Wednesday, November 26, 2008


More is less

By Edward Copeland
When you are in a situation such as I am, restricted to watching new movies on DVD, it's always a bit of a disappointment when you find out you're not watching what people saw in theaters. I don't examine the discs that closely and since they come in a by-mail service, I don't get the DVD case pointing out extended cuts. This was the case with Tropic Thunder.

I thought the film seemed a little flabby, but I didn't realize it include extra footage edited back into the film until I listened to the commentary by Ben Stiller, Jack Black and Robert Downey Jr.

What's amazing is that the material added wasn't stuff deemed too racy or over the line but scenes that director Stiller admits slowed down the pace. Even more puzzling is they were recording the commentary for this longer cut on the same day of the shorter version's premiere.

If Stiller admits these added bits slow things down, why not just file them in a deleted scene extras? Even better: Why not do as other films such as Forgetting Sarah Marshall did on its DVD and give the viewer the option of watching either the theatrical version or the extended cut. As a result, can I fairly assess Tropic Thunder the way a critic who saw it in the theater would have?

There are many funny bits and Downey is a riot (and am I not mistaken, or is that a deadon Russell Crowe he's doing when he talks in his character's real Australian accent?).

Tom Cruise's extended cameo is funny but I never for a minute forgot it was Tom Cruise.

Still, I keep going back to the fact that it should have been tighter and since I can't compare it to the way people saw it in the theater, I'll never know the answer.

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Sunday, November 23, 2008


It's not a chick flick, but it is a damn good movie

By Edward Copeland
Before I begin expounding in earnest about why I love Terms of Endearment (which turns 25 today) so much, I'd like to talk about an old bugaboo of mine that I haven't spoken of at length on these virtual pages: There is no such thing as a chick flick. There are merely good movies, bad movies and those in between and Terms of Endearment is a very good movie and if you disagree as astronaut Garrett Breedlove so memorably says, "You need a lot of drinks." Not to break the ice, but to kill the bug you have up your ass.

Let's get this chick flick nonsense out of the way quickly so we can get on to the movie. I've enumerated my points against the phrase.

1. It assumes only women will like the movie

It's insulting to say something that has subject matter about women (which nine times out of 10 are written by men) will not be understood or appreciated by men if the movie is a good one. The corollary also is true as there is no such thing as a "guy movie." I've known plenty of women who have loved Die Hard as much as men.

2. The label is too often used to excuse bad movies

If a male critic reviews a movie (let's say Beaches) and says it's bad, some will try to dismiss the criticism because "it's a chick flick" as if that makes it some sort of special needs child that needs its own grading scale. No. Terms of Endearment succeeds as a great movie. Beaches just sucks in a supremely mediocre way (and I'm being kind in only calling it that).

3. It is insulting to women.

In much the same way, it assumes a "chick flick" won't appeal to any man, it assumes that all women have the same tastes. All movie opinions are subjective. I'm sure there are women who don't like Terms or Beaches or countless others saddled with that label. There's nothing wrong with them but there is something wrong with people who want to pigeonhole every member of an entire gender into one way of thinking on a subject.

Meanwhile, on to more important matters, namely the film writing and directing debut of James L. Brooks. His mark on television itself was fairly impressive: producing and writing on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Taxi among others and later going on to executive produce The Simpsons. Very few people win three Oscars for the same movie, so Brooks' achievement with his adaptation of Larry McMurtry's novel Terms of Endearment proves quite an impressive film directing debut. His second writing-directing effort, Broadcast News, would turn out even better though Oscar failed to smile on it. Brooks' big-screen efforts since have ranged from middling (As Good As It Gets) to downright awful (Spanglish). Though Terms has a reputation as one of the great tearjerkers — and don't get me wrong, unless you are made of stone, tears will be shed — its essence is more that of a comedy. Brooks builds to the tonal shift quite stealthily, adding the elements of dysfunction in the marriage of Emma and Flap Horton (the too-seldom-seen Debra Winger and the underappreciated Jeff Daniels) but using the comic courtship of Aurora (Shirley MacLaine) and Garrett Breedlove (Jack Nicholson) as a counterbalance to keep it light. Brooks admits in the DVD commentary that in many ways he felt he had to do it that way so he could use the word cancer to cause a spit take late in the film. He does and it works. Perhaps Brooks' greatest feat was his invention of Breedlove, who didn't exist in McMurtry's novel, where Aurora was pursued by a vast array of suitors, a little bit of which remains in the film, but Nicholson's Oscar-winning astronaut is one of the many ingredients that lifts the movie into the stratosphere. (It's interesting that two of the best films of 1983 involved astronauts, the fictional one here and the real ones in The Right Stuff.)

In fact, Brooks' achievement would have been impossible without the cast he assembled. Some find MacLaine's Oscar-winning turn too shrill and over-the-top, but Aurora Greenway is shrill and over-the-top and, to me at least, it was the performance of MacLaine's career. Her only serious competition that year was in the very same movie and in an ideal world, she and Debra Winger would have tied because every time I watch Terms of Endearment, Winger's performance impresses me more than the last time. Watching her again, parts of Emma reminded me of a friend I loved dearly and still miss and whose birthday would have been tomorrow. Whether it's expressing pure joy or pure anger, she never strikes a false note. Bob Newhart has a reputation for doing the greatest comic telephone call routines ever. I'd make the case that Winger is the greatest telephone scene actress ever, making every one of the numerous calls between Aurora and Emma seem real and punctuating them with wit and pathos. While those three principals snagged Oscar nominations (and two won), John Lithgow also grabbed a nomination for his small but sweet role as an Iowa banker who has an affair with Emma. Jeff Daniels as Emma's disappointing husband Flap didn't earn as much attention as he should have, something that seems to have plagued Daniels to this day. Will he ever earn an Oscar nomination for anything?

The smaller roles largely were cast with local Houston-area actors and wise selections were made such as Lisa Hart Carroll as Patsy and Betty R. King as Rosie. They didn't reprise their roles in the sequel, The Evening Star, which holds the distinction of being the worst sequel ever made to an Oscar-winning best picture. Actually, I've never seen The Sting II, where Jackie Gleason and Mac Davis took over the Newman and Redford roles, but I'll give it the benefit of the doubt that it can't be worse than The Evening Star. I'd rather stick needles in my eyes than sit through The Evening Star again. Terms of Endearment, however, always will hold a place in my heart.

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Monday, November 17, 2008


Hail, hail Freedonia!

NOTE: Ranked No. 17 on my all-time top 100 of 2012

By Edward Copeland
Can one of the greatest nonsensical farces ever made also be a savvy statement on the absurdity of war? The case could be made as far as the Marx Brothers' brilliant Duck Soup goes. After all, Kubrick had originally planned to end Dr. Strangelove with a pie fight. Duck Soup turns 75 today.

Directed by Leo McCarey, the film opens with a quite literal representation of the film's stars and titles: The Four Marx Brothers in Duck Soup as four real ducks swim in a pan of water. Yes, poor, bland Zeppo still is along for this outing, though it would be his last film with his better-known and wackier brothers.

The setting is the cash-strapped country of Freedonia, dependent on handouts from the wealthy widow (Margaret Dumont) of one of the country's founders. This time, she agrees to bail them out only if the current leader agrees to resign in favor of one Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho).

Meanwhile, the ambassador of neighboring Sylvania (Louis Calhern) is plotting to annex Freedonia for Sylvania, by hook or by crook. Unfortunately, though he appears devious and well-heeled, he somehow thinks it's a good idea to put Sylvania's fate in the hands of two spies (Chico and Harpo). The dialogue flies fast and furious and you'll never catch all the lines on the first viewing but any Marx Brothers film deserves to be seen more than once, especially this one, which I consider their best. I mean, this one has the mirror sequence alone. Their style of comedy is in many ways the precursor of the kind of wackiness that would be practiced decades later in films such as Airplane! or The Naked Gun. Still, it's once the war gets going in Duck Soup, that it truly gets surreal, interspersing bizarre musical numbers and placing Groucho in military uniforms from different eras in each new scene. The whole premise (and movie) is supposed to be ridiculous, but it's difficult not to see that there is something beneath the surface saying that about war in general. And some crazy comics shall lead them...

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Friday, November 14, 2008


Raider of a lost art

By Edward Copeland
I can't recall whether it was Time or Newsweek, but I remember the cover: Harrison Ford and Karen Allen tied to a post. I'm fairly certain the name Spielberg hadn't entered my consciousness, even though I loved Jaws. I hadn't seen Close Encounters or 1941 or The Sugarland Express for that matter (though I had seen Duel). I could hardly wait for Raiders of the Lost Ark and when my 12-year-old enthusiasm got to see the movie, I loved it. As the years went by, each time I saw Raiders, I liked it a little less, so it was with dread when I faced the prospect of a fourth installment 27 years after the original.

Because of my health problems this year, I couldn't see Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull in the theater. I knew most of the twists ahead of the time. Even worse (or better, depending on your point of view), the week before I saw it on DVD I saw the hilarious South Park episode that had the kids trying to get Spielberg and George Lucas arrested for "raping Indiana Jones."

Now, while I don't feel what Crystal Skull did was that bad, it certainly wasn't a very good movie. I hated Temple of Doom from the first time I saw it, but I thought Last Crusade was enjoyable enough. Crystal Skull was just a bore. It just made me think about how Raiders diminished in my eyes over time. I remember reading Pauline Kael's review after my mind had started to change and her writeup crystallized my thoughts. That wasn't the only time it had happened with a Spielberg film either. While E.T. held me in wonder when it first came out, years later when I saw it again, I found myself mocking it as I watched it. Now, if I do like a Spielberg film when I first see it such as Minority Report or Catch Me if You Can, I'm afraid to re-watch it because with the exception of the glorious and incomparable Jaws, Spielberg's movies don't wear very well. Schindler's List was great both times I saw it, but it's not exactly the type of film you want to pop some popcorn for and kick back for a carefree evening of moviewatching with friends. When thinking about what to say in this piece, I realized that Spielberg is one of the few acclaimed directors that you seldom hear discussing movies or filmmakers who influenced him. Granted, not everyone can be a Scorsese, who gets positively giddy discussing obscure films he saw as a child, but I almost wonder did any films make an impression on Spielberg? Is that why so many of his feel so thin, either from the get-go or over time?

I recently saw an interview Elvis Mitchell did with Edward Norton where Norton talked about how Spike Lee would try to screen a movie every night while they filmed 25th Hour. One night, Lee showed Midnight Cowboy and when it was done, he turned to Norton and said, "Still a muthafucker." Does Spielberg ever show films to his cast and crew to give them an idea of what he's after like so many other directors do or is that why sometimes so many seem to be in different movies at the same time. It seems to me that Spielberg turned into a corporation before he had a chance to grow as an artist. The same year he released E.T. was the year he began to be a producing machine with Poltergeist, with varying degrees of success from the drudgery of The Goonies to the brilliance of Back to the Future, which is better than most of the films Spielberg has actually directed. For me, the greatest film Spielberg has made remains Jaws, which I never tire of watching. I wonder if he's watched it lately. Maybe he should. Maybe he'll spot something he's lost.

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Tuesday, November 11, 2008


It's tough being a deaf-mute saint

By Edward Copeland
Alan Arkin received his second Oscar nomination for playing John Singer, a deaf-mute man who exudes so much goodness and light that his very presence seems to change everyone he comes in contact with in 1968's The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter.

He tries to be a guardian for a mentally challenged man (Chuck McCann). He helps an African-American doctor (Percy Rodrigues) to see that not all white people are bad. He gets a brawling drunk (Stacy Keach) back on his feet. He helps a teen (Sondra Locke) whose family owns the boarding house in which she stays to find her own voice. The scene where Singer turns water into wine or brings the dead back to life must have been cut for time considerations.

Locke also received an Oscar nomination and she's almost as bad as she is in all the films she made while boinking Clint Eastwood, though she isn't quite as annoying, even with her awful fake Southern accent.

I know Arkin isn't really deaf, but if this had been based on a true story, Singer would have been fortunate not to hear all the bad accents around him.

Arkin is a good actor, but Singer is a blank slate. There are few times that you see any display of emotion, let alone hints of his background.

At first, it seems as if McCann is his brother, but it's only later you realize that Singer has taken responsibility for him.

Robert Ellis Miller's direction keeps the movie crawling along in its state of reverence. The saintly treatment of the Singer character makes the film's conclusion even more puzzling, since there are no clues leading up to it.

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Sunday, November 09, 2008


Gathering some moss

By Edward Copeland
If you love rock 'n' roll and are of a certain age or older, you really need to have seen the Rolling Stones live because film can't do them justice, even if it's a film directed by Martin Scorsese.

My sole experience with seeing the Stones live was in 1997 at the Citrus Bowl in Orlando during their Bridges to Babylon tour. Later, I told a music writer friend of mine that the electric nature of the event made me want to have sex to which he replied that there was no greater endorsement of a rock concert.

The same cannot be said about Shine a Light. The movie starts with a handicap, given the glut of Stones concert films over the years and the fact that Scorsese has made the great rock documentary The Last Waltz as well as the Dylan exploration No Direction Home.

While the performances in Shine a Light are fine, I couldn't help but wonder what the point was. The best parts of the film end up being the archival footage of old interviews with the band.

Shine a Light isn't a bad film, just an unnecessary one.

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