July 31, 2012

Hairspray

It was inevitable that filmmaker John Waters, Baltimore's King of Trash, would go mainstream, if only briefly. His Hairspray (1988) is an affectionately kitschy tale of dancing and integration in 1962 Baltimore. Ricki Lake plays the heroine, Tracy Turnblad, who is probably the first fat girl to be the star of any teen comedy. It's a wonderful thing: finally a movie that doesn't glorify skinny little things. It vilifies them instead. Waters revels in the bad taste of middle-class Americans, and even when he's doing it for a mass audience, he manages to be coy and ironic (without seeming mean-spirited, no mean feat.) The mainstreaming of Waters' schtick works for him: it evens out some of the over-indulgent aspects of his brand of filmmaking. Hairspray feels like a movie, where some of his earlier films (such as the notorious 1972 cult film Pink Flamingos) had that insufferable "home movie" feel to them which made watching tedious, even as you waited eagerly for the next shocking moment.

Lake's mother is played by the inimitable Divine, the drag queen who worked on almost every John Waters picture. Divine died unexpectedly, just a week after Hairspray opened. Divine has always imbued Waters' pictures with a sense of legitimate American white trashiness. As Tracy's mom, Divine is quite a showpiece, draped in a moo-moo, sporting a long black wig, and that wonderfully campy, butch persona. Divine's bizarreness keeps Hairspray from ever looking like some benign Hollywoodized teen comedy.

And the supporting cast is equally marvelous and macabre: Sonny Bono (the ultimate used car salesman of cinema) and Debbie Harry (sporting an outlandish blonde wig that transcends the campy fashion that Harry has always brandished as the frontwoman for the punk rock band Blondie) as the villains, Franklin and Velma Von Tussle; Colleen Fitzpatrick as their daughter, Amber (she looks like Kelly Preston), who hates Tracy because she becomes a popular regular on a local TV program called "The Corny Collins Show," whose host (played by Shawn Thompson) is sort of Baltimore's Ed Sullivan (a young Ed Sullivan). Ruth Brown turns in a deliciously fun performance as "Motormouth Maybelle," the black diva who is friends with the "Corny Collins Show" and helps unite the black and white communities with her goofy rhyme-speech. She's a hoot; The always hilarious Jerry Stiller plays Tracy's dad. He has a wonderful kookiness about him that makes him look simultaneously out of it and sharp as a tack; Michael St. Gerard plays Link, the boy who falls in love with Tracy on the dance floor (he looks astonishingly like Elvis Presley, and even played him in the movie Great Balls of Fire!); Leslie Ann Powers plays Tracy's best friend Penny; Clayton Prince as Seaweed; Waters regular Mink Stole plays Corny's assistant, Tammy; and Joanna Havrilla plays Penny's uptight mom, Prudence, who's so terrified of black people that she hands a black man her wallet while walking through the Baltimore ghetto, assuming he's trying to rob her when he isn't.

July 29, 2012

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Richard Burton as George, a prickly, passive-aggressive history professor and Elizabeth Taylor as Martha, his bitter wife, who's the daughter of the president of the college where her husband teaches. They have a young couple (George Segal and Sandy Dennis) over for drinks, late one night after a faculty gathering at the college. Their little after-party turns out to be an opportunity for spectacle that playwright Edward Albee and sceenwriter Ernest Lehman couldn't resist. A night with George and Martha is pure masochism. Burton and Taylor fight like two cats as they churn out clever insults and fling them at each other with ruthless precision. As "raw" as this movie purports to be, it all feels too much like "acting." But the actors are still very good, even if the screenwriting is obviously trying to be "real" and "edgy." It's overly self-conscious, but first-time director Mike Nichols doesn't seem to worried about concealing it, which may be one of the reasons this canned drama works, as an exercise in frothy unpleasantness, but it's hard to watch this and call it a good time. These are some of the most unpleasant people you could ever spend an evening with, and while there's some humor in it, it feels too much like watching movie stars behind-the-scenes after they've had too much to drink.

There is a bit of style to it (Haskell Wexler won an Oscar for his black-and-white cinematography, and the editing by Sam O'Steen nicely lifts the material off the stage, even though it's still very much a talky film), and in 1966, this was probably a lot more exciting than it is in the era of celebrity meltdowns and the desensitizing spectacle that is reality television. I keep wondering: Were people really enjoying, even reveling in, Elizabeth Taylor as the frumpy drunk with the acid tongue? You really miss the Elizabeth Taylor of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Giant and even Suddenly, Last Summer, the one you could root for, even when she was over-acting. She always looked so ravishing, and exuded such electricity on the screen. She turned each of those roles into a performance. That's what's so enthralling, to this day, about Elizabeth Taylor, the movie star. She certainly gives us a performance in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, but somehow, seeing her turn into a vulgar lush (still pretty sexy though) is a disappointment. She won her second Oscar for this movie, and it's as if she had to go ugly and mean to get it. (She won her first Oscar for playing a high-class hooker who's killed in a car crash at the end of Butterfield 8, and the Academy was most rewarding as a result of her punishment.) But when an actress like Elizabeth Taylor is awarded for giving the kind of antithetical performance (and yes, it's a damn good one at times) she gives in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, it's a reminder of something that Taylor in her prime always helped us forget: that stars weren't real.

When they're drunk, though, Burton and Taylor have a wonderfully funny chemistry together. And George Segal is enjoyably perplexed as the young new biology professor who, along with his wife, becomes a pawn in George and Martha's matrimonial boxing match. (Sandy Dennis has a bubbly, aloof charm to her, and she gets to have her own mad meltdown as the night winds on and more skeletons tumble recklessly out everybody's closet. This feels like Albee's version of a Tennessee Williams play, full of corny, histrionic lines that are delivered with the right amount of tongue-in-cheek from this cast. They give each bad line a bit of ersatz class. (It would be frightening to see this performed by amateurs.)

Dead Man

A dull Western about a man named William Blake (Johnny Depp) who takes it on the lam after he kills a another man, sort of in self-defense. Then he meets an Indian named Nobody who spouts off philosophical sounding ramblings that make no sense. Writer-director Jim Jarmusch confuses pretension for art with this antithetical Western. It's in black-and-white, a crucial mistake. Perhaps some color would have made the movie feel less embalmed, but I'm afraid that was Jarmusch's intent all along: he's trying to make something poetic, and all he really does is make a film that reminds us why we hate bad poetry, or why we don't give poetry a chance when it's delivered to us without imagination.

The camera stays in close-up for much of the film, so we don't even get the usually standard pleasure of the vastness of space that many Westerns capture. This, combined with the grim ugliness of the black-and-white photography, makes much of Dead Man pretty dead indeed. Johnny Depp is okay, especially since he's playing a relatively normal character, but he's such a subdued personality when he's not hamming it up, that he's hardly magnetic enough to pull this long, meandering movie out of its self-induced sleepwalk. If people were mesmerized by all the poetry of the black-and-white and the false wisdom of the mystical "Nobody," it's because they were probably ready to embrace something that was different, and there weren't many good traditional Westerns coming out of the 1990s. But turning this genre into something bland and plodding is no way to save it from the tiredness of doing the same thing over and over.

There are interesting moments, and at times Jarmusch finds the humor in it. Some of the bandits trying to capture William Blake--who's got a 500 dollar bounty placed on him by the father of the man he killed--are funny in a ruthlessly sick sort of way, like the man who allegedly murdered his parents, and then engaged in necrophilia and cannibalism with their bodies. And the character of Nobody doesn't seem to totally buy into the BS he's peddling to William. Is he an ironic Indian? (He's also convinced that William is the William Blake, as in the 18th century British Romanticist poet.) But, like Dances With Wolves, the film tries to imbibe the Native Americans with wisdom and mystical powers, all dispensed in the form of hokey sounding proverbs, and you never buy any of it: it's too patronizing, and too laughable. It's the never-ending search for self-importance that dooms so many "indie" films. (There's also a running joke about tobacco that isn't funny--it's done to death and never had any juice to begin with.)

With Gary Farmer as Nobody, John Hurt, Lance Henriksen, Michael Wincott, Eugene Byrd, Iggy Pop, Gabriel Byrne, Jared Harris, Mili Avital, Crispin Glover, Robert Mitchum in a small role as the man who's funding Blake's capture. Neil Young provides the one-note music score via his electric guitar. It's simply anachronistic, and one more part of Dead Man that enervates the entire movie. 1995.


July 28, 2012

Z

A fascinating look at the 1963 assassination of Greek pacifist and political activist Grigoris Lambrakis, Z (1969) is a fast-moving study of political corruption and the subtle ways government uses red tape and compartmentalization to aid its own propaganda and silence voices of dissent. Director Costa-Gavras is Greek by nationality, but his film is in French, where he has lived since the 1950s. It's an astonishing comment on corruption both right and left, and it's surprisingly energetic for such a talky film. You don't generally expect these kinds of movies to hold up 40-something years later, but the camera remains a fluid eyewitness to what feels at many times like a documentary. It's as if you're watching a rapidly edited version of C-Span, with intermingled shots of people protesting in streets, and of revolutionaries being attacked by the police and their paid hoods. For people who imagine the future as one of Orwellian proportions, Z suggests that we're in for more of this subtler kind of sleazy erasure of facts, doctoring of evidence, and manipulation (or silencing) of anyone who's willing to speak the truth. It's not as overtly horrific as something like 1984. It's the game of being powerful enough to pay off your enemies, or have them killed in "accidental" car accidents, or their autopsies re-written to corroborate falsified accounts.

Z was the first foreign film to be nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award (it won in the Best Foreign Language category). But it deserves more recognition for its witty and insightful view into post-WW2 international politics. It may have been all the more timely in terms of its reception in the U.S. because of our own notorious assassinations and their associated plots, however real or imagined. The world of Z is frighteningly real and present (even as this film nears 50 years in age), and it has an ominously prophetic view of the media's involvement in political maneuvering.

With Jean-Louis Tringtignant, Yves Montand, Irene Papas, Jacques Perrin, Charles Denner, Francois Perier, Pierre Dux, George Geret, Bernard Fresson, Marcel Bozzuffi, Julien Guiomar, Magali Noel, and Renato Salvatori. Written by Costa-Gavras and Jorge Semprun. Edited by Francoise Bonnot. Cinematography by Raoul Coutard.

The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert

Three drag queens in Australia go on a road trip to do some shows. It's sort of a combination of Easy Rider, a John Waters movie minus most of the vulgarity, and a Village People concert. The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert features standout performances by the three leads: Terence Stamp, as the aging drag queen who's getting tired of being in the biz, Hugo Weaving, whose character has the closest link to a "normal life" (he's got a wife and a kid, but he doesn't see much of them), and Guy Pearce, as the most rambunctious of the trio. It's quite an entertainment, particularly when the guys put on their outlandish outfits and lip sync to Donna Summer, ABBA, Vanessa Williams, and a number of other pop music numbers. (The costumes even won an Academy Award.)

For straight men playing gay men in drag, these three are remarkably uninhibited, especially Pearce, who struts around like a peacock with a wig collection as varied as its feathers. And Stamp manages to bring subtlety and graciousness to a role that could very easily have turned into pure camp. He's grieving over the loss of his partner, and agrees to accompany the other boys for a change of scenery, never suspecting it may lead to new opportunities romantically speaking, when he meets an incredulously open-minded rural mechanic, who's married to a kooky mail-order-bride who herself likes to put on a show at the local bar (after she's had too much to drink). Weaving's storyline, in which he's headed for a rekindling of his relationship with his young son, feels almost too carefully designed to tug at the heart strings, particularly when the boy is revealed to be far more open-minded than his father imagined he would be. At the same time, you have to hand it to writer-director Stephan Elliott, who knows when to be garishly offbeat and when to be subtle and unashamedly sweet. It's a welcome dose of eccentricity mixed with heart that most movies seem to have forgotten.

With Bill Hunter, Sarah Chadwick, and Mark Holmes. 1994.

July 23, 2012

Weird Science

Risky Business meets Frankenstein. Two unpopular high school boys (Anthony Michael Hall and Ilan-Mitchell Smith) use a computer to design the perfect girl. To their surprise, it actually works. Kelly LeBrock's performance, as the man-made beauty who helps her makers become less uptight, is this movie's most obvious charm. She's a lot of fun, and when the movie takes a turn for the chaotic (during a big party scene, where a gang of mutants trashes the house), her casual, go-with-the-flow mood is a welcome respite. This isn't the smartest comedy writer-director John Hughes ever came up with. It's too much of a male wish fulfillment fantasy. But it's got some fun moments, and a few up-and-coming actors turn up here in supporting roles: Robert Downey Jr., Bill Paxton, Robert Rusler, and Suzanne Snyder. Followed by a short-lived television series. 1985

July 22, 2012

Vamp

Low-grade horror-comedy about two buddies who stumble upon a strip club full of vampires in a city that is, by night, a hot-bed of bloodsuckers. The "head" vampire, Katrina (Grace Jones), is a tall, fangy creature with Egyptian roots, so the movie suggests. But she's really not that scary or intimidating, and unlike the suave, charming vampire Chris Sarandon played in the original Fright Night, she isn't any fun. She's just a freak.

Chris Makepeace and Robert Rusler have an amiable chemistry together, especially in the beginning when they're being hazed by a particularly infantile group of frat brothers. But the film doesn't make much use out of that charm. Director Richard Wenk (he co-wrote the screenplay with Donald Borchers) doesn't have much of a flair for creating suspenseful situations. The movie has a nice comic book feel, but the simple-minded plot keeps it from generating into anything fun or exciting. Just about every scene promises more than it delivers: Makepeace is chased by a gang of thugs into a sewer system, which seems like it could have been used for a good scare sequence, but the thugs don't go in after him, and it lessens the impact.

There's an odd combination of green and pink neon lighting that permeates the movie, giving it a nice "red light district" feeling, but it's overused, and it doesn't do much more than conceal the fact that the movie wasn't designed with much thought or imagination. The lighting becomes a crutch rather than an enhancer of real atmosphere. With Dedee Pfeiffer, Gedde Watanabe, and, in an amusing role as Katrina's guardian/manager, Sandy Baron. 1986.

Union City

Hardly the debut you would want for rock 'n' roll's sexiest icon, Deborah Harry. It's a dreadfully dull, plodding, cheap-looking film noir drama from a short story by Cornell Woolrich. Harry plays a frumpy housewife whose husband (Dennis Lipscomb) accidentally murders a homeless man, and then conceals him in their Union City, New Jersey apartment. It's 90 minutes of pure nothingness, and it isn't even the kind of bad movie you can laugh at. It's just painful. Harry proved she could be a lot of fun on the screen in movies like John Waters' Hairspray (1988), but in this, she plays down everything that's hip and self-parodying about her. Even the blonde hair is eschewed in favor of her natural brunette color. When her character decides to go blonde at the end, it's a remarkable transformation that comes too late to be of any help to this mess. (The smartest thing Debbie Harry ever did for her career was buy a bottle of Peroxide and embrace a campy, mock-dull attitude.) A movie that tries to go against the best attributes of its cast is almost certainly doomed for failure. The bad filmmaking doesn't help either. It's poorly lit and visually unimaginative. With Everett McGill,  Sam McMurray, Irina Maleeva, and, in a small role, Pat Benatar. Directed by Marcus Reichert. The undistinguished music score is by Chris Stein, Harry's Blondie co-founder and one-time boyfriend. 1980.

July 20, 2012

Jaws

In Jaws (1975), a Northeastern beachfront town called Amity Island is threatened by a massive, aggressive Great White Shark. Despite three horrendous attacks on swimmers, the mayor and the small business owners put up a fight when the police chief (Roy Scheider) decides to close down the beaches. It's good old capitalism at work. Some critics have lamented that Jaws is some kind of left-wing attack on the free market, but are they in favor of sending droves of swimmers into the beaches to be eaten alive? The police chief has his hands full between the pressure from the public to catch the shark and the pressure from the local government to keep the beaches open (and thus, to keep the town's economy thriving.) He enlists the help of an egghead oceanographer (Richard Dreyfuss) and a crusty old sailor (Robert Shaw) to catch the mammoth shark.

Jaws is a casebook example of the old monster-movie rule: show as little of the monster as possible for as long as possible. That way, the audience members have built up a picture of the beast in their minds that's far more terrifying than the actual thing, the eventual revelation of which then amplifies the terror. Apparently, director Steven Spielberg and his crew began referring to their movie as "Flaws" during the shoot, because they believed it wasn't going to work. The public thought differently, and Jaws was an enormous hit. The film's financial success--unexpected as it was--had far-reaching consequences, creating the "summer blockbuster movie." Between Jaws and Star Wars, a lot of damage was done to filmmakers who wanted to get funding for smaller movies. If studios could get a crowd-pleasing product like Jaws out, and make a bundle on it (not to mention all the money made via the connected merchandise), then taking risks on so-called "little" movies became even more dangerous and unappealing. Jaws is an efficient, expert thriller, bolstered by a leavening sense of humor and three strong leads, but it's hard not to feel somewhat frustrated by the consequences of its success.

The fun thing about Jaws is in watching how the filmmakers tried to get around actually showing us their beast. The editor, Verna Fields (who won an Oscar for her work), keeps the scare sequences moving, never letting us rest too long on one given image. But she also spends enough time with each shot to let us take in what's happening. That balance gives Jaws a certain charm when compared to today's thrillers, which cut so fast we're often completely in the dark about what's going on. Nothing turns the audience off like being kept out of the loop, and yet it seems to have become a popular movie-making trend, perhaps a cheap way to conceal mistakes from observant movie-goers. With Jaws, we're completely invested, and that ramps up the suspense even more.

I think the biggest problem I have with Jaws is how much it's been built up over the years as a classic. It's better when you don't have such grandiose expectations for it. Then you can sit back and let it entertain you. There are slow spots: the last thirty minutes get to be quite repetitive and you wish they'd just hurry up and kill the damn thing. But the big crowd scenes are well-thought-out for the most part, and there's enough energy and excitement in them to sustain you through the periodic lulls in the movie. And Scheider has great chemistry with Dreyfuss, and with Lorraine Gary, who plays his wife.

With Murray Hamilton as the mayor of Amity Island and Jeffrey Kramer as Scheider's deputy. Adapted by Carl Gottlieb and Peter Benchley from Benchley's novel. John Williams composed the now famous music score.

Tootsie

Dustin Hoffman in drag looks like Jane Fonda in Nine to Five crossed with the homicidal tranny in Dressed to Kill. Hoffman plays Michael Dorsey, a dedicated actor who gives good advice to his students (he teaches acting class to supplement his income) but fails to implement it in his own life. Michael's a has-been actor, perpetually ignored at auditions because he's too old or to young or too short or just generally "not the right fit." He waits tables while awaiting the next big part, and scolds his students for not trying to make work for themselves. (That's the one bit of advice Michael tries to follow: he's raising money to self-produce his buddy's play.) But nothing works, and even Michael's agent seems oppositional toward his career. So, in a moment of audacious desperation, he makes himself over as a woman (named Dorothy Michaels) and wins a big part on a daytime soap opera, as a gutsy hospital manager named Emily Kimberly.

The first half of the movie is just about the most inspired comedy material to come out of the 80s. That's probably because there's so much interplay between Hoffman and Bill Murray, his roommate, and Teri Garr, Michael's long-time friend and more recently, his lover. The moment you see Bill Murray you start laughing, because he has a goofy charm to him that doesn't require him to say any words. He's just naturally funny with his half-blitzed stare, as though he were possibly stoned, or possibly figuring out solutions to every problem in modern society, or both. But in some kind of alternate universe where he's content to keep it all to himself. And Teri Garr projects a marvelous frenetic energy to her role as a neurotic actress who's too self-conscious to make it past the first audition. She really comes alive, and she and Murray and Hoffman have a loose, fun chemistry together.

But the second half of the movie feels too commercial, too self-satisfied. It's a recurring problem for the director, Sydney Pollack, who also appears as Michael's agent. The year before, Pollack directed Absence of Malice, which was a proficient newspaper drama, but like Tootsie, it wasn't forceful or exciting enough to rise about its banal cleverness. Pollack seems to be the most laid-back director in recent memory (he certainly projects a likable calm as an actor, even when he's exasperated by Michael's flights of temper and petty complaints about show-business). I suppose one could take for granted that Dustin Hoffman in drag is enough force to sustain a comedy all by itself, but when it's given the 80's commercial treatment, it starts to lag. In particular, the part where Michael, as Dorothy, accompanies his co-star, Julie (Jessica Lange), to her father's house in upstate New York for the weekend. Michael lets slip his attraction for Julie, who naturally thinks that he is (as Dorothy) a lesbian. Meanwhile, Dorothy's father (Charles Durning) develops the hots for Dorothy and eventually asks her to marry him. It sounds wacky and screwball-comedyish, but in the hands of Pollack, it all seems just a notch about the melodramatic soap opera that the characters appear in. Perhaps he's trying to reign in the insanity. It's safer, more controlled, but the avoidance of risk-taking takes the edge off the comedy, and it starts to resemble a banal sitcom.

The actors really do to pull this thing off. They are, in the end, enough to make Tootsie a fun and often laugh-out-loud funny movie. It's got a lot of clever lines and a to-die-for supporting cast, which also includes Dabney Coleman as the soap's director, George Gaynes, Geena Davis, Doris Belack, and Lynne Thigpen. And above all, Tootsie is a movie about actors and acting, and more than most movies, it gives the profession its due, not only speaking to the soul-crushing rejection that so many actors face, but the endless dedication many of them put in. It also makes fun of actors, and turns the profession on its head, which keeps Tootsie from seeming like a proprietor of a bunch of self-congratulatory martyrs. And let's not forget how much fun gender confusion really is. It's an eternal source of great farce, from Shakespeare's Twelfth Night to Mrs. Doubtfire. (Even when films like Tootsie and Mrs. Doubtfire don't sustain themselves to the end, there are still pleasures to be had, like the wonderful comic performances we get from them.) 1982.

July 19, 2012

Orange County

Orange County (2002) isn't offensive, exactly, but it isn't a very good movie, either. It's about an aspiring writer named Shaun (Colin Hanks), who's convinced that he needs to go to Stanford and study with a writer he's stuck on. The movie is about the various misadventures that take place in one 24-hour period during which Shaun tries to get accepted, after the dippy college counselor at his high school (Lily Tomlin in a bit role) sends in the wrong transcript and he gets rejected. That's an interesting idea, but the writer of Orange County, Mike White (who plays a small role as Shaun's English teacher), is running on empty from the very beginning.

The earnest performance of Colin Hanks (son of Tom Hanks) is one of this movie's strongest attributes, yet the writing is so undeveloped that you never really buy his whole aspiring-literary-talent thing. He's a nice guy. That's about all we get.  We see him transform from stoned surfer to would-be Ernest Hemingway, but there's no real impetus for his transformation, other than the sudden death of one of his surfing buddies, an obvious plot device. And if you're paying any attention at all to the movie, you'll see how many of these plot devices White relies on in his script. For example, Shaun's brother, Lance (played by Jack Black), is a ne'er-do-well junkie who's mooching off his family, and it's his stupid behavior that bungles a meeting between Shaun and an influential Stanford board member. Later, it's Lance who sets up an astoundingly contrived chain of events that gets Shaun into the school.

This movie doesn't know how to show its feelings, such as disappointment, frustration, grief, or joy, and so it turns to catchy pop songs to convey its emotions by proxy. Is it any wonder that a movie produced by a music conglomerate like MTV fails in its grasp for authenticity? You start to think they just made it so they could sell the soundtrack. Perhaps the audience saw through this: Orange County wasn't exactly a hit.

There's a slew of talent associated with the film, but don't expect much when the material is this sloppy. Director Jake Kasdan (who helmed last year's abysmal Bad Teacher) has a sitcom-level mentality, and he doesn't know how to work with the actors. They're all emotionally maxed-out characters at the beginning, and so there's nowhere for them to go emotionally. They fizzle. Catherine O'Hara has a few good moments as Shaun's drunk mother, but even she isn't allowed to reach her wonderfully loony potential. (She does some similar (but better) work in an episode of HBO's Curb Your Enthusiasm.) Kevin Kline puts in a brief spot as the idolized writer, whose appearance marks the film's climax, but he's reduced to the role of the "wise artiste," providing Shaun (and the movie) with some tripe about writing. When you see a performer like Kevin Kline playing such a boring role, it gives you little hope for the future of comedy in movies. Also present are John Lithgow as Shaun's dad, Chevy Chase as the high school principal, Brett Harrison and Kyle Howard as Shaun's perpetually stoned surfer buddies, and Schuyler Fisk (daughter of Sissy Spacek) as Shaun's good-natured girlfriend, the only sane person in his life. And Jack Black, who is an often dizzying force of energy, is all over the place with his mugging. (There are too many stoners in this movie for any of them to stand out, for one thing.) He needs a good director to channel his crazed brilliance. Without that, he's utterly unfunny. 

The really ironic thing is that Orange County presents the adults as complete morons: the guidance counselor's gaffe generates the entire meandering plot, the parents are miserable, clinging people. They're divorced from each other and both in unhappy, unsuccessful re-marriages (for all the wrong reasons). The teachers are either stupid or disingenuous (or both). And yet, we're expected to believe that Shaun turned into a sophisticated, responsible young man amidst all this incompetency. And to top it off [SPOILER ALERT], the movie has the nerve to go Frank Capra on us at the end: Mom and Dad get back together, Son gets into Stanford via their generous financial donation to the school, he decides that home really is where the heart is, and we're all happily-ever-after-together. [END OF SPOILERS.] It's amazing that such an essentially square movie could come from the people at MTV, who seem so convinced that they are the purveyors of what's hip. Perhaps they're turning over a new leaf. They've learned that banality is safer than originality. Oh wait, that's not a new concept to them at all.

With Harold Ramis as the dean of admissions, Garry Marshall, Dana Ivey, Jane Adams, and Ben Stiller in an undistinguished cameo appearance as a firefighter.

July 18, 2012

Blue Velvet

Writer-director David Lynch's Blue Velvet (1986) exists in a suburban vacuum that's some kind of tangled 1950s-1980s dream. Lynch takes a highly normal suburban boyhood fantasy, becoming involved in a real-life mystery, and throws it into the depths of sordidness. It's almost too enticing to witness the undressing of suburbia, a place that is so squeaky clean on the outside it almost has to be a den of devils on the inside. Kyle MacLachlan plays the hero, Jeffrey, who discovers a severed human ear while walking through a field near his quiet Lumberton hometown, a place that recalls every falsely cheerful family sitcom ever made.

Jeffrey wastes no time in delivering the ear to the local police, but this effectively ends his ability to partake in the mystery legally, so, with the help of the detective's teenage daughter, Sandy (Laura Dern), he proceeds with his own makeshift investigation and sneaks into the apartment of a lounge singer (Isabella Rossellini), whose name Sandy has heard mentioned in connection with the ongoing investigation of the detached ear. The lounge singer is named Dorothy Vallens, and she's about as stable as Judy Garland. She has that tragic look, mixed with a distinctively foreign allure that makes her suspect to our suburbanite values and beliefs. (Rossellini is the daughter of Ingrid Bergman, and you can hear it in her voice and see it in her face.)

Enter Dennis Hopper as Frank, the psychotic, drug-addicted, sadomasochist who's forcing Dorothy to comply with his weird fetishistic fantasies. Frank's got to be one of the scariest human figures in horror-thriller movie history, on par with Robert Mitchum's Reverend Harry Powell in Night of the Hunter and Jack Nicholson's nutcase hotel sitter in The Shining. This is the point in the movie where Jeffrey is probably thinking that "normal" isn't so bad, and that those mysteries we read about as children and watched on television and at the movies were deliciously entertaining because they were false, safe mysteries where even the worst villains conducted themselves within reasonable boundaries. Dennis Hopper has no boundaries, nor does the director, who puts us in the position of the peeping tom and the "peeped-upon," on a far more visceral and uncomfortable level than say, Hitchcock did, in his Rear Window.

The thing about Blue Velvet is that it's an off-putting descent into a frightening suburban reality, because it breaks through the surface in others that we often feel superior to, and in the process, it exposes our own carefully constructed phoniness as an obviously thin veneer. Sandy says to Jeffrey, "I don't know whether you're a detective or a pervert," after he tells her of his plan to infiltrate Dorothy's apartment for the first time. He tells her with false coyness that she'll just have to find out. What he really means is that he'll just have to find out, because he doesn't know himself well enough to know what he really wants, why he's really attracted to the "mystery". For him, "mystery" is still a gimmick designed primarily for his own amusement, not something that involves or affects real people. It lulls him in with the siren song of the false mysteries (the camera occasionally shows us shots of various 1940s film noirs on the TV screen, a reminder of the ground we're treading, which is quite far away from the mock-sophisticated safety of Hollywood). In David Lynch territory, nothing is ever safe and neat and tidy. But it's not a pleasurable entertainment. It's on the level of a snuff movie, and for all its ironic insights into human nature and the phoniness of the world it portrays, it's hard to watch.

With Dean Stockwell, Hope Lange, George Dickerson, Priscilla Pointer, Frances Bay, and Brad Dourif.

July 17, 2012

Slap Shot

Paul Newman plays an aging hockey star who tries to save his languishing team, the Chiefs, by turning the games into sideshows, full of violent fight scenes. It works: the has-been Chiefs re-invent the sport's appeal with their apish antics. Newman sells the material, but it's still not sustainable for two hours. Slap Shot is lewd and loud and full of people behaving violently "funny," and it's amusing seeing Newman in what is probably his dirtiest movie role, but the results are uneven. You laugh a little, but in between the sporadic bits of comedy that really work is a movie that tries way too hard. It's often dull and uninvolving. George Roy Hill's laid-back directing style doesn't do the film any favors. The finale is admittedly wonderfully irreverent, making fun of the macho jock mentality of sports, the public, everybody. Written by Nancy Dowd. Michael Ontkean makes a promising debut (not his first movie, but his first big movie role) as one of Newman's fellow players, who's turned off by all the publicity mongering, and Strother Martin has some funny moments as the team's manager. With Melinda Dillon, Lindsay Crouse as Ontkean's wife, Jennifer Warren as Newman's wife, Jerry Houser, Andrew Duncan, Swoosie Kurtz, and M. Emmet Walsh. 1977.

July 16, 2012

The Godfather Part II

In the first Godfather, Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) never believed he could be sucked into his father's way of doing things. And in The Godfather Part II (1974), he can't accept that he has. His corruption happens quickly but subtly. Under the guise of vengeance, of protecting family honor, Michael becomes a tragic fallen hero. Director Francis Ford Coppola and author Mario Puzo have created a sequel that fills in a lot of detail for us, simultaneously depicting Michael's rise as the new Don Corleone and the life of young Vito (played in flashback by Robert De Niro) as he leaves Sicily for America and gradually begins a life of crime.

There are moments of greatness in The Godfather Part II, and moments of great drama. Some of the images stay with you, and considering how much it attempts, much of this movie is a smashing success. The actors are exceedingly good: Pacino shines darkly. You can see the transformation he's undergone in his face, which was once innocent. Now it has a yellow patina of greed and an addiction to power. Diane Keaton gets some stronger material in this sequel as well. She's the good wife who's stuck by Michael for longer than she should have, who's looked the other way too many times now. De Niro is a solid Vito (it's no small feat filling the shoes of Marlon Brando), Talia Shire adds a new level of depth to Connie, Michael's sister, who was always getting roughed up by her sleazy husband Carlo in the first one. In Part II she's given herself over to money and things, at the expense of her family. But then she experiences something of a reversal of character, and she rises up to be the family's new matriarch. It's fascinating to watch all these performances and the depths to which the actors take them.

But it's lacking something. Many critics have proclaimed this an even better film than its predecessor. They praise it for deepening the material, for elevating it to a mythological status. It's just that in the process of demonstrating how far Michael has fallen, the movie too seems to lose its soul. Despite the fact that he had already been corrupted by the end of the first Godfather, that film left you with a sense of ambiguity. That perhaps things were going to be different. After all, Michael's involvement in murder had been about "vengeance" and "justice." But in the sequel, we start to see the consequences of that. It's beautiful and compelling yet bleak and depressing. And the powerful scenes are linked by many scenes that lumber along. (It's three hours and twenty minutes long, where the first was under three, a significant difference.) The tacked-on ending, a flashback of the days before WW2, when all the children were alive, but grown, feels too TV-movie-ish, like Coppola was already showing signs of the bad judgment that would taint his directing ever after. (It is nice to see James Caan reprising his role as Sonny, if ever so briefly. His absence is really felt--Sonny was such a presence, such an iconic character, and Caan turned him into a hot-headed bad boy who you liked because of his brashness and his macho love for his family.)

Part II deserves credit for what it does and what it is: a very good movie, and a compelling study of the soul-destroying power of an America that has built-in methods of abiding criminal activity. It also gets at the things which knit this family together, and the myriad forces which tear it apart. With Robert Duvall, John Cazale, Lee Strasberg, Michael Gazzo, G.D. Spradlin, Richard Bright, Bruno Kirby, Morgana King, and Gianni Russo.

Days of Heaven

--> I once loaned my copy of Days of Heaven (1978) to some friends, and when they returned it, one of them dubbed it, “the movie that wouldn’t end.” Indeed, a Terrence Malick hour-and-a-half feels much longer than a Francis Ford Coppola three-hours, because, for all its beautiful imagery, Days of Heaven is a bore. People who talk favorably about it never mention the plot, because Malick, the writer-director, doesn’t care very much about plot: instead, supporters of Malick’s work talk rapturously about its rich, Academy Award-winning cinematography (by Nestor Almendros). It’s a simple love triangle-story, set in Texas (but filmed in Alberta), in which an opportunistic drifter (Richard Gere) pairs off his girlfriend (Brooke Adams) with a shy sharecropper (Sam Shepard) who’s got less than a year to live. 

The story isn’t bad, but Malick wants the nature imagery to envelop it (and us). He enjoys de-emphasizing human stories in favor of natural imagery. (He's almost righteously anti-plot, which may explain why he uses such a tired one. We’ve already seen it before, and Malick prefers that we fill in all the gaps for ourselves, with bits of dialogue and parts of other movies we’ve seen. That way Malick can focus on art.) Like 2011’s The Tree of Life, Days of Heaven isn’t terrible, necessarily, and there are certain images that remain in your head, particularly the scene where locusts invade the wheat fields. But it all boils down to something pretentiously antithetical to the enjoyment of movies, as much as it tries for some kind of vapid “pure cinema” look and feel. The worst part is that so many people have been fooled into thinking it's great cinema. It's technically well-made, but it's difficult to respond to the characters when they feel so muted, so undernourished, as though their own creator had nothing but contempt--or worse, disinterest, which grows out of contempt--for them. Linda Manz plays Gere’s kid-sister, who narrates the film with her distractingly ugly New York accent. Malick wants her childish observations to sound philosophical, but they’re really just cant. 


Note: the picture that has long adorned the title page of this blog was from Days of Heaven. Now that I've reviewed the movie, I think I'm going to retire it. See if you can identify the next one.

The Godfather

Even those who haven't seen The Godfather (1972) are aware of its status as one of the all-time great motion pictures of our time. Some critics refer to it as the Gone With the Wind of the 1970s. A good many people consider it the greatest film of all time, or at the very least, somewhere in the top five. It may be worthwhile to venture back into film history for a few moments, to help those movie-goers who aren't familiar with the movie and its significance, understand why there's still so much hoopla.

First off, movies about organized crime are about as old as the medium itself. Scarface (1932) is one noteworthy example from among the early talkies. Many of these old-school crime flicks concerned themselves with Prohibition, and the licentious pleasures associated with that era of government-mandated morality. These movies are one of the reasons film has always been a sort of prodigal medium: an art form for the common people, the mass audience, concerned with iniquities and people of dubious character. That's the appeal of movies, ultimately. They're not good for us. (The Novel, when it was in vogue, was also considered suspect, denounced as the art of the "common," and what's more, as a medium full of subversive potential. As they say, the movies are the 20th century's answer to the Novel. Both have received similar treatment. But we've become post-literate, and one wonders if the same will happen to movies in the 21st century, ushering in a post-cinematic public.)

The appeal of such entertaining movies was threatened with the production codes starting in the mid-30s, which set strict rules about what films could depict in terms of sex and violence, etc. The major studios mostly churned out sanitized material that was non-threatening and "safe" and "clean." Writers and directors who wanted to address adult subject matter had to be coy about it, or risk being censored by the studio heads. Film adaptations of novels and plays had to tone down racy material. For example, when Tennessee Williams' play Cat on a Hot Tin Roof was made into an MGM movie, the main character's homosexuality was removed from the story. Those familiar with the source material of such expurgated movie adaptations could read between the lines, sure, but it would seem that studios exercised a great deal of confidence in the ignorance of the movie-going public at large. Moreover, they perpetuated such ignorance by depicting life in a blissful state. It's like the men in The Stepford Wives (1975) who want to pretend their wives haven't been turned into automatons. Sure, there have always been exceptions to this rule, but mostly Hollywood was about keeping things superficial and fake.

Then came the 1960s. Films like Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless (1960) in France and Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde (1967) in America began to introduce a new kind of realism to the movie-going public, a violent realism that re-examined the values of movies and ignited a new passion for something different, something urgently real.

Along the heals of Bonnie and Clyde and The Wild Bunch (1969) and other such movies came The Godfather. What people tend to see in The Godfather is a sort of tragic humanization of these old-time gangsters, once cartoonish, expendable, forgotten the moment the picture was finished. In this new vision of the American organized crime world, these characters are no longer divorced from their human context. They are fathers and sons and brothers and husbands, and they bleed real blood. They are corrupt, but also redeemable. They have scruples, as antithetical as that may sound, and their own moral code, which too seems incredulous, and yet they are cold-blooded killers. Ambiguity is always more interesting than morality depicted in black-and-white.

But enough about film context. You can read all that elsewhere, and it doesn't mean you have to like The Godfather a bit. The movie speaks for itself. (The context may deepen one's understanding, but it does not define it.) Marlon Brando plays the head of the Corleone family, based in New York (it starts in 1945, just after the war has ended), who's competing with several other crime families. A chain of events, beginning with Don Corleone's rejection of a narcotics operation in conjunction with the other families, sets up his youngest son, Michael (Al Pacino) to take over the family business, neither a vocation nor a lifestyle he wanted. He's the war hero, the "pure" son, untainted by the blood of organized crime. (They were going to try and land him a political career so he could be "untainted" there too.) It's inevitable of course that Michael is sucked into the world he thought he was too principled to embrace.

Director Francis Ford Coppola turns this gangster picture into a tragic masterpiece. He is helped by Mario Puzo, on whose novel this was based, and with whom he wrote the screenplay. The iconic music is by Nino Rota. The supporting cast includes James Caan as Sonny, Robert Duvall as Tom Hagen, Richard Castellano as Clemenza, Diane Keaton as Kay, Michael's wife, Talia Shire as Connie, John Cazale as Fredo. Also starring Abe Vigoda, Al Littieri, Gianni Russo, Sterling Hayden, Lenny Montana, Richard Conte, Al Martino, John Marley, Alex Rocco, and Morgana King. Followed by two sequels. (The only criticism I can give of The Godfather is that it spawned a lot of inferior imitations that we have had to sit through for the last 40 years.)

July 14, 2012

A Fish Called Wanda

A Fish Called Wanda is a throwback to screwball comedies, directed by Charles Crichton, a veteran of English comedies from the 40s and 50s, and co-written by Crichton and Monty Python's John Cleese. It's a heist movie with Cleese as an English barrister who becomes romantically involved with a sexy American con artist named Wanda, played by Jamie Lee Curtis, and her live-wire "brother" Otto (Kevin Kline). They're in cahoots with a bank robber, George (Tom Georgeson), whom Cleese is defending. (They turned him in to the police with hopes of making off with the loot, unaware that George had spirited it away beforehand.)

John Cleese successfully convinces us that he's capable of being a romantic lead as the married, dulled-out lawyer Archie Leach, and Jamie Lee Curtis does some of her best work as Wanda. She's playful and smart, and a born performer (or a ham is more like it). Loony comedy suits her talent and her looks well, and this intermingling of British and American styles of humor seems to bring out the best in her, as it does for Cleese. But it's Kevin Kline as Otto who really breaks out of the mold, delivering an off-the-wall performance as a macho moron who reads Nietzsche but hasn't a clue what it means. Otto can't stand being insulted, particularly when it comes to his "intelligence," and he makes up for his insecurities in the typical male fashion: with violent, aggressive fervor. He's hysterical, and even won an Academy Award, which rarely happens for comedic performances (or comedic anything for that matter.)

As a movie, A Fish Called Wanda sags in parts, but it makes up for its slow spots and its indulgences by being a deliriously bawdy British-American spectacle, one that's perhaps trying too hard to one-up American comedies in terms of its proud vulgarity. (It's always more clever than a truly vulgar movie, though.) You spend a lot of the time giggling at its crude humor, when you're not laughing at the genuinely fun and earnest comic performances. And there are some particularly brilliant scenes, like the one where Archie's wife (Maria Aitken) unexpectedly returns home when Archie and Wanda are kissing on the sofa. Otto, always the jealous type and never subtle, is also inside, watching, and he tries to save Archie from being found out, displaying his inability to make up a believable story to Archie's wife, who sees through him. Kline is fast with the insults, though, and he completely throws himself into his character's manic personality. The energy in some of the scenes of this movie is wonderful stuff, a real novelty in the 80s, where so many comedies seemed too carefully planned out. The best scenes in Wanda are remarkably off-the-cuff, and yet they don't seem sloppy or unstructured. They have the panache and style of good writing and the zing of good improvisation.

Michael Palin, another Monty Python regular, co-stars as Ken, one of the accomplices in the bank robbery scheme that quickly becomes subordinate to the romantic story and this film's garish insanity. The cast reunited for 1996's Fierce Creatures, which wasn't as tight or as clever as Wanda. 1988.

Hud

Hud (1963) is just about the only great Western I've ever seen, and one of the great entertainments of the 1960s. It's a grown-up Western, set in modern times and unconcerned with Indians and lawless towns. Instead, Hud concerns itself with the encroaching decay of civilization. It's a battle waged between the aging rancher, Homer (Melvyn Douglas), a man who lives his life according to the law, like Moses with a cowboy hat, and Hud (Paul Newman), his son, who doesn't put much stock in morality, and has a reputation as a womanizer. Homer despises him, and Homer's 17-year-old grandson, Lon (Brandon deWilde)--Hud's nephew--idolizes him, to a degree. (Lon seems to be making up his mind about things for most of the movie.) Lon sees Hud as independent and charming. He leads an exciting life (as exciting as one life can be in a flat Texas cattle town), always bedding a different married woman in town, living it up at the local bar. Hud represents the kind of excitement that is denied someone of Homer's strict moral constitution.

There's an arc written into the story--which was adapted by Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank, Jr. from Larry McMurtry's novel Horseman, Pass By--about Homer's cattle being infected with foot-and-mouth disease, which forces Homer to have every single one of his cows shot in a big, dramatic scene near the end of the movie. This scene was held up as a somber, powerful moment of modern tragic cinema by some critics, and criticized as audience manipulation by others. I would argue that it's somewhere in the middle. It's mostly the plot contrivance that gets the action of the movie rolling. The characters, and their pieces of the overall story of Hud, are what make it a fascinating, tough, lean, and outstanding movie. The cows are merely fodder.

Newman gives one of his best performances: he's mean and selfish, and even suggests unloading the cattle (which could potentially spark a nationwide epidemic) rather than take an enormous loss by killing them, but it's hard not like Paul Newman, even when he's a boor. It is one of those brilliant casting choices in movie history, because as bad as Hud is, and as convincingly as Paul Newman plays him, it's still Paul Newman. There's no pleasure from hating Hud, the way you get a kick out of despising a nasty villain (and such contempt is usually rewarded when said villain suffers some kind of justice for his wickedness at the end of the movie). Instead we're lead deeper into Hud's amorality, as though we could start to buy into some of his logic simply because it's him pitching it. And there's nothing all that appealing about what stodgy old Melvyn Douglas is peddling. He's sanctimonious and weather-worn, and we're led to believe that the two go hand-in-hand with such a principled existence applied over some seventy years.

Patricia Neal, as the sexy-plain housekeeper Alma, also delivers a good performance. She keeps pouring cold water on Hud's sexual advances, but always with a look of coy design in her eyes, as though she's turning him down to build him up for the ultimate acquiescence. Neal and Douglas won Academy Awards for their performances, and Newman was nominated, but once again lost. Cinematographer James Wong Howe also won an Oscar for what is an impressively mounted picture that moves along with a sort of deceptively breezy consistency. Howe and director Martin Ritt manage to make the film weighty without feeling portentous: he turns a genre piece into a movie with panache and real narrative style.

(For this review, I must give some credit to Pauline Kael, whose piece "Deep In the Divided Heart of Hollywood" goes into further detail on the appeal of Hud, why it's a great movie, and why critics at the time of its release, despite much praise, missed out on why it was so great. Her thoughts have certainly helped shape mine, even though I loved the picture well before I read the review. You can find that essay in her book I Lost it at the Movies.)


July 13, 2012

The Lady Vanishes

200th review

Fans of Alfred Hitchcock's later work should take a look back at some of his early films, made in his home country. The Lady Vanishes (1938) numbers among the best of those British movies. It's a clever, fast-moving adventure about a seemingly harmless elderly woman (Dame May Whitty) who goes missing aboard a train bound for England, and only a young woman (Margaret Lockwood) named Iris seems to have noticed that she was ever on board at all. Iris ropes a fellow passenger (Michael Redgrave) into looking for the missing woman, but everyone else seems to be withholding information. This is light-hearted and engrossing entertainment at its best, bolstered by a sincere performance from Margaret Lockwood, who's constantly being one-upped by Michael Redgrave's witty, charming performance. She matches him in her stalwart forthrightness, though. She's like a tougher, pluckier version of the character Joan Fontaine played in Hitchcock's adaptation of Rebecca, two years later. They have a lovely romantic chemistry together, and Hitchcock's penchant for finding the humor in every situation is at its peak here.

Some of the elements in The Lady Vanishes have dated of course (for example, you can tell that much of the movie's backdrops have been filmed prior, and that the coinciding foreground action is taking place on a set). But the movie is nearly 75 years old, and it seems silly to fault it for the inevitable effects of the passage of time. And a picture that's still so fresh and entertaining after so many years is worth watching. Also starring Paul Lukas, Cecil Parker, Linden Travers, Naunton Wayne, Basil Radford, Mary Clare, and Googie Withers.

Class Action

Legal mishmash in which the attorneys going head-to-head are father and daughter, played by Gene Hackman and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio. It's sort of a variation on Adam's Rib (1949) (where Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy were opposing council who also happened to be husband and wife), minus the comedy.

A courtroom drama without wit or style tends to be forgotten within a decade, and except for the capable performance of Gene Hackman, Class Action fails to stand apart. It's showing its early-90s aesthetics, from the bad synthesizer music to Mastrantonio's hostile wardrobe to the overdone dramatic scenes. (Father and daughter have issues: he's spent his whole life defending the little guy, but at the expense of his family, and she can't forgive him for it. Worse still, he cheated on her mother, and she's still stinging from the offense even though Mom has made peace with it.)

Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio had a brief moment as one of the big female performers of the late 80s and early 90s, playing the lead in the James Cameron underwater-thriller The Abyss (1989) and giving us a feminist Maid Marian in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991). She's also appeared in De Palma's 1983 update of Scarface and Scorcese's sequel to The Hustler, The Color of Money (1986), opposite Paul Newman and Tom Cruise. But her career hasn't lasted: she embodied the type of ambitious yuppie feminist character that was fashionable for a brief period of time at the movie, with her pinched face and her strong demeanor and her piercing eyes. But that period came and went, and actresses like her have seen a dearth of big movie roles. This isn't to say that she's a bad actress, or a limited actress, but that she was likely typecast. The thing that saves her in Class Action is an underlying vulnerability: she's still got scruples, even though she dreams of becoming her firm's youngest (and presumably first female) partner. And she's got spunk, reveling at the opportunity to face off with her father.

They have an on-again-off-again relationship, and the director, Michael Apted, and the screenwriters, Carolyn Shelby, Christopher Ames, and Samantha Shad, use this bit of backstage drama to give their story "dramatic force," if you will. It's full of those dreadfully self-satisfied shouting matches that pander to the Academy Awards voters. In fact, Class Action seems like one long montage of Oscar clips. Only Gene Hackman seems genuine enough not to be bucking for some kind of awards recognition. His performance is the freshest thing in the movie, even though he's older than most of the other big cast members. He's not out to make a career for himself as a performer (he's already done this), and as such he's relaxed, confident, and he makes the whole movie look less stodgy and self-important. One of the benefits of being a pro (and there often aren't many when it comes to getting good parts and being treated with respect by studios and producers).

With Colin Friels as Mastrantonio's lawyer-boyfriend, a colleague and an obviously corrupt yuppie brat who cares about his career more than ethics. (It's easier to hate him when he's so full of himself.) Also with Joanna Merlin as Hackman's wife, who just wants everybody to get along: She's a teacher in the inner-city, and she's the forgiving wife of the adulterer, the professional peacemaker, who must be killed off as soon as possible, to give the father and daughter new pressure to make amends with each other; Donald Moffat as Mastrantonio's boss, Laurence (Larry) Fishburne as Hackman's paralegal, Jonathan Silverman as Mastrantonio's paralegal, and Jan Rubes as a witness who testifies against the automobile corporation that Hackman's trying to fry for negligence. 1991.

July 12, 2012

They Might Be Giants

George C. Scott plays a modern-day Don Quixote: he's a former judge, named Justin Playfair, who thinks he's Sherlock Holmes. Justin's conniving brother (Lester Rawlins) wants him committed to a mental institution so he can take over Justin's estate. Joanne Woodward plays Dr. (Mildred) Watson, the psychiatrist who takes his case, and becomes ensconced in Justin's fanciful search for his nemesis, Moriarty.

Fans of either Sherlock Holmes or the two leads, both of whom are better than their material, will be disappointed by this junky, meandering movie. It has a lot of energy, but no structure to channel it, and if it's supposed to be a comedy, it isn't a very funny one. There aren't any good set-ups, and the only real joke in the whole production--Justin's madness and the world he's created as a result of it--isn't enough to sustain this mess of a movie. Scott seems miscast as Sherlock Holmes. He might have been more appropriate if this had been about the judge. Woodward is a believable headshrinker who's married to her work and has no life outside of it (she would later play the psychiatrist in Sybil), but there's something unappealing about seeing her play such a drab, pathetic role. Maybe it's too easy for her. She and Scott have some chemistry together, but their relationship is a failed attempt to bring back a kind of screwball comedy vibe.

And let's not forget the ugliness of the 1970's New York that's portrayed in this movie. Lots of grungy buildings and gloomy skies and dirtiness. Presumably, director Anthony Harvey was trying to recreate that industrial England feel of the Victorian era. He doesn't have the cleverness of Arthur Conan Doyle to transcend the setting and make it interesting, a place full of mystery. Doyle's London was a breeding ground for imminent possibilities. New York is too, but not the way it's seen in this misfired comic mystery. The only real mystery here is how they couldn't have come up with a better script.

With Jack Gilford, Al Lewis, and Rue McClanahan. Goldman adapted the screenplay from his own theatrical version, which ran in London in the early 60s. It should have stayed there. 1971.

Dog Day Afternoon

Dog Day Afternoon (1975) is a bank robbery movie that's so intense you start to feel stressed out for the hostages, as though you were a hostage too. Al Pacino, post-Godfather I and II, gives a smashing performance as Sonny, the Brooklyn bank robber who's trying to get enough money so his lover, Leon (Chris Sarandon), can get a sex-change operation. The question that hangs over the proceedings, as Sonny's robbery is stalled by the arrival of seemingly every cop and FBI officer in New York, is just how crazy is Sonny? And, how crazy is his partner, Sal (John Cazale), who seems like a grenade, waiting to explode.

What's so funny about this movie is how badly Sonny and Sal bungle their robbery, which, as the movie poster reads, should have lasted for a few minutes, but turned into a 12-hour ordeal, full of bullshit negotiations. Sonny's gullible though, and under too much pressure to think clearly (he has a considerably complicated home life, between his wife and kids, his demanding mother, and his obsession for Leon, who's trying to get away from him, to the point of several failed suicide attempts and subsequent hospitalization). And probably Leon is unknowingly hungry for the attention he receives throughout the day and into the night. And no bank robber ever had friendlier, more accommodating hostages. They like him, strange as that sounds, and they're not really that scared of him. They even criticize his lack of organization skills in carrying off the robbery. But the humor is mixed with a real sense of tense fear, and the looming dread of the inevitable showdown between the robbers and the police. 

Director Sidney Lumet and screenwriter Frank Pierson have fun exploring what kind of a circus a drawn-out bank robbery turns into when the media shows up, spectators flock to the scene, and the criminal becomes a sort of revolutionary, a hero standing up against the establishment. No one really even cares what, if anything, Sonny represents, other than rebellion. Even the hostages, for the most part, seem keen to like him, even if it's because they're under such extraordinary pressure. They seem to be having a good time, as though Sonny had involved them in a TV drama, not an actual robbery.

With Charles Durning as a detective, James Broderick as an FBI agent, Lance Henriksen as the agent driving the getaway car, and Penelope Allen, Sully Boyar, and Carol Kane among the bank employees being held hostage. It's loosely based on real events which occurred on August 22, 1972, from an article in Life Magazine written by P.F. Kluge and Thomas Moore, called, "The Boys in the Bank."

July 11, 2012

The Lady Eve

In The Lady Eve (1941), Henry Fonda plays an oblivious millionaire who studies snakes, and who's returning home from a year in South America, when he meets an attractive woman (played by Barbara Stanwyck) on a cruise ship. She's got designs on him, or more accurately, on his money. She's a cardsharp who works alongside two older men, one of whom pretends to be her wealthy oil tycoon father. But when she falls in love with him for real, complications arise.

Barbara Stanwyck gives one of her most engaging and enjoyable performances in this smart comedy, written and directed by Preston Sturges. The scenes are well-thought-out so that you enjoy waiting for the punchlines, and it's wonderful fun watching Stanwyck play Fonda like a fiddle. She's expert at saying fast lines effortlessly, as though she'd ruminated carefully over every word before speaking it, and Fonda is a delightfully befuddled fool, a man who's mostly unaware of her flirtations, making love to her only inadvertently.

Fonda's character is, of course, unbelievably gullible, but this is one of those contrivances that allows the plot to function as amusingly as it does, so it's difficult to harp when you're having such a good time watching it all unfold.

With Charles Coburn, Eugene Pallette (a jovial blimp of a man who plays Fonda's rich father, the owner of a successful ale brewing company), William Demarest, Eric Blore, and Melville Cooper.

A Night in Casablanca

Very likely, not many people from my generation are familiar with The Marx Brothers. When I was about 12 years old, and an impressionable young movie buff, the American Film Institute released its laughably arbitrary list of the "100 greatest movies ever made." While I spent too long trusting in the infallibility of this list (ironically, they updated it, removing some movies and adding others, as well as adjusting the ranking of many of the titles--how do you rank movies like this anyway?), it exposed me to many movies I would never have sought out, including Duck Soup (1933), which was the last Marx Brothers movie to feature all four of them. (They had been making movies since the early 20s.)

A Night in Casablanca (1946) comes near the end of their filmography, and as the title suggests, it's a spoof of Casablanca. Spoof might not be the best word. Imagine that Bogie and Bergman have left the hotel, and a Vaudeville comedy team has set up shop, trampling over their romantic setting with a lot of ridiculously over-the-top sight gags. While many of the fast-talking comedies of the 30s and 40s have dated terribly (that sounds like a wonderful set-up for a Marx Brothers joke, actually), A Night in Casablanca is still really funny. I usually have to watch old comedies with a respectful air of appreciation, which is perhaps more painful than genuine disdain for a movie, especially when you're told how great the picture in front of you is supposed to be but you're just not getting it.

Instead, I found myself laughing out loud repeatedly at Groucho, Harpo, and Chico, who all work in a hotel in Casablanca where a Nazi officer is currently hiding out, because the hotel is rumored to contain a bounty of misplaced treasure. The previous hotel managers having died under mysterious circumstances, a new manager is brought in, and he's played by Groucho Marx. The other two brothers play hotel employees who eventually team up with Groucho when they find out his life is in danger. There's also a lovely German vamp of a woman, who's playing everybody from the hotel manager to the Nazi commander, so that she too can get her hands on the loot.

The highlight is the scene where the officer tries to pack up his clothes, and the Marx Brothers find a myriad of uproariously funny ways to slow him down, without his ever realizing they're in the same room with him. You have to see it to believe it. Luckily, for you Nextflix instant play users, it's currently available for online streaming. I heartily recommend this, a great comedy. Looking forward to A Night at the Opera, which reputes to be on par with the hysterical Duck Soup.

Directed by Archie Mayo. With Charles Drake, Lois Collier, Sig Ruman, and Lisette Verea.

July 10, 2012

Breakfast at Tiffany's

Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961) showcases Audrey Hepburn's glamorous loveliness, and it probably cemented people's equating of Hepburn with cool cosmopolitan chic. But the movie's a bore, stretched out with lots of unconvincing little vignettes until it reaches its blatantly obvious conclusion. Hepburn plays Holly Golightly, a frivolous girl who lives on the cash of wealthy gentlemen, and throws loud parties in her cramped East Side apartment in New York, to the chagrin of her landlord (Mickey Rooney made up to look Japanese. He's a caricature, the embodiment of what Americans think of when they use the slur, "Jap.") Holly becomes friends with her new neighbor, Paul (George Peppard), whom she calls "Fred." Paul's a writer who gets paid to sleep with a wealthy interior decorator (Patricia Neal), which in turn funds his burgeoning literary career.

As I understand it, the relationship between George and Holly in Truman Capote's novel was considerably more Will-and-Grace than it is in the movie. Screenwriter George Axelrod turned Paul from gay to straight, and made him into the one redemptive love interest in Holly's long line of "rats" and "super rats," the men she pursues for her love of money. But it's so hard to want Paul and Holly to get together when she treats him with such indifference at times. She's flighty, and when she's not being impetuous and charming, she's distastefully rotten, and her self-absorption, which is always apparent, becomes overt and offensive. Paul's a nice guy, Holly's the girl he can't have. When he finally unmasks her at the end, breaking her stubbornness, you wish he could have told her earlier. The film would have been shorter and far less irritating.

The problem with a lot of Audrey Hepburn's movies is that directors and screenwriters are always trying to turn her into something "real" or "deep." She can't just be chic and stylish, and her stylishness can never come from within. It always has to come from somewhere or someone else. She has to be a country girl who's come to the Big Apple to re-invent herself (as in Breakfast at Tiffany's), or a chauffeur's daughter who goes to Paris to get culture (as in Sabrina), or a poor flower girl in My Fair Lady whose source of sophistication comes from a snide old fuddy-duddy of a linguistics professor.

The movies that let Audrey be Audrey, naturally, and with nobody to credit her stylishness to but herself, are the ones that have held up best. I'm thinking most particularly about Charade (1963), which never tries to go serious on us, the way Breakfast at Tiffany's does. It's always proudly and shrewdly displaying its enchanting trashiness. Breakfast at Tiffany's creates contrived complications to try and elevate itself. Had the tone remained light, the way it is for about half an hour, this could have been a comedy classic of its era, something smarter and more off-beat than the run-of-the-mill Doris Day-Rock Hudson vehicles and other such romantic comedies from the 1960s. Instead, it's remembered as a gooey romance, or rather, it's remembered as an Audrey Hepburn runway, where she can show off her attractiveness. (Which would have been find, had the movie been content to be light and frivolous rather than heavy and mildly portentious.)

George Peppard, as the co-star, is nice and sincere. He doesn't stand out, but then, he's playing it straight to Audrey's ultra-off-kilter personality. Axelrod tries to write dialogue, some of it likely right from Capote's novel, that will become instant trash-poetry when it comes out of Hepburn's mouth. It doesn't always work out that way. (Joseph L. Mankiewicz got damn lucky with Bette Davis in All About Eve: every line was gold when spoken by Margo Channing.) As director, Blake Edwards should have referred more to his comic abilities and less to his sentimental ones. This feels like a less-weapy-eyed prologue to Days of Wine and Roses, saved from being maudlin by the notorious happy ending, where man, woman, and Cat are united.

With Buddy Ebsen, Martin Balsam, Alan Reed, and Jose Luis de Vilallonga. 



July 09, 2012

Savages

Move over Citizen Kane. This is the greatest film I have ever seen.

That's how I could have reviewed this movie. But here's how I am really going to review it:

In Savages, two Laguna Beach drug dealers (Aaron Johnson and Taylor Kitsch) must figure out a way to retrieve their shared girlfriend (Blake Lively), who's been kidnapped by a powerful Mexican druglord (Salma Hayek) because the guys refused to form a business partnership with her. And yes, as the title suggests, they have to resort to some decidedly savage behavior in the process.

I felt slightly rotten for giggling during what appeared to be a reverential experience for some of my fellow movie-goers. (At least, they didn't seem to find Savages as uproariously bad as I did.) It's almost worth the price of admission for this ludicrous action thriller to see Salma Hayek hamming it up as the villain, complete with her magic hair and her sexy Mexicannness. Remember how funny she was as Alec Baldwin's girlfriend on 30 Rock? It's hard to take her seriously now, when she's always got her tongue in her cheek anyway (one hopes). It's kind of like going back and watching Leslie Nielson pre-Airplane, when he was a straight man. All his "serious" work has a new comedic side to it. Watching Salma play the villain makes you think back to those cheap exploitation films from the 70s, where there was always some hot mama running the show, and people would call her "Mommie" or something creepy like that. I'm thinking, perhaps, of Stella Stevens in Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold. Or, sometimes, it wasn't a hot mama. Sometimes it was Shelley Winters, like in the first Cleopatra Jones.

At any rate, Savages resembles one of those cheapie action flicks, except it has an Oliver Stone budget, not to mention Oliver Stone's contempt for the audience. The film is based on a novel by Don Winslow, and was adapted by Winslow, Stone, and Shane Salerno. I can only imagine how bad the novel was. There are moments when Blake Lively is narrating the film that all you can do is laugh at how stupid it all sounds. She tells us at the beginning that she might not be alive, this could be just a recording, and reminds us of this later. We're never very worried, though. She's not interesting enough. Right before she gets kidnapped, we see footage of her on a shopping spree at the mall. The bags keep accumulating, and she has this dumb-surfer-girl look on her face. Later, when she's being held in some underground bunker by the druglord, she asks for a hit to help her concentrate. She embodies something that is currently morally offensive: decadence. It's like watching one of those moronic celebrities on a reality television show, oblivious to the problems of the real world. Who could possibly care about this lady? Only the men who sleep with her. She's the middle (wo)man in their quasi-homosexual fantasy. But this movie isn't honest or deep enough to explore what amounts to an incredibly obvious elephant in the room. There's never an acknowledgement of the sexual ambiguity, which is probably the most interesting element of the movie. Savages prefers to numb our minds with its brutality. (The brutality is mitigated, mercifully, by this movie's inability to be taken seriously.) 

Instead, Oliver Stone wants us to witness the transformation of two hot pot-smoking dudes into savage beasts, taking their once carefree girlfriend along with them. They're meant to be elevated in the process, to some kind of mythological status, where they're as free and instinctive as nature itself. It's a whole lot of BS, the same brand of BS that Stone peddles in every one of his movies.

NEXT PARAGRAPH CONTAINS SPOILERS.

What's most offensive is that the ending is deliberately deceitful to the audience. They actually pull the "this is how it could have happened" line, showing us one monumentally nihilistic ending, and then backing out of it with mind-numbing laziness, in favor of an easy, cop-out of an ending. The first ending wasn't real, just an imagined scenario in the girl's mind. (I remember seeing an Italian splatter film where at the very end, the hero woke up from the movie, which, we're informed, was a nightmare. Then, as he rolled out of bed and the film came to an end, a caption at the bottom of the screen read, "The nightmare became reality.")

END OF SPOILERS.

I guarantee a lot of unintended laughs at this movie's expense, and there are parts of it that are entertaining (it's not a boring film, exactly, although it takes far too long to get to its obvious conclusion), but if you were groaning during the trailer, I can promise you that Savages the movie will not exceed your expectations, if you have any standards about movies.

With John Travolta as a snitching FBI agent, and Benicio Del Toro as one of Salma's right hand men.

July 08, 2012

Sunshine State

Sunshine State (2002) was filmed mostly in Northeast Florida, and it's a kind of living biography of a fictional resort town called Delrona Beach. Writer-director John Sayles has crafted an absorbing, if overlong, movie, headed by Edie Falco and Angela Bassett. They both play women who grew up in the area, and they only have one brief scene together, at the beginning of the movie. But while they barely cross paths during the course of the film, their relationships do connect, from their family members and their friends and neighbors, to the developers who are perched like buzzards, waiting to buy up as much property as they can. The developers want to sell the image of Florida, the Florida of cheap mythology. There are a series of amusing scenes of four retired men playing a round of golf (they bookend the movie), one of whom is an aging investor and developer, who waxes on philosophically about how Florida was marketed to the outside world, and how the developers learned to make the marketing a reality. "Nature on a leash," he calls it.

I have no idea if John Sayles has any real relationship with or affection for Florida (he was born in New York), but he has touched on a number of very real things about how Florida has been marketed over the years to people weary of shoveling snow and enduring bleak, sunless stretches of time. The Florida of palm trees and golf courses and gimmicky alligator petting zoos is not the Florida I know (although those things have always been no more than an hour's drive away). But it is the Florida in most outsiders' imaginations, and finally here comes a movie that looks at the people who have set up roots here, for generations, who seem like natives to the state only because they've been here longer. They're facing pressure to sell, but also pressure to stay, to maintain a bygone way of life that is perhaps now just as imaginary as the faux-Florida imagery.

The characters are richly developed, and the scenes between them build subtly. You won't find the whimsical lightness suggested by the poster (an ironic marketing oversight that mirrors the dishonest marketing of Florida, perhaps?). It's not exactly heavy, either, though. It has a laid-back feel to it. The tone of the movie is casual, even if the characters are dealing with plenty of heavy issues. Sayles is particularly interested and invested in looking at the relationship between the black community, which had carved out a space for itself in the 1940s and 1950s where they could finally breathe, and the white community, which finds subtle ways to maintain a safe distance, but also tramples over civil rights through government regulations and sneaky backdoor deals with the county commissioner's office.

There's one totally implausible scene where Falco's mother (Jane Alexander), an eccentric "impresario" who runs the local community theater, unexpectedly turns into a slick negotiator with the company that wants to buy their businesses (a motel and a restaurant, both of which are in the way of the big developer's plans to reinvent the community). You can't help but snicker at how ruthlessly she takes over the meeting and turns the deal in her family's favor (surprising even her daughter, especially because the investors had pegged her as a non-threat, a woman who's too caught up in voluntary theater projects to worry about numbers and figures). But midway through the scene, you start wonder if this isn't a moment of true hypocrisy, for this artist to suddenly be so interested in profit, and in selling out. She explains that running a non-profit theater has made her business-savvy. You can only buy it because Jane Alexander's performance is so good. Her character's doing a self-adapted production of Faulkner's As I Lay Dying, and indeed she seems to have come from the pages of a Faulkner novel. (Many of the other characters do as well.)

With Mary Steenburgen, as a local woman who runs an annual parade that tries to promote "local" businesses using every cliched Florida-esque gimmick in the book, from pirate ships and buried treasure to alligator exhibitions. Steenburgen plays it with a sense of aloof devotion. Her character wants desperately to be ignorant of her own irrelevance, but she can't completely convince herself of the lie. Also starring Mary Alice, Bill Cobbs, Timothy Hutton, Ralph Waite, Miguel Ferrer, James McDaniel, Tom Wright, Alan King, Marc Blucas, Alex Lewis, Richard Edson, Cullen Douglas, Perry Lang, and Gordon Clapp.



The Long Hot Summer

You'd be surprised to discover that a movie as commercial as The Long Hot Summer (1958) came from a few stories by William Faulkner, culled from his three-part novel The Hamlet and another short story called "Barn Burning." It may contain the seeds of Faulkner, but it's been filtered through the MGM mill and turned into a glossy-looking soap opera about a Mississippi patriarch named Will Varner (Orson Welles) who wants to marry off his 23-year-old daughter Clara (Joanne Woodward) to a slick stranger named Ben Quick (Paul Newman), whose reputation as a barn burner precedes him. Will sees in Ben Quick a youthful version of himself: someone bold and sly and opportunistic, and with enough charm and charisma to con anybody.

The screenplay by Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank, Jr., is full of movie lines that could never be mistaken for realistic dialogue. That's part of the fun, because the actors are so skilled and so much fun to watch as they turn the bad poetic lines into intentional self-parody. You always feel that the cast is winking at you, that they aren't taking The Long Hot Summer too seriously, and neither should you. But the movie has a certain pull to it, too. Director Martin Ritt knows how to keep a movie from going dull. His chief appeal is the cast, which is full of fresh-faced young actors, most of them trained at the Actors' Studio (a fact which is said to have caused a certain degree of conflict with Orson Welles, who didn't have a background in the Method, and who may have looked down on it as an inferior acting technique.) Ritt keeps the cameras on the faces of his mostly attractive cast. Welles has been made-up to look older, and his weight, which had accumulated in the last few years, has turned him into something unintentionally comical. He looks the part, a bloated Southern tycoon who refuses to be contradicted by anyone. Welles turns his dialogue into food: he's gobbling the lines so ferociously that it's difficult to understand what he's saying half the time. (Many of his lines had to be re-recorded later because they weren't intelligible).

Everyone in this movie is in heat. (This is, first and foremost, a movie about sex: who's getting it and who isn't getting it and who's contented with it and who isn't.) Joanne Woodward's character, for one, isn't getting it, and moreover she's feeling pulled in too many directions: her domineering father wants grandsons to carry on his family name (a concern for which he exhibits a certain dogged obsession). Her longtime gentleman caller, Allan (Richard Anderson), is content to maintain the status quo. Allan treats her like a respectable eternal virgin, and she responds to this with a certain degree of graciousness because it seems like the right way to be treated. Ben Quick riles her, because he treats her like a woman with full of passions. It's the fact that he can sense her desires without her acknowledging them that steams her, and attracts her, to him. But she can't let herself like him too easily, because that's what her father wants. It's all delightfully uncomplicated complication, and only the ending, where too many dramatic points are wrapped up too easily, feels clumsy. The rest of the movie is breezy and energetic.
With Anthony Franciosa as Will Varner's simpering son Jody, who can't compete with the new rival, Ben, for his daddy's respect; and Lee Remick as Jody's trophy wife, a giddy young thing who spends most of the picture being chased around playfully by her amorous husband. Also with Angela Lansbury, as Will's longtime companion, a no-nonsense innkeeper named Minnie Littlejohn.