "A joke and a pickle for only a nickel," doesn't help change her attitude. But he's a nice guy who challenges Grossman to reconsider who she considers ideal for a husband.

Crossing Delancey works in so many different ways.

The drama is based on a play by Susan Sandler, but the Big Apple and all its diversity sure looks good.


Wonderful contributions from The Roches make Crossing Delancey: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack especially enjoyable.

Sandler's script is smart and funny with believable people, especially its female characters looking for love and wondering if finding Mr. Right, and becoming a mother, is something they'll ever experience. Bozyk, a veteran of Yiddish theatre, is a gem in her only feature film performance. Savour her work.

The only moment that doesn't ring true in this film's 97-minute running time is a wild cab ride endured by Grossman. The silly sequence feels like it was dropped in from an entirely different, and inferior, movie. But that's a slight quibble.

Watch for David Hyde Pierce (Fraser) and Rosemary Harris, Aunt May from Spider-Man. For serious literary buffs, there's a party scene with about a dozen authors including Quincy Long, John Patrick Stanley and Madge Cooper.

The romantic comedy may be ailing in 2011, but Crossing Delancey is a wonderful effort from start to finish.

Rating: 9/10

FUN FACTS: Amy Irving received a Golden Globe nomination for her performance. Crossing Delancey was one of six films Hyde Pierce was featured in 1988. Peter Riegert appeared in two episodes of M*A*S*H in 1977. Irving was the singing voice of Jessica Rabbit in Who Framed Roger Rabbit.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Waiting for Guffman (1997)

The gang's almost all here for Waiting for Guffman.


Christopher Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer have cooked up plenty of laughs working together on faux documentaries such as This is Spinal Tap (Special Edition) and A Mighty Wind.

But McKean and Shearer do not appear on screen in this 1997 mockumentary. Instead, the pair helped Guest craft songs central to the film's plot. But many of the film's cast regularly appears in the trio's films including Don Lake, Paul Dooley and Lewis Arquette.


The small town of Blaine, Missouri is celebrating its 150th anniversary. As part of the celebrations, Corky St. Clair (Guest) is tapped to direct Red, White and Blain, a musical marking the community's, uh, unique history.

Two major events in the community's supposed history, how Blain was founded and a major industry, are quite well-crafted. An alien visit isn't as funny, but is helped by the stage show song, Nothing Ever Happens on Mars. Who knew?

St. Clair isn't the most accomplished thespian, having worked "off, off, off, off Broadway" before coming to Blain. He considered a new career in construction, but the lure of theatre remains strong.

His chosen cast includes Dr. Allan Pearl (Eugene Levy), a dentist who wonders if he's wasted precious years filling cavities instead of cracking up audiences. His grandfather was big in Yiddish theatre. "I love breaking people up," he confides.

There's Ron and Sheila Anderson (Fred Willard, Catherine O'Hara), operators of a travel agency who don't seem to travel much, and a Dairy Queen clerk Libby Mae Brown (Parker Posey) who may have spent too much time checking stock in the freezer.


This crew harbours big dreams that are further fueled when they learn a talent scout from the Big Apple is headed their way. The cast and director dream of making the transition to the Great White Way.

Waiting for Guffman offers some big laughs in its short running time. Bob Balaban is solid as high school music teacher Lloyd Miller, a man just a little jealous St. Clair was chosen to helm the big show. Willard is a hoot as one vain community theatre actor hoping for major success in Hollywood. Levy's class clown recollections are also very funny.

Guest is sometimes over the top with his lispy portrayal of the gay St. Clair and his occasional hissy fits. But savour his dance moves, his take on theatre, experiences with interactive theatre and the My Dinner with Andre reference near the film's end.

What would have this film have been like if McKean and Shearer appeared on camera?

Rating: 7.5/10


Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Sure Thing (1985)

Get ready for a nice surprise near the end of The Sure Thing (Special Edition).

With too many films about teens made during the 1980s focused on getting naked and lucky, this Rob Reiner effort offers a neat, and very much welcome, twist.

Walter 'Gib Gibson (John Cusack) wants to have sex. Badly. If a late-night chat with pal Lance (Anthony Edwards) at the film's start can be believed, he notched numerous sexual conquests during his high school years. That's a little hard to believe when he tries to pick up a girl at a party with a line that definitely falls flat. "Consider outer space," he begins. 'Gib is in a major funk with college fast approaching.

Lance opts for the sunny climes of California. "Home of the waves and the babes," he suggests. Lance sends his buddy, on the opposite coast, a photo of a stunning young thing and writes, 'This is the ugliest girl in California.' He suggests there is a stunning, blond eagerly waiting to meet him, among other things. She is, Lance tells his friend, a Sure Thing. He can have sex with this incredibly beautiful young woman with no strings attached.

'Gib is definitely interested, but he's also struggling badly with his studies. Crafting essays on eating pizza is not endearing him with his English professor (Viveca Lindfors). He needs help hitting the books and approaches classmate Alison Bradbury (Daphne Zuniga).

Bradbury is smart, attractive, but would have trouble finding adventure and free-spiritedness in the dictionary. She has a boyfriend, Jason (Boyd Gaines), who's also on the west coast. He's also a bit of a stuffed shirt.

'Gib and Bradbury have a rocky start. He's more interested in bedding her than getting a much-needed boost to his marks. A few months pass and both find themselves sharing a ride with an uptight couple (including Tim Robbins) out west. 'Gib wants The Sure Thing. Bradbury wants to see her boyfriend.

When Gary Cooper (Robbins) and Mary Ann Webster (Lisa Jane Persky) tire of the students squabbling, they get turfed. The college kids have to find alternative ways of getting to their respective destinations. Bradbury gets to learn more about 'Gib's better character traits and the pizza-loving freshman learns a lot about looking beyond a woman's physical attributes.

I won't spoil the surprise here. But watch for a conversation between Alison and Jason near the film's end. He suspects there's something up between his honey and the brash 'Gib. Gibson encounters a similar experience when he's finally alone with The Sure Thing. Was this kind of honesty explored in other films of the era such as Losin' It and Private School?

This is one of Cusack's earliest films. He's a little too much to take in some scenes, but I'll blame that on his assigned dialogue.

The Sure Thing is sweet. There's a nice chemistry between Zuniga and Cusack. The choice between quick sex and a loving, long-term relationship is well-handled. The film is a little dated, but some one-liners from different characters including Cowboy Guy are a treat. There's a neat sight gag during a heavy rainstorm and some good physical comedy.

The soundtrack includes a nice mix of major 1980s acts including Devo, Huey Lewis and the News, Quiet Riot and The Cars. There's an aptly chosen track by Rod Stewart.

I have vague memories of film critic Roger Ebert bemoaning how old actors are in films about teenagers. Gaines was in his early 30s when The Sure Thing was released. Good grief. His character should have been well established in his career instead of still living in a college dorm.

Rating: 7/10 '

FUN FACTS: Persky also appeared in Reiner's When Harry Met Sally. Anthony Edwards appeared in an episode of police squad!
The Sure Thing was Nicollette Sheridan's film debut.

Cast: John Cusack, Daphne Zuniga, Anthony Edwards, Tim Robbins, Viveca Lindfors, Nicollette Sheridan.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The Little Rascals (1994)

The Little Rascals is a strange film.

This modern-day take on Our Gang, featured in a total of 220 shorts and one movie between 1922 and 1944, blends old and new -- not necessarily with much success.

Spanky and the gang still still dress like they did during their heyday more than 60 years ago. They speak the same way too. This script includes everything from "dollface" and "you betcha" to "Don't that beat all?" and "nincampoop." Would present-day kids get that kind of talk?


The throwback references are pleasant to a 40-plus film fan like me who remembers watching the Our Gang shorts when I was a young guy in the 1970s. The clubhouse, soap box cars, theme music and Petey the dog were all welcome reminders of some good times parked in front of the living room television.

At the same time, there's plenty of gross-out references touching on everything from snot and poop to, strangely, sexual references. Seeing a young girl strut her stuff with a boy asking, "Got a burger to go with that shake?" is disturbing. An outtake at the film's end with two large soap bubbles popping in front of Darryl Hannah's breasts just feels kind of slimy for what's supposed to be a film for kids. There's a reference to cross-dressing when Spanky and Alfalfa end up in tutus to escape bad guy Butch. Heck, there's even a whoopee cushion.


Wikipedia has some interesting background about the film's background. It's based around three Our Gang shorts (Hearts are Thumps, Rushin' Ballet and Hi Neighbor). The plot can be summed up quite quickly. Alfalfa loves Darla. That puts him at odds with Spanky and the rest of the members of the He Man Woman Haters Club. Their clubhouse is destroyed. The gang needs cash to build a new meeting place. They enter a soap box derby to try and win the top prize of $500. Some of the other racers cheat.

There's plenty of celebrity cameos with everyone from Mel Brooks, Whoopi Goldberg, Reba McEntire, Ashley Olsen, Mary-Kate Olsen, Raven-Symone, Lea Thompson, Donald Trump and George Wendt making brief appearances. Some work. Some don't.

Director Penelope Spheeris helmed Wayne's World before guiding The Little Rascals. The earlier film is better.


Give these kids credit for delivering good performances at such young ages. But why stoop to references to sex and body functions for a film geared to the under-10 set? Stick with the originals.

Rating: 5/10

FUN FACTS: Most of the kids with the most screen time had short stints in Hollywood. The Little Rascals is the only credit for Zachary Mabry (Porky). Juliette Brewer (Mary Ann) appeared in three films with her last role in Vegas Vacation (Widescreen Edition) in 1997. Brittany Ashton Holmes (Darla) last appeared on screen in 1996. Bug Hall (Alfalfa) has the longest acting career with credits including CSI: Miami and The O.C.