Sweet Hearts Dance (1988) review-What a bunch of jerks

Likeable characters are the lifeblood of any light piece of entertainment, especially your standard romantic comedy.

After all, if we (the audience) can’t relate to the story’s leads why should we care about whether or not they get together at the end.

Despite featuring a lot of charming actors, Robert Greenwald’s Sweet Hearts Dance (1988) can’t seem to grasp that simple concept, since its cast is full of narcissists, pushovers, jealous lovers, and all-around jerks.

The film’s plot revolves around Wiley (Don Johnson) and Sam (Jeff Daniels); two lifelong friends who have chosen radically different paths in their adult lives.

Sam is the local high school principal and is just starting a relationship with the town’s newest arrival Adie (Elizabeth Perkins).

Meanwhile, Wiley and his wife Sandra (Susan Sarandon) have been married for 15 years and produced three children in that time.

Unfortunately, Wiley decides to leave his wife and kids after suffering a midlife crisis and Sam is forced to play mediator between the two affected parties.

Now, in order to make this premise work, the director and screenwriter really have to sell you on Johnson throwing away his family life, or else the rest of the movie pretty much implodes.

And while abandoning your responsibilities as a husband and father is a hard pill to swallow for a lot of audiences, this kind of selfish character arc can work if the filmmakers flesh out the serious ramifications of his decision.

Unfortunately, screenwriter Ernest Thompson doesn’t go there, and depicts this (theoretically) heart wrenching separation as a minor speed bump in the relationship that can be easily repaired.

In fact, it feels like Johnson never seriously tries to earn the forgiveness of his wife and children, since he spends most of the movie moping about the life he could have lead if he didn’t get married at such a young age.

To make matters worse, Sarandon’s anger at her estranged husband is disappointingly muted.

Even after he embarrasses her in public several times, which includes bedding a random bartender on New Year’s Eve, Sarandon’s character doesn’t have enough of a backbone to simply kick this loser in the dick and move on with her life.

Instead, she’s the one who makes the first move and attempts to reconcile the relationship, even though Johnson has done nothing to earn that level of respect.

These topsy-turvy character dynamics are especially hard to take since we live in a world where infinitely better divorce-dramas like Kramer vs. Kramer (1979) or Marriage Story (2019) exist, which do a much better job of making you sympathize with both sides of such a messy, painful process.

In Sweet Hearts Dance, the characters never come anywhere close to having a deep conversation that gets to the core of their marital strife. As a result, they come across as immature high school students going through a minor tiff, rather than two full-grown adults who are about to change their lives forever.

The supporting cast don’t come across much better.

While Perkins is going for sarcastic, Aubrey Plaza-level wit, she just comes across as being a mean-spirited cynic since her character isn’t given enough room to develop.

And even though Daniels is supposed to act as the voice of reason in his friend’s marital woes, he makes a bunch of extremely questionable decisions in his own love life.

Not only does he come across as a jealous psycho by giving Perkins shit after she sunbathes nude on vacation, but he impulsively asks his girlfriend to marry him even though they’ve only been going out for a couple months.

While this behavior could have been salvaged by injecting Daniels with some refreshing self-awareness, his romance with Perkins kind of putters out and their problems are never resolved in any meaningful way.

In fact, this film is full of half-baked ideas that could have been interesting if they were tweaked a little bit.

The most glaring example of this is how the film is structured, since early sections of the story are framed using major American holidays (Halloween, Veterans Day, Thanksgiving, Christmas, etc.).

But for some reason, the filmmakers abandon this festive sequencing after New Year’s Eve and decide to organize each subsequent story beat under title cards that read “Open House,” “Going Away,” and “Coming Home.”

I understand that the first few months of the year are short on noteworthy celebrations, but why in the blue hell did they skip over Valentine’s Day? You know, that one time of the year where sweet hearts usually attend a dance!?

It’s a shame that the script is as messy as it is, since all these actors have great chemistry.

Daniels and Johnson really sell you on the idea that they’ve been friends since grade school, with some of the best scenes in the movie involving them tobogganing, sailing, and threatening to beat up some local teenagers.

And even though their breakup and reconcilement isn’t well defined, Sarandon and Johnson at least feel like a married couple who are struggling to recapture the magic of their early relationship.

However, the film’s script can’t attain that same level of consistency, and the tone constantly flip-flops between light comedy and serious domestic drama without fully committing to either.

Because of this, I can’t get a beat on who this movie is meant for. It’s not sappy or wholesome enough for the Hallmark Channel and not edgy enough for the Sundance crowd.

Sweets Hearts Dance also doesn’t work as a date movie, since all this underdeveloped marital dysfunction definitely won’t put you and your companion in the mood.

My recommendation would be to watch this movie solo on a Sunday afternoon. That way you can turn down the volume and enjoy the film’s nice Vermont scenery while you vacuum and complete other weekend chores.

Verdict:

5/10

Corner Store Companion:

The Perfect Man milk chocolate bar (because it’s the closest you’ll get to finding a sweet romantic lead while watching this movie)

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Fun Facts:

-Release date: Sept. 23, 1988

-Budget: $ 9 million

-Box Office Gross: $ 3,790,493

Charmed actress Holly Marie Combs makes her feature film debut here as Johnson’s daughter “Debs.”

Sweet Hearts Dance director Robert Greenwald received a Razzie in 1980 for directing famous b-movie Xanadu. However, he was also nominated for an Emmy in 1995 for helming the TV miniseries A Woman of Independent Means.

-Greenwald eventually pivoted into documentary filmmaking and political activism later in his career, founding the media company Brave New Films in 2004. For the next 16 years, Greenwald dedicated his career to tackling hot button issues through documentaries like Uncovered: The War on Iraq (2004), Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price (2005) and Unmanned: America’s Drone Wars (2013).

-Surprise cameo: Vermont senator, and current U.S. presidential hopeful, Bernie Sanders makes an uncredited appearance handing out Halloween candy at the very beginning of the film. Sweet Hearts Dance was filmed near the city of Burlington, where Sanders served as mayor between 1981 and 1989. Sanders’ only other feature film roll is playing a rabbi in the 1999 low-budget comedy My X-Girlfriend’s Wedding Reception.

Buck Privates (1941) review- Abbott and Costello finally make it big

If you’re trying to get a stubborn friend or family member to start watching older movies, I wouldn’t recommend starting them off with a comedy.

While all films are, in some way, influenced by the rapidly changing culture around them, comedies usually tap into something that is very unique to the specific time and place in which they were produced, more so than most other genres.

Plus, it goes without saying that what was once funny back in the day doesn’t always hold up to our [current year] sensibilities. I will never forget the first time I watched National Lampoon’s Animal House and was so confused when the filmmakers expected me to laugh at a scene where the joke basically boiled down to: BLACK PEOPLE ARE SCARY.

However, broad slapstick and clever wordplay usually breaks through these generational barriers, which is why comedy acts like the Bud Abbott and Lou Costello are still recognizable names to this day.

Even though this legendary duo starred in 36 features together, their first big hit came in 1941 with Buck Privates, a film that casts the two as sleazy con men who accidently enlist in the army during America’s peacetime draft.

As Abbott and Costello pratfall their way through basic training they also come into contact with a quirky cast characters, which includes a spoiled playboy and his former valet, who are fighting over the same woman, a disgruntled drill instructor, and a musical trio played by The Andrews Sister, who serve as a kind of Greek chorus for the developing plot.

Now, when it comes to reviewing comedies, most flowery analysis about things like cinematography, pacing, and structure can be thrown out the window in favour of one simple question: “is the movie funny?” And when it comes to Buck Privates, the answer is (mostly) “yes.”

Abbott and Costello’s act might be in its infancy on screen in 1941, since this is only their second film as a team, but their classic “skinny straight man-fat buffoon” routine is already very polished after years performing on stage and on the radio together.

The duo’s chemistry is so on-point that they even managed to make me chuckle at a reoccurring bit about math and probability, which is something I never thought possible for someone as allergic to numbers as myself.

And despite the fact that a lot of the scripted jokes are pretty corny, the two still managed to generate some pretty consistent laughs through sheer delivery alone, which is the true litmus test for any great comedian.

The Andrews Sisters also inject the film with a nice bit of musical variety, since they perform their hit songs like “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” and “(I’ll Be With You) In Apple Blossom Times” to punctuate every major story beat.

Unfortunately, the filmmakers did not entirely play to the movie’s strengths, since they  dedicated a lot of screen time to the dull love triangle featuring some satellite characters who wouldn’t be out of place in a daytime soap opera.

Maybe it’s because Abbott and Costello had yet to prove themselves as big box office draws in 1941 and the studio was trying to hedge their bets with two conventionally attractive leading men, but whenever the story cuts back to the boilerplate alpha males it seems like we’ve switched to a completely different movie.

The comedy duo doesn’t even factor into the film’s war games climax, which really downgrades them to the status of comedy sidekicks rather than protagonists you want to get behind.

Another thing worth noting is how this film is a pretty transparent recruitment tool to encourage movie-goers of the time to enlist in the US peacetime draft.

Unlike another WWII era propaganda film I reviewed earlier this year, Commandos Strike at Dawn, the filmmakers try to accomplish this feat by making the army look like a outdoorsy vacation spot instead of a dangerous environment where you get to prove your worth as a man.

I’m not necessarily saying this approach hurts the movie in any significant way, but I definitely noticed the sheer amount of scenes that would emphasize how the military is a great place to meet women, eat ice cream, and kill time playing dice with your buddies.

But then again, this movie was selling itself as a light comedy, so maybe writing jokes about amputated limbs and shell shock would have been too much for a 1941 US audience that hadn’t experienced the horrors of World War II just yet.

Ultimately, while Abbott and Costello would go on to star in better movies with higher production values, Buck Privates is still worth watching to catch a glimpse of the comedy duo’s first big break on screen.

It also serves as a good reminder of physical comedy’s universal appeal, since someone getting tripped up by their own loose pants is funny no matter what generation you were born into.

Verdict:

6/10

Corner store companion:

Raisin Bran cereal (because the little sugary bits make the surrounding blandness tolerable)

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Fun facts:

-Original release date: Jan. 11, 1941.

-Budget: $180,000 (estimated)

-Box office gross: $4 million

-In addition to signing up for an official sequel in 1947, Buck Privates Come Home, Abbott and Costello would go on to star in two other service comedies that highlighted different branches of the military. These includes In the Navy and Keep ‘Em Flying, which were both released later that same year.

-The Andrews Sisters co-stared with Abbott and Costello in a total of three feature films.

-On IMDB, The Andrews Sisters are listed as a trio in addition to having separate acting profiles.

-This film scored two Academy Awards nominations for Best Score and Best Original Song (“Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy”).

-According to film scholars, the Japanese military showed their troops clips from Buck Privates to demonstrate how incompetent the US army was during World War II.

-Musical highlight: “(I’ll Be With You) In Apple Blossom Times” (because “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” has already gotten enough shine).

If Lucy Fell (1996) review- The Sex and the City prequel that everyone forgot about (and for good reason)

Sometimes I feel bad for Sarah Jessica Parker, since she still gets a lot of shit for easily her most iconic role.

Ever since Sex and the City went off the air in 2004, she’s been subject to a seemingly endless stream of think pieces and hot takes about how Carrie Bradshaw is such a bad protagonist; someone who is immature, materialistic, and completely self-absorbed.

This wasn’t helped by the series’ subsequent two big screen adaptations, which arguably made every character on that show look bad by taking their most negative qualities and pumping them up to 11.

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However, after sitting through the 1996 romantic comedy If Lucy Fell, I think its safe to say that Parker’s more famous turn as a quirky New York City socialite on HBO could have gone a lot worse.

In this film, Parker plays the titular character of Lucy, who feels unfulfilled in love despite the fact that she has an amazing job (a therapist) that gives her enough disposable income to live comfortably in one of the most expensive cities in the world. Sound familiar yet?

But rather than unloading her anxiety on a trio of girlfriends, in this story Parker vents her frustration to her artist roommate and best friend Joe (played by Eric Schaeffer) who’s suffering from similar bouts of romantic frustration.

As the film starts, the pair come up with a solution that’ll fix both of their current predicaments: if they don’t find true love by the end of the month, they’ll both jump off the Brooklyn Bridge and kill themselves.

No, you read that right. You haven’t experience a stroke. The entire foundation of this alleged “romantic comedy” is built upon a death pact that’s initiated because two well-off, highly educated people are mopey that they haven’t found an intimate life partner by the time they turn 30.

It’s a shame that the phrase “first world problems” wasn’t popularized until much later after the movie’s release, because critics at the time could have easily summarized their reviews of this turkey by using those three simple words.

Now, to be fair, this premise could have been salvaged if the filmmakers were self-aware of their shallow premise and the movie was conceived as some kind of dark satire about how seriously some people take the New York City dating scene.

Unfortunately, these characters are played completely straight, which turns them into complete sociopaths.

For example, for someone who is supposed to be a therapist in a professional setting, Parker’s Lucy is completely inconsiderate of people’s feelings in her dating life, since she callously rejects potential suitors before she gets a chance to know them.

Even her attitude towards seemingly platonic friends is questionable, since I’m pretty sure that a licensed shrink shouldn’t, under any circumstances, joke about wanting to kill themselves.

Meanwhile, Schaeffer’s Joe comes across as being an unhinged, creepy stalker, since he’s constantly peeping on his hot neighbour and paints portraits of her as she walks around in her underwear.

There’s an extra layer of “ick” added to Joe’s storyline when you realize that Schaeffer served as the film’s writer, director and producer, which explains why a statuesque blonde like Elle MacPherson (the neighbour) would fall for a man who isn’t even remotely in her league in terms of charm, poise or physical attractiveness.

That being said, MacPherson should be commended for taking on the near insurmountable task of pretending to be turned on by Schaeffer’s obnoxious brand of 90s stand-up comedy when they start getting intimate.

At least when Woody Allen pulled this shit back in the day he had some good writing to back up his auteur narcissism. Schaeffer’s idea of a meet-cute scene involves inviting his love interest to an art gallery and greeting her with the line “I have herpes.”

Even though Parker’s courtship with a dreadlocked buffoon (Ben Stiller) doesn’t make your skin crawl, it’s still really boring, mostly because you know that it isn’t going anywhere.

Within the first 10-15 minutes of the runtime, anybody with a brain would be able to predict that (SPOILERS) Parker and Schaeffer are going to end up together in the end, since they both eventually realize that the soul mate they’ve been looking for was in front of them all along.

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I could go on and on about the movie’s adherence to other romantic comedy clichés, including half-baked physical comedy, a script full of fortune cookie wisdom that’s passed off a deep psychological insight, and an indie rock soundtrack that immediately dates the movie by two decades.

But I think the main reason why this film doesn’t work can be boiled down to the two mains leads, who are so repulsive and unlikable that you would rather watch them carry out their suicide pact than be a passive observer in their shallow pursuit of true love.

Say what you will about Sex and the City, but at least it used the backdrop of the New York dating scene to (occasionally) push boundaries and explore ideas that had never been discussed on TV before.

With If Lucy Fell, all the director brings to the table is his ego and desire to get laid, which he should have relegated to a personal diary entry or some kind of unpublished fan fiction.

(Speaking of personal logs, I am aware that Sex and the City already has a prequel in the form of The Carrie Diaries, but I haven’t gotten around to watching it … yet).

Verdict:

2/10

Corner store companion:

Sour Patch Kids (because you’ll be making that same kind of face throughout this entire cringefest anyway).

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Fun facts:

-Release date: March 8, 1996.

-Budget: $5 million (estimated)

-Box office gross: $4.5 million (estimated).

-I noticed a weird reoccurring pattern scrolling through Eric Schaeffer’s IMDB page, since he’s attached himself to several projects that include the word “fall” or allude to the act of falling in the title. These include: If Lucy Fell (1996), Fall (1997), Mind the Gap (2004), Gravity (TV series, 2010), and After Fall, Winter (2011). I don’t know if this is indicative of some kind of weird fetish that’s manifesting in his creative pursuits, but I’ll let you make the call.

-Unexpected cameo: A 12-year-old Scarlett Johansson has a small supporting role as one of Schaeffer’s students in his art class.

-The entire soundtrack for If Lucy Fell was provided by the indie rock band Mary Me Jane, whose involvement in the production gave them enough clout and leverage to produce their first studio album with Sony in January 1996.

-Musical highlight: “Twenty-one” by Mary Me Jane.

Moscow on the Hudson (1984) review-A warm hug in politically divisive times

Most people my age got introduced to Robin Williams’ real acting chops in the late-90s with Good Will Hunting.

One could be forgiven for believing that this was his first foray into serious drama, since most of his other hit movies during that same time period were broad comedies filled with rapid fire jokes, improvised lines, and tons of celebrity impressions (Aladdin, Patch Adams, Mrs. Doubtfire, Hook).

However, little did we know that Williams had been dedicated to taking on more complex projects a full decade before, with a slew of juicy roles that straddled the line between comedy and drama and netted him a handful of Oscar nominations (Dead Poets Society, Good Morning, Vietnam).

While I’m certainly not an expert on Williams’ filmography throughout the 1980s, I’m confident in saying that Paul Mazursky’s Moscow on the Hudson, released in 1984, is a precursor to the actor’s future success, since he carries the entire movie on his back with a sweet, funny and understated performance.

In the film, Williams plays Vladimir Ivanoff, a Russian saxophone player who decides to defect to the United States once the circus that employs him makes a trip to New York City. From there, we follow Vladimir’s ups and downs as he navigates the country’s immigration system and does his best to adjust to the American way of life.

Obviously, the biggest highlight here is Williams, who makes the wise decision to avoid adopting a cartoonish Russian accent and ridiculously stilted English speaking pattern to try and generate laughs from the audience.

Instead, his character shines through his empathy, work ethic and good-hearted nature, which comes across as being much more authentic and funny than some kind of broad caricature.

While a lot of the credit for this dynamic goes towards Mazursky’s script, Williams also needs to be commended for doing his homework.

Reportedly, the actor spent about a year learning the language and other Soviet customs before principal photography began, which is a hell of a lot more preparation than some other Hollywood stars have undertaken for playing Russians in the past.

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But Williams’ performance isn’t the only thing that turns Moscow on the Hudson into a real hidden gem.

On top of featuring a thoroughly likable cast who have great comedic chemistry, the people behind the camera should be given a lot of credit for pulling the film’s different elements together into a cohesive whole.

For example, seasoned director of photography Donald McAlpine does a brilliant job of bringing New York City to life on screen. Not only does he shoot the city’s famous landmarks in a way that perfectly mimics the wide-eyed wonder that a newcomer like Vladimir would feel, but his cinematography also has the added affect of making me feel nostalgic for a place I’ve never visited.

Composer David McHugh also makes a big impression by choosing just the right song or musical sting at just the right moment. Probably one of the funniest sequences in the whole movie is Vladimir’s decision to defect in a large US department store, where Soviet marching music plays overtop of scenes of communist circus performers and their KGB handlers shopping for clothes and jewelry.

But by far the biggest star of this whole enterprise is the script, which really does a great job of crafting a “rah, rah” patriotic American film without veering off into the territory of outright propaganda, like some other 1980s properties I could name ….

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With that being said, Moscow on the Hudson still holds the United States in very high regard, portraying it as a global paragon of virtue and morality, especially when compared to the Soviet Union.

But rather than demonstrating the US’s outright superiority through more regressive characteristics like military might or isolationist policies, Mazursky emphasizes that this country is great because of its multiculturalism and welcoming attitude towards immigrants.

Virtually all of the film’s supporting characters are immigrants, whose kindness and strength come from their ability to adapt to their adopted homeland.

Furthermore, most of the film’s second half takes place inside of distinctly ethnic clubs, grocery stores and restaurants, which communicates the idea that American culture is perpetuated through these sorts of institutions.

As a character, Vladimir even embodies this philosophy through his love of playing the saxophone, since jazz is a uniquely American creation.

Some might feel that this ”touchy-feely” approach robs of the film of any tactile conflict, and what conflict exists is rather forced and manufactured, especially after the KGB agents largely leave the picture following Act One.

And I’ll be the first one to admit that this movie is not without its cheesy moments, especially one scene near the end of the film where the characters literally recite passages from the Declaration of Independence out of nowhere.

But given how toxic and divisive the US political climate is right now, Moscow on the Hudson is a breath of fresh air.

And at the end of the day, I’m sure an actor like Williams, who spent his whole career trying to make people laugh, would be happy to know that one of his earlier films still serves as a heart-warming reminder of how the American experiment can be used to bring people together instead of tearing them apart.

Verdict:

9/10

Corner store companion:

Werther’s Original Caramel Hard Candies (because it’s still remarkably sweet, despite how long it’s been in circulation).

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Fun facts:

-Release date: April 6, 1984.

-Budget: $13 million (estimated)

-Box office gross: $25.1 million.

-Unexpected cameo: Comedian Yakov Smirnoff makes a brief appearance as “Lev,” one of Vladimir’s new friends in New York who is also an aspiring celestial mechanic and astrophysicist.

-On top of learning to speak fluent Russian, Williams also spent months studying how to play the saxophone for this role. According to the actor’s music teacher, Williams learned in two months what usually takes normal people two years to master.

-For a while, director Paul Mazursky tried to get a sequel called Moscow on the Rocks made, although it never came to fruition. The plot of this follow-up film would have followed Vladimir, now a cutthroat New York City businessman, as he travels back to his homeland for his sister’s wedding and falls in love with a Russian doctor.

-The portions of the film that are set in Moscow were actually shot at Bavaria Studios in Munich, Germany.

-Musical highlight: “Freedom” by Chaka Khan (plays over the end credits).