Dec 25, 2008

Disney's Merriest Men

The Radio City Music Hall
Christmas Attraction of 1973

Dec 17, 2008

Toxic Thunder

The state of modern comedy can be best seen in the very bloated schizophrenic foul-fest called Tropic Thunder. Okay, let me list each adjective and define:

1. BLOATED - Why is every comedy today inflated with minute after minute of time spent with obnoxious hateful "funny" characters? I realize a lot of the dvd versions of these Ben Stiller and Judd Apatow films are filled with added SPECIAL scenes not seen in theaters, but even before that Frankenstein stitching of extra funny bones, these films are still too long for fanny endurance in a cinema seat. Epic comedies are dead, people, and even they, in their prime in the 1960s, were stretching the limit. There is a reason they died. Comedy is best served on a small plate and eaten while it's still hot. A big serving becomes cold fast and unappetizing.

2. SCHIZOPHRENIC - Tropic Thunder's director, the truly unappealing Ben Stiller, wants this to be a comedy, right? Why then is it filmed like an action movie? Why the gritty cinematography best suited for Rambo or Oliver Stone? Why the portentous sound track? Why the CGI and slow motion explosions that want us to revel in the BOOM and the BANG? The idea of this film is that we are watching a fake war film. Why continue the look and sound after we know it is a comedy?

3. FOULFEST - I am no prude, but is constant swearing and tirades on oral sex truly funny? Shock comedy, yes. It hits you in the face and you react with a nervous laugh. But comedy today slams you in the face over and over again with a full fist of "fucks" and then rabbit punches you with more verbal vulgarity and this is supposed to funny. I swear, I truly believe that I could hire a bunch of Junior High School students and tell them to write a script and provide top grade technical equipment and they could produce a Summer Comedy Hit. Kids find swearing and sex jokes and over the top phony violence funny. Aren't we supposed to grow up? In a discussion with a co-worker, I was told that if Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton or W.C. Fields were allowed to say "fuck" or flash their posterior or fart, well, they would have done so. Why do I find that hard to believe? Stiller should look at his own parents. Anne Meara and Jerry Stiller based their comedy on "character" and verbal wordplay.

Tropic Thunder is supposed to be the funny epic comedy of a group of actors who are making an action war film and then are, accidentally, thrown into a real dangerous jungle situation involving drug smugglers. Only one of the actors still thinks he is in a film and that idiot is played by Ben Stiller who always plays an idiot or unlikable jerk. Idiots and unlikable jerks have always been comedy fodder. We have seen them as the protagonists of many comedy films. But we eventually like them and they change during the plot of the story. Stiller never does; he's always a humiliated asshole to the end. I have a natural aversion to Stiller. He is hard to look at; he resembles a cross between a monkey and Tom Cruise. (more on Tom Cruise in a minute!) Stiller is, also, the screenwriter and director and his idea is to make fun of actors and Hollywood and the people who make these type of big action films. The problem is that Stiller and his fellow co-stars, Jack Black (oh, is he insufferable in his screaming and heroin withdrawal ramblings), Matthew McConaughey and Tom Cruise are part of the very thing they are trying to make fun of; they themselves continue to make the same cliche, soulless, unfunny and/or dramatic action crap they aspire in this film to deride. So ... it doesn't work. It stinks as much as the dung they force upon the public every year. It is completely unbelievable as satire. I can believe Robert Altman or Blake Edwards when they poke fun at Hollywood, because I see them as people who dislike or have been burned by that environment ... not Ben Stiller running around with his Hollywood Gym muscled arms.

The only saving grace of this film is Robert Downey Jr. as an actor who so involves himself in his parts that he literally "becomes" what he is playing. In this case, he is playing a black man in the fake film in the film. He is so believable in this role that I actually forgot who he was Robert Downey Jr. He actual character is a blond haired Australian actor who he, also, plays flawlessly. Another actor who tries to be someone we don't associate with his usual roles is Tom Cruise. Cruise plays a vulgar fat Hollywood executive. He is covered in latex, a bald cap, wears tinted glasses and has body hair erupting from his unbuttoned shirt. The difference with Cruise is that we know right away that IT IS CRUISE. He can't act. He can't do a character. The smile, the smirk, the laugh is still there; no matter the make-up or the excessive vulgar language it is still empty old Tom Cruise trying to be funny. The fact that Stiller is now "buddies" with Cruise (a person he used to make fun of on his short lived TV show) and is planning a film, according to E! Online, starring this very Len Grossman character, is proof that Stiller hasn't a clue to what is funny. Can you imagine 90 minutes of ... oh, wait ... I mean, TWO HOURS or MORE of Cruise's bombastic foul Hollywood executive dancing to rap music and saying shit and fuck and dick over and over again? Wait, did I write the word "dick"? I did!! Are you laughing?

Dec 15, 2008

Oscar Winning Best Actors of the '60s: 1962

Winner: GREGORY PECK - To Kill a Mockingbird

other nominees:

Burt Lancaster - Birdman of Alcatraz
Jack Lemmon - Days of Wine and Roses
Marcello Mastroianni - Divorce - Italian Style
Peter O'Toole - Lawrence of Arabia

I recall first seeing To Kill a Mockingbird as a Junior High School student. After being assigned and reading the novel for English class, we were treated to a showing of the film (shown in two installments) in the school auditorium. Viewing classic films based on classic novels was a staple at my school and we saw wonderful adaptations many times in those three years. The only handicap in watching the films was my sensitivity to the emotion the films conveyed. Most of these films involved scenes of death, failure, hopelessness and their musical scores were so lush and emotional. I was prone to tear up at times when the weight of the emotion affected me and this would cause embarrassment on my part and teasing on the part of my fellow classmates. In the case of the adaptation of Harper Lee's Pulitzer Prize winning book, I know I was wet-eyed a few times and I wanted to see if watching it again would turn the tap on once more. It did not. But, I did feel the slight melancholy I feel when I watch a film narrated by an adult who is telling the story of an incident in their childhood; for some reason it always affects me. And I did feel the warmth and security that glowed from the screen in the presence of Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch, the father of two children and a respected and wise lawyer in a Southern town.

Peck's presence dominates the film and it is probably his best known role. It, could be, to some, the only movie they think of when they think of the actor. His career was extensive; from his twenties to his old age. Atticus Finch defines Peck like Norman Bates defines Anthony Perkins, Oscar Madison defines Walter Matthau and Rick Blaine defines Bogart. He epitomizes the solid family man, the strong father, the sage who can answer all questions and whose whispers of assurance and love are warmer and more secure than a winter blanket on a cold night. There is one scene in particular when the children spot a rabid mad dog in the street in front of their home and they scream in alarm. The housekeeper spies the incoming trouble and her first thought and ours is to inform Atticus Finch. She does just that and we feel assured that he will solve this problem at once. He does, but he does so with humility and then pure laser-like intent. He is an admirable man on all fronts.

The film recounts the memories of his young daughter Scout and, in particular, the trial of a wrongly accused black man whom Atticus must defend against a charge of attacking a white woman. We know from the glaring hints of over acting from the girl's father that he is responsible for her beating and forcing her to pass blame on the accused. There is no question that Atticus is defending an innocent man in our minds. But, even so, due to Peck's portrayal we know, in our hearts, Atticus would never defend someone he suspected of being guilty unlike the thoughts we have of lawyers in today's world. Atticus is without blemish. He is as glaringly white and clean in his heart as is the suit he constantly wears even to the breakfast table. He is a unbiased man and, as is evident in movies of the 1960s, he is the great white father to the African American community; the protector and savior. This can be seen as a bit prejudicial in an ironic way, but Atticus never seems to be lording over or overbearingly pedantic with the community he protects. His sense of justice is universal to all and will even put himself in danger to defend his beliefs and protection of his charges. This is most evident in a scene where he stands guard outside the jailhouse door where the accused is being held. He sits in a chair on the jailhouse porch reading a book, a symbol of his intelligence and thought, with a rifle leaning against the door. Atticus will protect with his words and composed thoughts of decency than with the force of a gun. This is observed by his children and is a magnificent symbol of humanity for them and for the audience. We would all want a father like Atticus Finch.

Reading some material on the Oscar year of 1962, I learned that Harper Lee thought Peck was so much the embodiment of her real life father, that she gave Peck her father's pocket watch as a gift. He used the watch as a prop as he spoke in the courtroom scenes. He, later, kept it in his hand as he sat at the Academy Award ceremony and had it in his keep to his dying day. He said that the part of Finch was like "putting on an old suit of clothes - just comfortable". Maybe that is why he is so splendid in the role. The definition of the character was easy for him because it was more than just a "role". The role of an everyman, the role wherein an actor almost plays himself can be, I feel the most difficult role to play. In that case, Peck deserved the Academy Award that year.

Dec 6, 2008

Much of it Turns Out Not to Matter

Lajos Kotai's film Evening, based on a Susan Minott novel, is really not a very good film. It seems very familiar in its telling of an elderly woman dying of a terminal disease, at home, being cared for by a night nurse and visited daily by her two daughters. The dying woman (Vanessa Redgrave) floats in and out of reality, fantasy and her memories of 50 years ago when she was the Maid of Honor at her best friend's wedding in Newport, Rhode Island. Claire Danes plays Ann Lord, the dying woman, in the flashback segments of the film. Ann is a young woman who dreams of becoming a professional singer and feels a bit out of place amongst the rich family and friends of her friend Lila (Mamie Gummer). She is connected to the family not only by her friendship with Lila, but with Lila's younger brother Buddy, whom Ann was close friends with in school. Buddy (Hugh Dancy) is high spirited, a dreamer, rebel to the family hopes and an alcoholic. He does not believe in his sister's love for her attended groom and believes she truly loves Harris (Patrick Wilson), the son of their housekeeper, who is, also, attending the wedding and is a physician. Glenn Close is the patrician mother of Lila and Buddy and Barry Bostwick cuts an imposing figure as the cliche stolid WASPish father. The film unfolds with the Chekovian equations of A loves B, but really loves C who loves B that adds up to a grandiose Lifetime-style cable movie

The familiar qualities of Evening recall the soap opera-ish films of the late 1940s and, especially, the 1950s. One could see this starring Bette Davis or Joan Crawford in the '40s; Jane Wyman or a myriad of other actresses of the '50s period. Perhaps, Rock Hudson as Harris and James Dean as Buddy ... only the rather blatant hetero and homosexual currents would not surface as easily and would be swimming below the film's water line of plot. You see, Buddy loves Ann and he loves Harris and he drinks and has awkward alcohol infused outbursts at family dinner parties about love and society's false values. Buddy is the most interesting character in this film and his layers of emotion and hurt are greatly exposed by Hugh Dancy. Most of the other characters are bores and cardboard figures. I could not possibly see what Ann or Lila or Buddy saw in their love for Harris. He is as bland as a glass of warm 1% milk. Buddy's character reminded me of Lew Ayres' closeted younger boozy sibling of Katharine Hepburn in Holiday, though more nuanced and serious. The film would have, if made in the eras I referenced, been soaked in lingering soft focus shots and sweeping lavish strings and piano from a studio orchestra (we get, instead, an incongruous recording of Michael Buble singing a standard as Ann and Buddy dance lightheartedly). In the '50s this might have been made by Douglas Sirk and produced by Ross Hunter. Evening wants to be much more important than those soaps of the past cinema. It wants to "say" something. What it hammers into your head at the conclusion is that we fret and worry and wonder about the supposed mistakes we make in life, but that whatever road we take we will find happiness of a sort. Life is a culmination of mistakes that result in the life we have and that we should cherish. Relationships provide children and friends and memories that make us happy ... no matter what errors brought us to that point.

Evening was a disappointment and it only provided a few glimmers of good acting. What the film did most of all for me was something that even a bad film can do; spark memory and allow you to relate. During my entire viewing of Evening, I thought back to incidents in my own life that these cinema ciphers enacted on the screen. It is so strange how film, if you allow it to envelop you, even if it isn't very good, can still affect you. Mediocre films can be easily ignored and that veil of separating yourself from your place in current time can be dispelled so easily by a film's failure to entrance a viewer. The magic was there in Evening and it worked. Having a parent die slowly and trying to understand her musings as you sit beside her, wondering what her life was really like as a younger person (we rarely think of our parents as once young); these scenes in the film struck me strongly.

But, most of all, the thoughts of the younger Me and my relationships years ago with a family of my own acquaintance. My friendships with those people and the people I met through them; people I loved and those I disliked and who all changed me in some way and the way I thought about my true self. The hurts felt by Ann and Buddy; the misunderstandings and not speaking your mind and the guilt were all there on the screen and igniting the fuses of memory in my mind. Certain little incidents or scenes in the film made each of those memories explode ... thoughts I might express through the delirium of the twilight moments of my own end; secrets told to no one and known but to a few ... especially the love we feel and not speak of or act upon with the people we encounter in life or with our relations and parents ... and the moments of having our talents displayed to others who applaud us and see bright futures on the horizon that only turn to haze and clouds. Maybe, as the film tries to tell us, those mistakes don't really matter. Those incidents were wonderful, painful and educational, but whatever they meant at the time, what we thought to be so important, dismissive or earth shaking ... we still survive. Maybe what we did do or didn't was meant to happen and brought us to where we are today. We can still look back and regret and cherish and wonder what if ...? Maybe we can learn and hold dear what we did gain or what steps led us to where we now stand or those whom we have met and cared for even if we hadn't taken those other roads. I don't know if that is all true. But, I do know Evening provided the magic of taking me back to my past and making me think ... and that is one of the reasons why I love movies.