May 29, 2011


As I was sitting in the theater howling at the insanely funny Kristen Wiig in the new comic tour de force Bridesmaids, I started thinking about movies where the main character is an underdog who can do no right, and how movies with such characters tend to milk our sympathy--even subconsciously invoking our self-pity as though pulling the strings of our emotions without our consent. I thought of that poor schmuck in Meet the Parents, and how, by the end of the movie, I wanted him to leave those people behind and never speak to them again. I felt the same way for Kristen Wiig's character, for a while, but the beauty of Bridesmaids is that it doesn't let you completely lapse into a pity party for her character. It's not like the horrendously unfunny You Again, which was pure lazy indulgence. In Bridesmaids we are not just feeling the gut punches to Wiig's character, we're also receiving the pride-diminishing life lesson that, eventually, you have to stop playing the victim and take control of your own life.

Bridesmaids' plot operates in a mostly standard fashion: chronic failure Annie (Wiig) must compete with elegant, snotty, rich Helen (Rose Byrne) as she takes on the duty of being the maid of honor for her best friend, Lillian (Maya Rudolph). We identify with Annie right away, even though Helen isn't a complete bitch. She's close, but the movie isn't going to let us hate her with impunity.

In fact, the complexity of these women and their relationships is what gives Bridesmaids such personality. Besides that, director Paul Feig doesn't rush the humor. He knows how talented the cast is, and he lets them take time building the jokes to a crescendo. You laugh so much you'll miss half the gags, but what's going on visually is just as funny as what's being said, so you eventually become exhausted because you're laughing so much of the time. Bridesmaids is like a really good mixed drink and a really crude joke combined. The crudeness goes down easier because of the buzz you're feeling--as well as the sweetness, which isn't saccharine but genuine sugar.

I enjoyed the predictable relationship developing between Annie and a likable Irish cop, played by Chris O'Dowd. And Melissa McCarthy stole every scene she was in as the bride's sister-in-law to-be, a plump, plucky, and socially awkward self-made woman whose eccentric personality seems to render her oblivious to the drama that's unfolding between the other women. Wendi McLendon-Covey and Ellie Kemper round out the group of bridesmiads (the first one is a discontented housewife and mother of three, and the second a dreamy-eyed newlywed who's obsessed with Disney World and domestic life).

Wiig's comic timing is impeccable. She reminds me of Tina Fey, but with a dose of Goldie Hawn. She's utterly likable even when she's being stubborn, and her humor is genuine. There's something so natural and unforced about her performance. She seems to be having a wonderful time with Rudolph, who projects her own comic radiance while playing the straight gal. Byrne is wonderful too as the spoiled rich thing with a heart of platinum. With Jon Hamm as Annie's insignificant other and the late Jill Clayburgh as her mom. Written by Annie Mumolo and Kristin Wiig.

May 21, 2011

At the Cult Fiction Drive-In

Here's a picture of me with actress Dee Wallace (E.T., Cujo, The Howling, The Hills Have Eyes). I attended my first movie convention, right here in downtown Jacksonville, and it was quite exciting! Pam Grier, the star of Jackie Brown and Coffy, was there, as were many other celebrities from cult films of the 1960s and 70s. It was so exciting to see these folks--it made the little kid inside me thrill with excitement to see so many horror and cult movie icons gathered in one place. There was memorabilia everywhere, including lots of DVDs for sale.

Along with meeting celebrities at the convention, we got to attend a screening of a real cinema treasure, I Was A Teenage Frankenstein (1957), which is exactly what you think it is. Whit Bissell plays a Frankenstein descendant --stubbornly intent on continuing/ improving his infamous ancestor's work-- who tries to put the Grim Reaper out of business by reanimating a dead teenager. The acting was priceless, the dialogue of that rarified quality that only the masters can create. And what can I say about the mad scientist's method of disposing the people that get in his way, except that I no longer trust anyone who keeps an alligator as a pet?

I also got to chat with John Amplas, star of George Romero's vampire classic, Martin (1978) and supporting actor in several other Romero classics including Day of the Dead (1985). Amplas now teaches acting in Pittsburgh, where most of Romero's colleagues hail from. He was a lot of fun to chat with, as were Lynn Lowry and Dyanne Thorne. Lowry starred in Romero's The Crazies, and Thorne was played a whip-wielding Nazi named Ilsa in a number of exploitation movies from the 70s. (I tried to hide the fact that I'd never heard of her or her movies.)

The event is still happening. Tonight there is a midnight screening of a slasher movie called Pieces (tagline: "It's exactly what you think it is!"), and tomorrow they're showing, among other things, Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!.


May 16, 2011

The First Wives Club

This movie is one of my guilty pleasures. It's uneven and really, considering the sheer quantity of talent involved, it's a bit of a letdown. Based on a novel by Olivia Goldsmith, it's about three college friends (Goldie Hawn, Diane Keaton, Bette Midler) who reunite years later after they've been dumped by their husbands for younger women. Their plan for revenge soon evolves into one where they can channel their frustrations for good. The movie is some kind of rah rah feminist picture, and yet it has moments where it completely contradicts itself. The women spend a lot of time praising their own abilities to beat their lousy ex-husbands into submission, but at the end, when one of the grumpy husbands utters, "you can't do anything to us," they acquiesce that no, they cannot, but the people they have under their control (all men) have the ability to get results. It's a strange moment of inconsistency. The movie itself is a bit formulaic, complete with the montage toward the end where the three leads, frustrated with how things are going, spend the duration of a mushy 90's pop ballad walking with their heads down, consoling themselves with family, and having a good cry. The movie wants to be brassy and gushy in the middle, but I'm not convinced it can have it both ways.
Director Hugh Wilson doesn't always stage scenes the way he should. There's a scene where they sneak into Midler's ex's apartment, and it's built up like something out of a bad spy thriller, with the three comedians screaming and pushing and shoving and freaking out in histrionic fashion. The scene is big but it feels big in a contrived way--factory made comedy with a director's attempt to manage the audiences' reaction.
The talent rescues the movie from its shortcomings. The three leads are too much fun to watch to completely dismiss The First Wives Club, and the supporting cast is to die for: Maggie Smith, Eileen Heckart, Sarah Jessica Parker, Stockard Channing, Dan Hedaya, Victor Garber, Stephen Collins, Marcia Gay Harden, Bronson Pinchot, Elizabeth Berkley. 1996

May 15, 2011

Manhattan Murder Mystery

Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993). Diane Keaton and Woody Allen traipsing through Manhattan trying to figure out if their elderly neighbor (Jerry Adler) murdered his wife. An enjoyable movie (Allen's 2006 comic-mystery Scoop is kind of a companion to it) that coasts on the charisma of its stars. Keaton's character drives the investigation--she's bored with her life and the prospect of a genuine murder mystery is just too tantalizing to ignore, dragging her neurotic, whiny, reticent husband (Allen) along. The banter between them is wonderfully witty, a lovely little tribute to the films they made in the 1970s like Annie Hall. I think this one is totally underrated. It's not as "important" as some of Allen's earlier films, but it's got a wonderfully vervy charm to it that keeps the viewer engaged in the comic suspense. With Alan Alda, Anjelica Huston, Joy Behar.

May 13, 2011

Touch of Evil

This week I showed two Orson Welles classics to my students: Citizen Kane (1941) and Touch of Evil (1958). I learned more than I ever dreamed I would about Welles and his career. He caused a sensation in the New York theater world when he produced Macbeth but set it in Haiti, and of course when he broadcast a radio version of H.G. Wells's The War of the Worlds and scared the bejesus out of America.

Welles was brought to Hollywood soon after, even though he'd never made a motion picture before, and the legendary Citizen Kane was born. Kane is a thinly veiled biography of newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst, and a film that was nearly doomed to a life on the cutting room floor because Hearst did not want it to see the light of day. The American Film Institute voted it the number one American picture of all time. It's certainly innovative. The cinematography is unlike most of the movies you'll see before 1941. However, after watching both Citizen Kane and Touch of Evil virtually back to back, I must say I like Touch of Evil better. It's a nightmarish looking film noir set in a sleazy border town, with Charlton Heston playing a Mexican narcotics cop (!) who gets in the crossfires of a corrupt Texas police chief (played by Welles).

The movie is outlandish and offbeat: it pulsates with a wonderfully lucid rhythm that makes it still fresh despite its age and some of the corny dialogue. Janet Leigh co-stars as Heston's wife, who spends a terrifying night in a rural motel that foreshadows her experience in Psycho two years later. The film boasts one of the most famous opening shots in movie history. Cinematographer Russell Metty used an incredibly long tracking shot to show us a stick of dynamite being placed into the trunk of a convertible, then letting us watch as the car's owner gets in, drives off, and eventually is killed in the impending explosion. That suspenseful, almost voyeuristic feel never leaves the movie, and you spend the rest of Touch of Evil as a complicit audience member rather than a passive one.

Henry Mancini's Latin-enthused score drifts through the picture giving you the feel that you're wandering through a busy city--lit up with neon--at midnight. Smoky bars with moody music seeping out into the twilight. The seedy underbelly of the film noir world at its darkest most irresistibly enthralling (and the genre was on its way out by 1958). Alas, Touch of Evil was taken away from Welles and dramatically re-edited, then released as a B-grade thriller. It made very little money, but after being restructured to fit Welles's original vision, it has become something of a classic, one that is more exciting, more twisted, and more unhinged than the magnificent Citizen Kane.