Monday, August 31, 2009
From the Vault: Menace II Society
No recent film has deserved as much praise while simultaneously proving as difficult to recommend than Menace II Society. The first film by 21-year-old twins Albert and Allen Hughes, who directed and conceived the screenplay with Tyger Williams, provides yet another stunningly assured debut by the growing crop of young filmmakers.
Menace II Society takes a grim and somewhat depressing look at urban life in Los Angeles, never shying away from showing the brutality of 1993 Watts. The viewer may feel compelled to look away, but its artistry and shocking candor keeps eyes glued to the screen.
The film tells the story of Caine (Tyrin Turner), a recent high school grad who learned to survive on the streets after the deaths of both parents. He deals drugs and commits many crimes.
To its credit, the film doesn't portray Caine as a villain or a sympathetic victim of circumstance -- he's just a product of his environs.
The film probably will draw comparisons to John Singleton's excellent 1991 film Boyz N the Hood, but Menace II Society doesn't even offer the smallest dashes of hope that Boyz did and it avoids the melodramatic tendencies that hampered Singleton's film.
Menace II Society, for me at least, more closely resembles Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer with its unflinching portrait of a madman.
Both films are compelling and unpleasant and by the end of each, the audience longs for better lives for their protagonists, despite their heinous crimes. Toward the end of Menace II Society, when Caine lashes out at a drunken friend, you're relieved he only uses the butt of a gun instead of its bullets.
Luckily, like Henry, this film doesn't let the audience off the hook with the happy endings to which they've become accustomed. Instead, the Hughes brothers' strict adherence to their vision produces one of the most powerful films in recent memory. No other recent film has made me feel sadder or more helpless.
The actors excel, especially Turner in the difficult role of Caine, and Larenz Tate as his dangerous friend O-Dog, who earns comparisons to Joe Pesci's Tommy in Goodfellas. Veterans Samuel L. Jackson, Charles S. Dutton and Bill Duke also provide strong cameos.
Those brave enough to sit through this film will not only be rewarded with a great movie but will probably ponder Menace II Society for a long time. Given the subject matter, anything that spurs discussion and contemplation of the difficult issues it raises deserves accolades.
Labels: 90s, Hughes Brothers, Pesci, Samuel L. Jackson, Zemeckis
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Sunday, August 30, 2009
From the Vault: The Remains of the Day
In many ways, The Remains of the Day, the latest effort from the team of James Ivory, Ismail Merchant and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, surpasses the great achievement they made with last year's Howards End.
Anthony Hopkins stars as Stevens, a British butler who puts his work above all else. He's a great servant, but a sad, lonely man. He hires lovely women for the household staff then ignores them once they are there. His only loyalty belongs to Lord Darlington (James Fox), the master of the house.
Adapted from the award-winning novel by Kazuo Ishiguro, The Remains of the Day begins in flashback in 1958 as Stevens takes a journey to remedy past slights and to reminisce about life in Darlington Hall.
The mistakes that Stevens focuses on are the missed opportunity for love with the former housekeeper Miss Kenton (Emma Thompson) and his ambivalence to Lord Darlington's nature as a Nazi apologist.
The story's scope isn't of great importance but like The Age of Innocence, it is an excellent period piece about repressed emotions and social mores.
Hopkins creates as vivid a portrait of loneliness and devotion to one's job as I've ever seen.
The film, for me at least, marks the best Merchant Ivory production yet. Ivory's direction is at his most polished and as enchanting as he's ever achieved.
All technical aspects are top notch as well from sets to cinematography to musical score. The entire package achieves a hypnotic triumph.
In the end though, Hopkins' performance gives the film its most important lift. Stevens, who speaks through his eyes and facial expressions, would be difficult for anyone of lesser talent to pull off. Fortunately for The Remains of the Day — and for audiences — Hopkins remains one of the most talented actors working today.
Labels: 90s, Emma Thompson, Hopkins, Merchant Ivory
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Saturday, August 29, 2009
From the Vault: Falling Down
While Falling Down had potential as both an anguished middle-class cry and as a portrait of the makings of a madman, it fails on both counts and ends up being a slow, predictable outing.
Michael Douglas stars as a laid-off defense worker who snaps while in a Los Angeles traffic jam and begins to make the long walk to his daughter's house for her birthday.
On his way, Douglas embarks on an After Hours-type journey through a kaleidoscope of urban situations ranging from consumer disputes to life-threatening situations.
Falling Down also offers the parallel — and even more predictable — element of Robert Duvall as an L.A. detective on his last day of retirement. He could have easily become like Douglas' character, but he played by the rules and suffered through the system.
Though Duvall's performs well as always, his scenes tend to bog down the film instead of illuminating its themes, especially when he gets frequent phone calls from his unstable wife (Tuesday Weld).
Joel Schumacher's typically sluggish direction doesn't help matters since the script seems uncertain what direction to take the story. When Douglas' character pointedly asks, "I'm the bad guy?", you have to believe it's because he's received as many mixed signals from the screenplay as the audience.
Douglas does give one of his more assured performances, but he still shows his tendency toward self-consciousness. The film tries too hard at times to make him sympathetic, especially in an inexplicable scene involving his ex-wife (Barbara Hershey) and the police in which the movie seems to be saying he's only perceived as dangerous because Hershey thinks he is.
Frederic Forrest gives the film's best performance in a brief bit as a neo-Nazi store owner who believes he's found a kindred spirit and fellow merchant of hate in Douglas.
What Falling Down represents most is a missed opportunity. If the script had been more sharply written and the film directed with more verve, Douglas' character might have been a Howard Beale for the '90s. Instead, he's just a dull madman who gets what he deserves.
Labels: 90s, Barbara Hershey, Duvall, M. Douglas
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Friday, August 28, 2009
From the Vault: Howards End
For three decades, the team of producer Ismail Merchant, director James Ivory and screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala have collaborated on quality motion pictures. In 1992, they've produced their finest effort so far with Howards End.
Following adaptations of E.M. Forster novels "A Room With a View" and "Maurice," the Merchant-Ivory team finds their greatest source material in another of Forster's works.
From outward appearances, this production may look like something that belongs on PBS' "Masterpiece Theater," but the passions bubble beneath the surface of this drama of love, class and real estate, involving the viewer in a way few films do.
Emma Thompson proves effervescent in her role as Margaret Schlegel, the kind bridge between the aristocratic Wilcox family, her own clan and an unhappily married clerk named Leonard Best.
Helena Bonham-Carter portrays Margaret's sister Helen, the feisty center of all the conflicts that occur between the families, especially the initial romantic misunderstanding with one of the Wilcoxes' sons.
Margaret, concerned that the Wilcoxes think badly of her family, reaches out to the Wilcox matriarch Ruth (radiantly played by Vanessa Redgrave). Margaret's earthy goodness touches Ruth so deeply that she bequeaths the Wilcoxes' treasured homestead, Howards End, to Margaret.
The inheritance doesn't sit well with the Wilcox patriarch, the stiff Henry (Anthony Hopkins giving a superb performance that, in its own way, proves more frightening that Hannibal Lecter).
Determined not to lose the estate, Henry sets out to woo Margaret. The plot developments seem perfectly tuned as they subtly touch upon all the themes, especially the problems of conscience and class. The entire cast excels and the production values are exceedingly high. Don't miss the opportunity to see Howards End in a theater.
Labels: 90s, Emma Thompson, H.B. Carter, Hannibal Lecter, Hopkins, Merchant Ivory, Vanessa Redgrave
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Thursday, August 27, 2009
From the Vault: Blade Runner
Mood triumphs in Blade Runner and the audience prospers with the chance to see this 1982 visual spectacle back on the big screen. Not only is the amazing widescreen imagery of Ridley Scott and the outstanding imagining of Los Angeles in 2019 spared from the evils of home video, but Scott takes advantage of the chance to re-release the film the way he originally wanted — sans narration and with a different ending.
Personally, the re-release offered me a rare opportunity: I never saw the original cut in the theater and since I had no access to a letterboxed copy that preserved its widescreen images, I couldn't sit through it on television. Therefore, I viewed the film with fresh eyes.
Harrison Ford stars as the blade runner, a 21st-century cop whose job is to "retire" errant replicants on earth. He's hardened and unwilling to take his assignment, but relents anyway. His character and the movie mix an interesting brew of science fiction and film noir.
While the film slows down at times, it never lacks for hypnotic visuals thanks to the brilliant set design and unique vision. From the towering video images on skyscrapers to the bizarre world inside J.F. Sebastian's apartment, Blade Runner creates a fascinating world.
If the film contains any real problem, it's that its temperature registers so cooly. It succeeds at attaining a certain ambiance, but it suffers by not delving more deeply into the human aspects of the story.
It hints at them, through Sean Young's performance as Rachel, a replicant who believes she's human, but it doesn't quite satisfy on that level. For pure imagery though, this 1982 film offers more than practically the entire crop of summer films combined. Don't miss the chance not only to see Scott's preferred version but to watch it on the big screen, the only place that will do it justice.
Labels: 80s, Harrison Ford, R. Scott
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Wednesday, August 26, 2009
From the Vault: Dazed and Confused
With his second feature, Richard Linklater cements his place as the preeminent chronicler of the 13th generation. The 13th generation refers to those born since 1961, so named by authors Neil Howe and Bill Strauss because they are the 13th generation to know the American flag.
As with his great film Slacker, Linklater's Dazed and Confused veers off the obvious route of angst-ridden twentysomethings trying to cope in the 1990s.
In Slacker, Linklater evoked that generation without focusing exclusively on that demographic. Instead, he created characters of all ages who embodied that spirit. In Dazed and Confused, he takes an almost anthropological approach by vividly recreating the year 1976 as a pivotal point in the evolution of both 13ers and baby boomers.
The story starts on May 26, 1976, as the school year is coming to a close. In the small, unnamed town, the annual ritual begins of incoming seniors (class of '77) celebrating their new rank by initiating the newly minted freshmen (class of '80) with various hazing rituals.
Though Dazed offers a skeletal plot, it's not aiming for story. Rather, it's focused on flawlessly re-creating a time and place. With the use of vintage music, it could be labeled as Linklater's American Graffiti, only he doesn't bother to tell you where the characters go once the film ends.
The performers, few of whom are recognizable from other work, all play their parts naturally and effortlessly. No star turns pop out because the bulk of the characters are equal in the film's context.
When Linklater first worked on Dazed and Confused, he was quoted as saying that its subject was the transformation of 1960s values into the Me Generation and that change dwells beneath the surface of Dazed and Confused, but Linklater doesn't allow the theme to overpower the fun.
The class of '80 were among the first 13ers to finish high school and the class of '77 marked the tail end of the boomers. Though the differences are subtle, Linklater delineates them as the freshmen see the shallowness in the seniors' traditions. At the same time, the seniors' idealism has been whittled down to refusing to take no-drug pledges and in admitting that aiding the less fortunate isn't as lucrative as going for the gold.
Ultimately, the subtext doesn't distract from the enjoyment of the film, which depicts high school life that any generation can relate to, with the chronic need to belong and the fear and anticipation of what lies ahead. It also happens to be incredibly funny. No one can truly say what will happen down the road. With Dazed and Confused, Linklater does hold out the promise that the 13th generation will produce artists whose talents grow with them.
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Monday, August 24, 2009
Using starpower to get fluff off the ground
By Edward Copeland
When you think of them separately, just by the disparity of their film roles, there are few starker choices for romance than Cary Grant and Robert Mitchum, but that's the quandary Deborah Kerr finds herself in Stanley Donen's 1960 film of the play The Grass Is Greener.
It is essentially a five-character comedy and the lightest of fare that would float away into nonexistence if not for the three stars named above and a fun fourth wheel played by Jean Simmons.
Grant and Kerr play the Rhyalls, a down-on-their-luck English pair who have taken to showing off their stately manor to tourists to help make ends meet, meaning the public have more access to their home than they have private rooms. The situation has grated on Hilary (Kerr) until one day an American oil millionaire named Charles Delacro (Mitchum) wanders off the tour and into the private section and proceeds to charm Hilary.
Before she knows it, she's planning a trip to London for shopping and hairdressing and a nice little affair but Victor (Grant) is sharp enough to know what the game is. Hilary mistakes Victor's attitude for indifference but with the aide of a gossipy, fun-loving friend of the couple (Simmons), Victor is determined to keep his wife by inviting Charles to the estate for a weekend, knowing it's when Hilary was planning to return as well.
The only other character of note is the Rhyalls' faithful butler Sellers (Moray Watson), who is really good at following orders.
The Grass Is Greener was written by Hugh Williams and Margaret Vyner, who wrote the original play and the stage roots definitely show. The laughs are not exactly uproarious and Donen does what he can with the pacing, but it's the cast who keeps the film from falling flat.
Grant has to tone down his natural charms to make the competition seem reasonable and Mitchum plays quite against type as the debonair tycoon. Still, Simmons seems to be the performer having the most fun. If it weren't for the cast, The Grass Is Greener would be instantly forgettable.
Labels: 60s, Cary, Deborah Kerr, Donen, Jean Simmons, Mitchum
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Thursday, August 20, 2009
Kindred comic spirits
By Edward Copeland
When Paul Rudd first started to appear in films, I didn't think much of him. Be it Clueless or The Object of My Affection or The Cider House Rules, he left me cold. Granted, it didn't help that I didn't care for the films either, but I found him forgettable.
Then Rudd started appearing in movies such as Wet Hot American Summer and The 40-Year-Old Virgin that showed off his subversive comic spirit and I went from having an indifferent attitude toward him to looking forward to his appearances, big or small, because I knew I'd be rewarded in some ways. Teamed with another favorite of mine, Freaks & Geeks alum Jason Segel, in I Love You, Man, I found rewards a-plenty.
I can't really think of another film that hits upon a similar storyline that I Love You, Man does (and I refuse to employ that word people tried to coin for it), but I think there's a wider look at relationships contained within the film than most gave it at first glance.
Rudd plays Peter Klaven, a Los Angeles realtor who proposes to his live-in girlfriend Zooey (Rashida Jones). Zooey excitedly shares the news with her bevy of female friends, but Peter has no one really to let in on the joy other than his family (the comic troika of J.K. Simmons, Jane Curtin and Andy Samberg). It seems that Peter has never been one to have close male friends, just bouncing from girlfriend to girlfriend since adolescence.
With the idea of a wedding party heavily weighted on the bride's side and no non-relative as a candidate to be Peter's best man, he embarks on a sudden search for male friends. As one would expect, you can't force friendships, but one does occur naturally when he meets Sydney Fife (Segel) at an open house Peter is holding for the massive home of Lou Ferrigno.
That's basically the story and it is very funny as the brash and painfully honest Sydney brings out new sides to Peter, both good and ill. I laughed more than I have at a movie in a while, especially since almost every role, no matter the size, is cast with comic pros too numerous to mention (personal favorites: Zooey's married friends played by Jon Favreau and Jaime Pressly).
One thought that crossed my mind though is how most people insist that all lives must be lived according to the shapes of the accepted cookie cutters. A man can't be satisfied without male friends. People of either gender can't live happy lives without romantic involvement, etc., etc. While I Love You, Man focuses mainly on the one, other types of lives do dance around the edges.
Directed by John Hamburg who co-wrote the script with Larry Levin, it's only in the last third that I Love You, Man begins to lose a little steam and the final complications and resolutions are predictable, but that didn't prevent me from being touched by them nonetheless.
It's a more successful lead vehicle for Rudd than Role Models, even though that one had more than its share of positives as well. I almost wish Rudd could be my best friend (he's exactly 10 days older than me), but as long as he keeps making me laugh a lot, I'll settle for that.
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Tuesday, August 18, 2009
A Laugh an Inch
Probably the most famous thing about Woody Allen’s 1980 film Stardust Memories is the self-referential recurring joke of fans telling a filmmaker that they prefer his “earlier, funnier movies” to his more artistic efforts. Take the Money and Run is Allen’s directorial debut (after he virtually disowned What’s Up, Tiger Lily?), and serves as the epitome of the comic’s “earlier, funnier” era. The film is a parade of pure silliness, utilizing the type of humor I find endearing in the director’s older films but annoying in his recent efforts; I easily forget that this zaniness is still an integral part of Allen’s personality. Take the Money and Run is Allen before the trademark title card and Windsor font, before his patented “neurotic Jew” persona, before the incredibly long takes and beautifully understated cinematography. This is Allen 40 years ago.
In the mockumentary Take the Money and Run, Woody Allen plays Virgil Starkwell, a robber so incompetent you wonder why anyone would care to chronicle his life. In an attempt to escape prison, Virgil fashions a fake gun out of a block of soap, but walks out into the pouring rain only to be left with a handful of bubbly suds. When he tries to rob a bank using a threatening note, the teller instead argues with him about his handwriting. His parents wear Groucho Marx disguises out of shame during interviews.
Voice-over narration drives most of the film — particularly the first half — as we’re taken through Virgil’s history as an inept criminal. With the narrator doing most of the talking, the action on screen requires little dialogue, turning the film into something of a silent comedy. Despite being such a talker, Woody Allen loves the silent brand of humor, and plays it up in Take the Money and Run. It’s all in the way he moves his arms, shoulders, and face.
The heavy narration also allows the film to fly through the plot, and for a while, the film exists as a long string of quick setups and crisp zingers. The director hoped for every inch of the film to be a laugh, so the script wastes little time when jumping from joke to joke. It can be quite jarring to see a Woody Allen film moving along at such a rapid pace. Instead of 14-second shots (the average length in Annie Hall), Take the Money and Run features quick cuts lasting only a second or two before the film moves on to something else. The movie eventually slows down and you begin to catch signs of Allen’s future style at an early stage. Jokes are set up with more dialogue and scenes last a little long, using single takes. This pace difference creates a slight imbalance, but the contrast fascinates when you compare it with the director’s cinematic evolution over that past four decades.
These days, a good comedy provides its audience with plenty of hearty laughs, but is lucky to offer even just one show-stopping moment, causing that uncontrollable nearly-epic laughter, the kind that draws looks from other audience members. It’s the kind of laughter that causes you to miss the next bits of dialogue because you can’t hear over your own guffaws. It’s the kind that still has you chuckling three or four scenes later. Take the Money and Run provides not one, but several of these moments, some of which I remembered about and still laughed at uncontrollably. It makes sense that the film could have so many explosive moments, as it packs so many punch-lines into such a short running time. I see it almost like the filmmaker’s career: he makes so many movies that he’s bound to land a couple of great ones just from the law of averages alone.
These show-stopping moments are not just funny because the situations are absurd; they’re funny because Allen’s character is so sincere in these ridiculous circumstances. Virgil driving a car inside of a house trying to kill a woman but never breaking anything is pretty funny. What makes it outrageously funny is the brief shot of his face as he chases the woman, almost blank with determination. When Virgil plays cello for a marching band, it’s his earnest but unsuccessful attempt to play his instrument that makes me laugh, even as he must pick up his chair and move it along with the band every few seconds. When he tries to smuggle guard uniforms out of the prison laundry room by putting them on under his own clothes, his outrageously puffed up appearance is only half the joke, the other half being the self-congratulatory smirk on his face. Different people tell jokes in different ways. Some laugh with you the entire time they relay the story, barely able to finish telling it; Seth Rogen or Will Ferrell films usually exude that same personality. Take the Money and Run, with its pseudo-documentary style, is the straight-faced joker. His words are silly, absurd, and hilarious, but his face is always serious, making the story that much funnier.
Once Annie Hall took off in 1977, it seemed that Woody Allen’s style and persona were set in this perfect balance of comedy and bittersweet insight. For too long, any deviations to the more slapstick or dramatic were seen as detours from the “right path for him.” To remember Take the Money and Run, in all of its unapologetic wackiness, imperfect freneticism, and simple endearment, is to remember a time when the director was unafraid to let his nutty side out. Allen’s no longer the same man who made the “earlier, funnier movies,” but he’s still got that side in him.
Labels: 60s, Movie Tributes, Seth Rogen, Woody
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Centennial Tributes: Marcel Carné
By Edward Copeland
Usually when I do a Centennial Tribute, it's an overview of a person's career, hitting his or her highlights and emphasizing the importance of the man or woman. In the case of Marcel Carné, I'm taking a different tact. Time and other issues prevented me from delving more deeply into his filmography. Besides, it also gave me a chance to write in depth about his masterpiece, Children of Paradise. Every time I watch that film, it rises in my estimation. In my list of my top 100 films I compiled in 2007, it ranked at No. 18. Watching it again, I think if I re-did that list, it would rise even higher, though I'm not sure how high. I just know that having watched it for what I believe was the sixth time, I was as compelled as ever by this remarkable work, made all the more amazing when you are aware that it was being filmed in France during the German occupation of World War II.
More times than not, it seems that the greatest films are rather simple on the surface with complexities layered below for viewers to plumb if they choose. It doesn't affect the outcome either way and that's certainly the case with the greatest of Children of Paradise. The movie was the sixth collaboration of Carné as director with Jacques Prévert working on the screenplay. (Prévert actually earned an Oscar nomination for original screenplay.) In 1979, Carné received a special Cesar award (the French equivalent of the Oscar) naming Children of Paradise as the best French film made in the era of talkies. Beginning in the late 1820s, Children of Paradise at its heart a backstage drama as well as a romantic quadrangle where four men, three of whom were historical figures, chasing one woman. Arletty plays the woman, who goes by the name of Garance. As the film opens, she spends her time in the company of the real-life criminal Pierre-François Lacenaire (Marcel Herrand), though the relationship doesn't appear to be a romantic one. Lacenaire dresses somewhat as a dandy with a set of curls dripping across his forehead and frills protruding from his shirt. He says he declared war on humanity long ago and his heart doesn't beat like others. In fact, Garance is the only woman he doesn't hold in contempt. He's a thief by need, a murderer by calling. Lacenaire also has a bit of an artistic bent, scribbling away mild farces on the side since he thinks tragedy is "an inferior genre." Garance meets the second man (and historical figure) outside on the Boulevard of Crime, which gives part one of Children of Paradise its title. Frédérick Lemaître (Pierre Brasseur) is at the beginning of what will be an illustrious acting career, but he's already well-versed in charming the ladies and living as a lothario. Garance resists his seduction but soon finds herself in legal trouble as she gets fingered as a pickpocket in a crowd for a crime committed by Lacenaire. The third real-life man comes to her rescue from his silent post outside the theater called the Funambules. Baptiste (Jean-Louis Barrault), a mime ridiculed by his father who manages the popular pantomime theater not only clears Garance, he does it in a silent performance that wows the crowd and finally leads to his rightful place within the company. Frédérick also gets a job there, though he's frustrated. He wants to act, but French theater of the time was a silent art and he's sapped of his greatest gift, his voice. He longs to play the classics, particularly his dream role of Othello, which becomes an underlying theme to the film as well as an obsession for Frédérick himself. Baptiste's feelings for Garance are the purest: He's instantly entranced and in love, despite his engagement to Nathalie (María Casarès), another member of the Funambules company. Despite his father's resistance to letting Baptiste on to the stage, he sees the financial possibilities and Baptiste proves to be a sensation, an instant star and makes the theater a even greater success. Frédérick adapts as well, though everyone recognizes that he's no mime, he's an actor. Even Garance gets in on the act after Baptiste rescues her a second time, when she finds herself out on the town with Lacenaire and his chief henchman Avril (Fabien Loris). A sinister ragman, snitch and pseudo-soothsayer named Jericho (Pierre Renoir, Jean's real-life brother) had already warned the inn's proprietor that trouble is on the way). When Garance goes to speak with Baptiste who is sharing a drink with a fake blind beggar (Gaston Modot, who played Schumacher in Jean Renoir's Rules of the Game), thinks Baptiste is encroaching on his boss's lady and gets rough with Baptiste, but let's just say all mimes aren't the gentle souls you think they are. Baptiste escorts Garance home but a sudden rainstorm, leaving both soaked so he's able to secure her a room in the Dickensian boarding house in which he lives and which and she gets the room adjacent to Frédérick. Baptiste gets her a job in the theater company, even though he's emotionally devastated once she starts basically living with Frédérick. Nathalie recognizes the pain in the face of the man she loves, even if it's hidden beneath his white makeup most of the time. The final man to enter Garance's orbit arrives late in part one and is the only one of Garance's suitor who is a fictional character. Édouard, Count de Montray (Louis Salou) catches Garance in a performance at the Funambules and finds himself enchanted. After the show, he meets her backstage with a huge arrangement of flowers. Garance doesn't seem to have much interest, but he gives her his card if she should ever change her mind. That chance comes sooner than she thinks when Lacenaire uses her name to rent a room as a setup to rob and almost kill a bank collector. The police come on strong and refuse to believe her protestations of innocence and even dredge up the old shoplifting charge. Forced into a corner, she whips out the count's car and so ends part one.
Children of Paradise was never intended to be a two-part film, but it was being filmed at a most difficult time in French history when many of its greatest filmmakers had fled the Nazi occupation and Germany had imposed strict rules over what could or could not be made. Most were short, light fare and anything serious tended to be period pieces. Any allusions in Children of Paradise were as subtle as possible, mainly through the negative image of the informer Jericho and the nasty vision of the police. The original producer of the film demanded that the film, which at roughly $1.5 million was the most expensive French film ever made, be filmed into two parts, even with two separate sets of credits, so they could charge more. (Part two is titled The Man In White and takes place six years after the end of The Boulevard of Crime.) By the time the film was released, a new producer was on board, but Carné was forced to stick to the original agreement. It's truly an amazing achievement. Though set in Paris, most of the sets, including the boulevard were constructed in a studio in Nice. War-related delays made the shoot a lengthy one. Pierre Renoir was not the first choice to play Jericho, but the original actor's scenes had to be re-shot when he was revealed to be a Nazi collaborator and after the Allies landed on D-Day, fled the country. Others who worked on the film have special credits of "clandestine collaboration" because of their Jewish heritage that forced others to serve as fronts for them. The director secretly enjoyed the delays because he wanted Children of Paradise to be the first film released in unoccupied France. For a three-hour film, it moves swiftly and fleetly as the story and wonderful images engross the viewers. The acting is strong across the board, particularly by Barrault and Herrand. Its richness deepens with each viewing and it always makes me why it took so long in my life to ever hear about it and why you still don't hear about this wondrous film as often as you should. In an introduction on the Criterion DVD, Terry Gilliam discusses how much of an influence Children of Paradise has had on him, particularly in Time Bandits and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. Carné just passed away in late 1996, but of course he didn't make the cut for the Oscar In Memoriam segment that year, so the Academy thumbing its nose at film history hasn't been something that just happened this year. No matter. They just don't know what they are missing and what they are missing are a masterwork of cinema, exquisitely produced under trying circumstances telling universally recognizable stories of love and betrayal, class and art. For fans of great film, it is a treasure to behold.
Labels: 40s, Carné, Dickens, Foreign, Ray Top 100, Renoir, Terry Gilliam
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Monday, August 17, 2009
The type of pivotal film few write about
By Edward Copeland
As a movie buff, it's routine to write about the films that wowed you, that left you mesmerized, that powered your love of the medium. However, there is another type of film that doesn't get talked about for its milestone status. At first glance, people would wonder, "Why in the hell is Edward Copeland wasting time marking the 30th anniversary of The Concorde — Airport '79?" Because when I saw that film at the tender age of 10, that's the first time I remember my critical faculties truly being engaged. Sure, I'd disliked movies before that, but The Concorde is the first movie I remember being able to tell people why it was so awful.
As a child of the '70s, it almost was inevitable that my early moviegoing experiences would involve A LOT of disaster films. On top of that, being the son of an air traffic controller, the Airport series also would have particular prominence. The original had good acting and pretty much worked despite its melodramatic tendencies. Its 1975 sequel, with a small plane crashing into the side of a jumbo jet, was nearly a laugh riot, though I couldn't appreciate that until seeing it again years later. In fact, the entire assemblage of passengers should have come with their own drummers to provide rim shots, especially Gloria Swanson playing herself, hurriedly dictating her memoirs. At the time, I actually enjoyed Airport '77, which sent the jumbo jet splashing to the bottom of the ocean because it was so well acted, though even then I questioned why the ocean seemed completely devoid of fish. Still, though each of the first three Airport films had their flaws, each disaster was plausible: man with a bomb, mid-air collision, crash into the ocean. This was not the case with The Concorde. When I had the idea to write this piece, I figured I'd better watch the movie again and not rely on 30-year-old memories. I'd hoped to rent it, but no one rents it. I actually went to to the trouble of buying a DVD set of all four Airport films because it was cheap enough, that I thought it was worth it.
I was surprised how accurate my memories of this atrocity were. Reading about the original critical reaction to Airport '79, apparently critics at the time laughed out loud so much at screenings of the film that the studio tried to change its marketing scheme and pretend that they intended it to be a comedy all along. Of course, the critics weren't laughing with it, they were laughing at it, much like the 1995 crowd of reviewers I was a part of reacted as we sat through the screening of The Scarlet Letter. Ironically, Airplane! was just a year away.
Susan Blakely more or less stars in the fourth Airport film as the dumbest television investigative reporter in history, and that's saying something. Apparently, she's a legend. So much so that a whistle-blower finds his way to her condo to inform her that the defense contractor that he works for has been selling arms illegally to countries such as Angola, Cuba and other baddies and he can prove it. Unfortunately, his life is in danger, so his wife will give her the papers later. Also, I guess he didn't realize that Blakely was dating and in love with the president of the company (Robert Wagner, who exhibited more believable evil in the Austin Powers films). No sooner does the man get his story out that a gunman walks in behind him and shoots him dead and starts chasing Blakely around her residence. She, of course, hides, in the place he'll never find her: on the roof of her condo's glass greenhouse. Fortunately, a stranger on the street pulls a fire alarm (though personally I've never seen fire alarms on poles on sidewalks, have you?) and the gunman gets scared off. This sure puts poor Wagner in a quandary because Blakely is leaving the next day on a flight on the Concorde to Moscow with a first stop in Paris. He meets her at the airport before she leaves and tries to convince her it's all lies but as she's boarding, the slain man's widow rolls up in a wheelchair with the documents which she takes on the flight. Wagner realizes that there is only one course of action: To keep Blakely from telling what she knows, he must use his weapons systems and any other tricks he knows to bring down the entire Concorde. Fortunately, Blakely has an unexpected ally on board, the only character who connects all four Airport films. Of course, Blakely's relationship with Wagner isn't the only storyline of questionable journalism ethics floating around Airport '79. There is the story of another television reporter (portrayed by John Davidson and his flowing mane of hair) covering the story of a Russian athlete (Andrea Marcovicci) who will be competing in the Moscow Olympics. Oh yeah, they also are having an affair and are secretly engaged. Since the film wasn't aware that President Carter would boycott the 1980 Olympics, not sure whether he would have still covered it since the U.S. team wouldn't be there.
George Kennedy once again plays Joe Patroni, a character who has the most bizarre career trajectory of anyone in a series of films and, perhaps, real life as well. In the original film, he managed ground operations at the airport at the center of the crisis, personally getting out on the runway to try to clear snow and planes from the path of the incoming jet with a hole in the side. By 1975, he somehow was an airlines communications official helping to oversee the press during the fallout of a mid-air collision. In 1977, he worked for another airline, offering advice on how to rescue passengers trapped on a submerged jumbo jet. Somehow, two years later, he's now been checked out to be a pilot on another airline's maiden run of their new Concorde jet. Of course, no matter what job you put Patroni in, he's always great in a crisis. So when Wagner's evil corporate titan tells his underlings to reprogram the coordinates on a test of their heat-seeking drones (none of the subordinates bother to ask why) and Patroni realizes that an armed missile has its sights on his plane, he has the bright idea to depressurize the cabin, open the window, fire a flare gun out the window and distract the drone. Shew. Even at 10, I couldn't help but exclaim, "That's really stupid."
When that doesn't work, somehow Wagner uses a connection he has in the French government to send a French fighter after it to fire guided missiles. Patroni outmaneuvers that plot as well. After they land in Paris (where the dumbest reporter in the world once again meets and makes out with the most inept would-be killer in the world), Wagner's henchmen plant an explosive to blow out the cargo hold during flight and disable the landing gear. Why, you may ask, didn't Wagner just have her killed on the ground in Paris? Because that might make sense. Once it blows, they have to make an emergency landing in a snowfield in the Alps. Unfortunately, rescue teams are there almost immediately and we miss the chance of watching them turn cannibalistic and start eating one another for survival.
Granted, the late '70s were a tough economic time, but is that enough to explain some of the actors who agreed to appear in this calamity? Bibi Andersson, a favorite of Ingmar Bergman, shows up in one sequence to give George Kennedy an unforgettable night of Paris love only to be revealed later as a high-price call girl. The other captain of the Concorde is Alain Delon, the Tom Ripley of Purple Noon, who is having an affair with a stewardess played by Sylvia Kristel of Emmanuelle fame. Cicely Tyson and Mercedes McCambridge even got roped into small roles. The rest of the ensemble reads like a Love Boat call sheet. Charo has a one scene cameo as a passenger who refuses to fly because they won't let her pet dog sit on her lap. Martha Raye plays a woman with a bladder control problem who is constantly running to the bathroom. Jimmie Walker also uses the bathroom a lot, but that is only to smoke his reefer when he's not playing his saxophone. Avery Schreiber also is aboard with his deaf daughter but, alas, no Doritos. Eddie Albert plays the president of the airline and his wife is none other than Sybil Danning.
Now, the actors who agreed to appear in this monstrosity weren't making it up as they went along. Others were responsible and they shouldn't escape culpability. The director was David Lowell Rich, who worked mainly in episodic television and who really can't be blamed beyond agreeing to helm this mess.
The real culprits go to the people who came up with the story and the screenplay. The story was credited to the late producer (including of this film) Jennings Lang. According to IMDb trivia, another producer, Walter Wanger, served six months in prison after he shot Lang in the groin because he believed Lang was sleeping with his wife, though that's not what killed Lang. This really has nothing to do with The Concorde — Airport '79, I'd just thought I'd toss it in.
The screenwriter, however, has risen to a revered place in Hollywood. He's since been nominated for four Academy Awards and won once. He's also lost a fortune in the Bernie Madoff scam. Yes, Eric Roth, screenwriter of Forrest Gump, The Insider, Munich and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, came up with the words for Airport '79. I wonder if it's still on his resume. Among the gems of dialogue, which were just as bad as the plot, was this exchange between Kristel and Kennedy.
Kristel: You pilots are such... men.
Kennedy: Well, they don't call it a cockpit for nothing.
One of my favorite writings by Pauline Kael was her reply whenever anyone asked her, "If you know so much about movies, why don't you make one?" to which she replied, "You don't have to know how to make an omelette to know if it tastes good." The opposite also is true. You don't have to know how to make an omelette to know when it's awful and even 10-year-old Edward Copeland recognized that in The Concorde — Airport '79 and he could tell you why as well.
Too often I think people who aren't movie buffs confuse criticism with snobbery and I can see how it can come off like that and in some cases probably is that, but it really is an inevitable side effect of being in love with the artform. The more you love movies, the more movies you want to see and the more that you see, the higher your standards will grow. A person who only sees 20 films or so a year will never be able to relate the quality of films to one another in the same way that someone who sees 200 films a year does. When you multiply that over decades, the standards gap grows wider and if some don't even consider looking at films that are older, that expanse grows huge. So, much in the way they say good can't exist without evil, great films can't exist without worthless trash such as The Concorde — Airport '79.
Labels: 70s, Criticism, G. Kennedy, Gloria Swanson, Ingmar Bergman, Kael
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Saturday, August 15, 2009
The Last Great Epic
By John Dacapias
I really worry about the youth of today. I should qualify myself and say, “I worry about the youth of today encountering great films.” What with pale remakes and hypermasculine mashups rising up on the horizon masquerading as films to admire and emulate, where can the man or woman who really loves film turn to?
Once again, let me quantify myself. I am only now beginning to appreciate that during the time I was coming of age in the filmgoing sense, in the '70s, movies that challenged the filmgoers regularly, such as Nashville and Barry Lyndon, dotted the landscape. These were epics in the truest sense, not just in the length of time one spends in the theater, but also in the emotional and moral sense, where no one was safe from the outcome of the unfolding of the plot. This was a time where, unless you actually owned a movie theater, actually going to the movies was the only way to see said movie.
Off the strength of two Oscar-winning films (both Godfather One and Two) and the added burden of suddenly acquiring an appropriately majestic middle name (“Ford”), Francis Ford Coppola decided to undertake what I feel is the last great epic, Apocalpyse Now, (from what would have been George Lucas’ second film, no less). Now celebrating its 30th anniversary of U.S. release today, its epic scope and ambitions still holds up after so many years, this with the added burden of reportedly being made for close to $30 million, this in 1979, and having had the main actor, Harvey Keitel, leave the troubled project at the very beginning of the picture and being replaced by Martin Sheen, who almost died of a heart attack during the nearly three year shoot.
I cannot imagine a movie in the last decade, let alone in the past 20 years, whose filmic impact continues to resonate with viewers, since its raucous debut at the 1979 Cannes Film Festival, where it screened half finished, with literally no ending edited in until the last minute, and still winning that year’s Palme D’Or (sharing the prize with The Tin Drum).
For good or for bad, once one experiences Apocalypse Now, one cannot shake any of its classic images, all of this without the crutch of computer technology to help it along. I can still see in my memory as a 14-year-old boy, just experiencing the seductive magic of film, albeit on a minuscule television screen, the slow whoosh of a battalion of helicopters cradling the supine head of Martin Sheen as Captain Willard, covered in sweat, smoking another damp cigarette, the melodic strains of “The End” by the Doors seeping through the television speakers (and possibly from Willard’s memories).
Through the crystal clear clarity of hindsight, we realize that Coppola may have taken as his muse, Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, but the journey of Captain Willard as he searches for the encampment of Colonel Kurtz becomes nothing less than Coppola’s own search for artistic clarity in the frenzied jungles of the Philippines (for many more colorful examples of this, I would advise everyone to see Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse using footage by Coppola’s own wife, Eleanor and directed by documentarians Fax Bahr and George Hickenlooper).
One can only imagine Coppola near the end of the quarter of a decade shoot, thinking of himself like Marlon Brando, as the bloated Kurtz dying by Willard’s bloodied hand, whisper from Conrad's text 'the horror, the horror” as what is left of Willard’s search team, Martin Sheen and Timothy Bottoms, slowly leaves Kurtz’s North Vietnamese encampment on a rickety boat. Recently, in 2001, Apocalypse Now Redux was released, which added another 49 minutes of footage to the already two and a half hour epic. I believe though one must see the original film before experiencing Redux as it opens up what one already is, and should be familiar with. We see, for example, what happens to the Playboy Playmates after having danced earlier in the film to a rowdy group of bedraggled soldiers (they are discovered by Willard’s team and are “traded” for fuel in order to evacuate their rain logged encampment). Redux also humanizes Willard to a great extent, as we see him play an elaborate joke on Colonel Kilgore, played in a classic series of scenes by Robert Duvall, by stealing his shield embossed surfboard, as well as encountering a colony of French colonists, particularly a beautifully zaftig French woman, during the latter half of the film, becoming involved in a series of mind numbing debates about the effectiveness of colonization in Vietnam. I am also aware of a legendary five hour version of Apocalypse Now out there on the ‘Net, but again, after having looted the majority of the useful footage for Redux, by Coppola and Walter Murch, does one really want to see more footage of helicopters bombing the Kurtz encampment? It would have answered some of the more nagging questions of the original film (Scott Glenn as a war-numbed former soldier shotgunning to death Dennis Hopper’s drug addled photojournalist), but it would have repulsed a great majority of others (Martin Sheen spearing a South Vietnamese child).
Make no mistake, the force of pure filmmaking as the expression of a filmmaker’s artistic vision is still present in such disparate artists as Paul Thomas Anderson and David Lynch, but as Coppola himself winds down with such idiosyncratic melodramas as Tetro and Youth Without Youth, we have yet to see any director on the horizon with the artistic gall to attempt their personal version of a major monstrous event, like the Vietnam War.
In Coppola’s own words, as he was unveiling Apocalypse Now to the 1979 Cannes Film Festival, “This film is not about Vietnam, this film is Vietnam.” Who can now say that and not be laughed at or ridiculed in some manner? I envy those who have yet to experience Apocalypse Now but I also worry over a future where artists do not push themselves with grand ideas and equally grand ambitions. One may fall, straining to fly with feathered wings, rapidly falling apart, like Icarus, but one must always reach up towards the sun and try.
John Dacapias is the current head of the Movie Club of San Diego, and member of the San Diego Asian Film Forum, which is connected to the 10th annual San Diego Asian Film Festival, from Oct. 15-29. Please make sure to attend!
Labels: 70s, Brando, Coppola, Duvall, Hopper, Keitel, Lucas, Lynch, M. Sheen, Movie Tributes
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Wednesday, August 12, 2009
“There’s no place like home…”
By Ivan G. Shreve, Jr.
(WARNING: possible spoilers contained within)
In his invaluable reference book Guide For the Film Fanatic, movie historian Danny Peary remarks on The Wizard of Oz (1939): “The effect that this Hollywood classic has had on Americans cannot be overestimated. Its influence on filmmakers alone is profound: it’s often joked that every film since 1939 includes some reference to it, and I’m not so sure this isn’t true.”
Carrying this gag a bit further, you could state that Oz references are featured in films that run the gamut from A (Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore ) to Z (Zardoz ). It has certainly garnered attention in movies that include The Philadelphia Story (1940), Sullivan's Travels (1941), The Producers (1968), Brewster McCloud (1970), The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), A Christmas Story (1983) and Wild at Heart (1990), just to name a few of the better-known and/or offbeat. The Wizard of Oz celebrates its 70th anniversary today; a magical, mesmerizing feature film that was released in Hollywood’s “golden year” — and if anyone is up for an argument, a far more worthy candidate for 1939’s highest honor (the best picture Oscar) than the overstuffed, overpraised and outdated champion, Gone With the Wind.
On a recent “quiz” administered at Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule, participants were asked to name their “favorite moment in three-strip Technicolor.” There were a range of different responses and opinions, of course — but many of the answers were remarkably similar, noting “When Dorothy opens the front door of her transplanted Kansas home and sees Oz for the first time.” It is inarguably an amazing moment, as the drenched-with-every-hue-in-the-rainbow Oz reveals itself to be a much more fascinating place to visit than drab ol’ sepia-toned Kansas, which looks as if you’d expect the Joad family to come driving up any minute now, asking for directions. In a lengthier essay on Oz for his book Cult Movies, author Peary makes the dead-on observation that L. Frank Baum’s classic children’s novel has been refashioned into an allegory on the pitfalls young hopefuls might experience on their way to Hollywood (Oz). Nothing but the best intentions from screenplay authors Noel Langley, Florence Ryerson and Edgar Allan Woolf to be sure — but this adult propaganda is revealed to be a load of hooey in the end; once the Wicked Witch of the West has been dispatched, Oz looks to be a breathtaking, magnificent world — who in their right mind would go back to Kansas to spend the rest of their days cooped up with an unsupportive and colorless aunt and uncle?
There’s wonderful dialogue (humor as well as suspenseful drama), musical numbers and characterizations in Oz, which may be why many have often proclaimed the picture as the definitive family film — and I’d be willing to bet dollars to donuts that it was the first movie many individuals my age saw growing up as a kid, owing to its traditional yearly appearances on the cathode ray tube. Judy Garland (16, but strapped into her dress and made to pass as 11 years of age) is positively aces as young Dorothy, and she’s matched by a peerless supporting cast containing the likes of Ray Bolger, Jack Haley, Bert Lahr, Frank Morgan, Billie Burke and Margaret Hamilton. (Garland — who won the role when it was decided that Shirley Temple’s vocals were inadequate — was awarded a special “mini Oscar” for her performance.) All these actors/actresses create memorable characters that will remain in the memory for possibly a lifetime. Oz also is a prime example of what Turner Classic Movies might call “what to cut and what not to cut.” The “Jitterbug” number (originally considered as a subplot in the film) was thrown out (it was felt it wouldn’t date well…and it didn’t) — but saner minds prevailed when it was suggested that "Over the Rainbow" be excised as well. (Cutting "Over the Rainbow"? Unspeakable! It was responsible for one of the film’s Oscar wins — the other being best original score.)
The last time TCM ran The Wizard of Oz was back in July, and I sat down to watch some of it with my niece who was visiting from Iowa. I watched her as she sat watching the film, completely hypnotized by Oz’s “magical spell.” I remarked to my mother in a low register, “She really gets a kick out of this, doesn’t she?” Her whispered reply: “Sometimes I don’t know who enjoys it more: you or she.” Hey…I’m always up for a trip to see the Wizard.
Labels: 30s, Books, Fiction, Garland, Movie Tributes, Musicals, Oscars
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Monday, August 10, 2009
No matter where you go, it's 25 years old today
By Edward Copeland
There's no set formula for concocting a successful cult classic. Many a film has flopped when its specific aim was to be some sort of underground or small-level phenomenon. When it hits though, as The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai: Across the 8th Dimension did 25 years ago, it seems as if it were all part of the plan. I can't even remember what excited my friends and I to the theater to for this film on opening weekend or to get into its unique groove, but after re-visiting it for this piece, I found we were mere pikers in the Banzai obsession which grew to be more elaborate than I ever knew. Much of this new knowledge came from the DVD I rented which was released in 2001 and was loaded with extras but, alas, is no longer in print. The commentary track by director W.D. Richter also includes the "real Reno," one of Buckaroo Banzai's faithful team played in the film by Pepe Serna. The commentary track alternates between real tales of the making of the film such as arguments with David Begelman over how many times Banzai could be shown wearing red spectacles in the film to Richter talking about how he didn't realize until he was filming that the story and characters were "true" and giving insights into "real" events before and after the movie takes place and how some violence was "toned down" from the truth to avoid an R rating.
Buckaroo Banzai (Peter Weller) is a neurosurgeon. He also plays with a band in unannounced concerts on the side. He's also a scientist interested in all sorts of fields related to physics and a noted adventurer, frequently saving the world with the help of Team Banzai and the Banzai Institute for Biomedical Engineering and Strategic Information. He even gets help from his own sort of militia called Blue Blaze Irregulars, trained civilians who are called upon in a pinch like Army Reserves. Buckaroo has even inspired his own series of comic book adventures. His scientific interests are an inherited one from his Japanese father and American mother (played in a deleted scene by Jamie Lee Curtis). As the film opens, after finishing some surgery, Banzai is ready to test his Jetcar and its oscillation overthruster to see whether it can pass through the solid matter of a mountain, enter the 8th Dimension and emerge from the other side unscathed. According to the commentary, he takes only three items with him: the overthruster, a turkey sandwich and Einstein's brain. (An interesting sidenote: Part of the equipment inside Buckaroo's Jetcar resembles the flux capacitor that will be the key to time travel in the following year's Back to the Future.) It's an experiment that killed his parents (perhaps due to sabotage by the evil and mysterious Hanoi Xan) and even earlier in an attempt gone wrong by Dr. Emilio Lizardo (John Lithgow) who was possessed by nasty aliens from Planet 10 who reside in that dimension and brought many of those aliens back to Earth with him back in 1938. Banzai's experiment succeeds and he returns unharmed and with evidence of a the simultaneous plane of existence within our own. The crazed Dr. Lizardo sees news of Buckaroo's success from his place in a mental hospital and thinks it's time for him to gather his forces and return to Planet 10 where he is known as Lord John Whorfin. The other bad aliens (known as Red Lectroids, but who look like humans without a key formula) who were released during Lizardo's 1938 experiment created and operate Yoyodyne Propulsion Systems, a major U.S. defense contractor. Did you follow all that?
Of course, "truth" or fiction, describing Earl Mac Rauch's screenplay proves to be somewhat of a pointless exercise and that's what makes Buckaroo Banzai such a fun ride, though admittedly an acquired taste, for viewers such as myself. It's a deadpan action movie, a Zen adventure, a feature-length nonsequitur. It's one long MacGuffin with a helluva cast to boot. Dialogue has taken on a life of its own such as the immortal "No matter where you go, there you are" or the seemingly pointless "Where is that watermelon from" followed by the reply "I'll tell you later." The members of Team Banzai come with unique names and even snazzier costumes such as new recruit Dr. Sidney Zweibel (Jeff Goldblum), rechristened New Jersey, who wears the cowboy costume of his grandfather, a silent film star. New Jersey uncovers a key piece of the film's puzzle when he realizes that all the Red Lectroids working at Yoyodyne appeared in Grover's Mills, N.J., on Nov. 1, 1938. Meaning, that Orson Welles' fabled War of the Worlds radio broadcast on Halloween 1938 wasn't a hoax at all but Welles was brainwashed into saying the alien invasion was one. Among the aliens at Yoyodyne waiting for Whorfin's return are John Bigboote (pronounced BigbooTAY) and John O'Connor (played by Christopher Lloyd, right, and Vincent Schiavelli, left). I feel as if I'm spending far too much time trying to describe the plot of Buckaroo Banzai instead of making a case for why it deserves a tribute, but it's such a unique hodgepodge, it almost defies praise as much as it's difficult to describe what it's about. It is what it is. “Nobody is nobody," Buckaroo says at one point. "Everybody has something to offer.” That certainly is the case with this movie, which really is a miracle for being made at all. Its origin could have gone two ways: As a feature or as an idea for a weekly TV show, but Rauch's script grew so long, the film won out and it actually got financed somehow. The film comes loaded with its own mythology, which is even expanded on the DVD, which even included spoilers for later chapters that were never filmed or told. For example, Penny Priddy (Ellen Barkin), the depressed woman Buckaroo rescues in the film who turns out to be the long-lost twin sister of Banzai's murdered wife Peggy will be slain two years later by his archenemy Hanoi Xan.
One thing I think I'm failing to emphasize about Buckaroo Banzai is what a funny film it is, even though its humor is no more conventional than its action or its plot. Even the score by Michael Boddicker, which at times comes off sounding like an electronic whistle, seems to be composed for laughs. Every line Lithgow utters in his crazed pseudo-Italian madman guise comes firing at the audience as if it came from a maching gun loaded with gags. "Sealed with a curse as sharp as a knife. Doomed is your soul and damned is your life," Lizardo spits. Everyone gets in on the act though, as the confused and suicidal Penny Priddy confesses to Buckaroo, "You're like Jerry Lewis, you give me hope to carry on, then you leave me in the lurch while you strap on your six-guns." There are even sight gags as when the president, afraid that a possible war will be triggered with the Soviets by the Black Lectroids of Planet 10 (the good ones) if the Red Lectroids aren't stopped, whips out the Declaration of War — The Short Form. There is even more fun to be found on the out-of-print DVD which includes an extra where subtitles from Team Banzai member Pinky Carruthers gives you astounding facts about Buckaroo's life and the institute. Did you know that Banzai's mobile unit runs on hydrogen and the institute gets many requests from SUV owners who contact the institute to see if they can turn their vehicle into more environmentally friendly modes of transportation? Of course, the movie ultimately ends on a sad note because it had a teaser for the next chapter, a chapter we've never seen and now, 25 years later, it seems unlikely that we ever will. Still, on the off chance that this really was a true story, I think we best be training as Blue Blaze Irregulars since the DVD reports there still may be Red Lectroids out there and Lizardo/Whorfin may have survived that explosion. Even if that's not true, the evil Hanoi Xan remains at large. Try to rent the DVD and acquaint yourself with the backstory.
Labels: 80s, Barkin, Jeff Goldblum, Jerry Lewis, Lithgow, Movie Tributes, Welles
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Thursday, August 06, 2009
A pox on all your award shows
From an early age, I suffered from the unfortunate affliction of awardsmania. Of course, it primarily focused on the Oscars, but it extended to the Tonys, the Emmys and some of the lessers as well. Recently however, the three major awards for achievement in film, Broadway and television have all taken actions that have finally forced me to my breaking point and I say, "No more." If they no longer care about their own supposed status as prizes for honoring outstanding achievement in their respective media but instead have decided they really are nothing more than once-a-year TV shows, three-hour or longer infomercials if you will, then I say fuck them. I can still love great film, great TV and great theater without having to be caught up with the nonsense of the various awards seasons any longer. No more predictions. No more surveys. No more speculation. Oscar, Emmy, Tony: You are all dead to me.
When the Academy Awards originally were created in the 1920s, the original movers and shakers of Hollywood intended the award as a way to paint a coat of respectability on the industry which, even in those early days, was a familiar whipping boy for lowering the nation's moral standards. Throughout the years since the Oscars were first presented in 1929 for the split year 1927-28, the Academy has made many changes, some for the good, some for the bad. Certainly, their choices of nominees and winners always have proved frustrating for film fans, but nothing so awful that they required abandonment. Lately, and particularly this year, the changes have become too awful to ignore and they have been motivated less by the quality of the award than of the obsession about Oscarcast ratings itself. People always have complained about the length with some supposed entertainment journalists complaining about wasting time on awards "no one cares about" such as cinematography or art direction. Oscar freaks such as myself do care about those categories because we are there for ALL the awards, not just the big categories and the stars. The funny thing is the David Letterman spilled the dirty little secret about the broadcast after being tarred and feathered after his hosting stint that the show he hosted was running early and ABC officials told him to stretch so they could get more commercials in.
The Oscars consistently are in the top 10 of the Nielsen ratings each time they air, but the ratings have declined over the years and that makes ABC unhappy. Of course, what they fail to consider is that the television universe of 2009 is not the television universe of 1989 or even 1979 because there is a vast array of viewing options not just the three networks. Then again, who expects entertainment execs to be rational? So where can they place the blame? First, it started going toward who was the host and the design of the show itself. Here is a little test for you all: Ask any obsessed Oscarphile you know if it has ever made a difference to them who was hosting as to whether they watched the show or not. Some years, they've toyed with how they presented awards, gathering nominees on stage, giving awards in the audience, etc. Of course, most of the time no one knows ahead of time that they are going to do this so, once again, they cannot have any effect on how many people are tuning in to see them. Now though they've decided the biggest problem is that the Academy doesn't nominate huge box office hits for best picture such as last year when The Dark Knight and WALL-E failed to make the final five. The funny thing: Despite their omission from the best picture race or a really huge hit in that category, the show's ratings rose substantially over previous years.
This year, the Academy announced that it is expanding the best picture category from five nominees to 10 nominees. Now in the past, the category has had as many as 12 nominees, but that was pre-1944 when it wasn't a TV show and Hollywood produced a greater number of films. Though denied, rumors say that part of the impetus, in addition to the hope of getting box office hits into the running, came from ABC which threatened to cut the licensing fee it pays the Academy for the broadcasting. Now, is this not a conflict anyways since ABC is owned by Disney which has a stake if some of its film titles can worm their way into a diluted best picture race? The worst change, and final straw to me, was a later announcement that the honorary awards, which have provided many of the telecast's best and most moving moments in recent years will now be moved to a nontelevised dinner in November, furthering emphasizing that they don't give a damn about the history of the industry and intend the Oscarcast as little more than a trade show. As a result, I'm not going to predict or promote the Oscars from now on or any of the precursor awards. The other awards themselves share no guilt, but every move they make basically is meant to try to influence the Academy, so all awards of the movie awards season be damned. Love or hate the films, not their trophy chances.
Really, the Tony Award itself has had the most integrity while the broadcast has been ruined more and more each year by CBS, sticking the technical award categories to pre-broadcast presentations while loading the show itself with irrelevant crap. It reached the nadir with this year's show where they sacrificed live presentation of awards for presentations of road tour numbers of previous season shows such as Legally Blonde, Mamma Mia! and Jersey Boys. However, what made the Tonys unique (and probably why so many of its choices are so good) were that the voters in the final ballot not only included theater professionals such as producers and others with money interests in the outcome but theater critics as well. This year though, it was decided not to allow critics to vote anymore citing their "conflict of interest." Yes, people who review shows have conflicts of interest, but people who make money off them don't. In the press release announcing the move, they even mentioned, as if these were negative choices, that shows such as Rent or In the Heights won over theme park rides such as Mary Poppins that producers think will bring in more cash on the road. New York Post theater columnist Michael Riedel wrote a wicked column suggesting ways to seek revenge. It's too bad there really isn't an equivalent way for the Oscars and the Emmys.
As for the Tony broadcast itself, Kevin Spacey and others this year finally articulated this year what I've been suggesting for years. If CBS has such little respect for the award, let someone else such as PBS carry the award so that all the awards get their due. Of course, now we realize that not only is the Theatre Wing addicted to its licensing fee, it could care less about whether the best is what is getting honored as well. It's a shame because for a long time the Tony broadcast was consistently the best award show on television. I remember when they used to be able to do numbers from the four nominated musicals and full-fledged scenes from the four nominated plays and still get the whole show done in two hours on the nose. Granted, they have added some categories (the biggest chunk being the recent division of the tech categories into both musical and play categories) but again, it was the addition of more commercials that stretched the broadcast's length.
To some extent, I've always felt sorry for the Emmys, because they have a monumental task. Even before the explosion of television channels, it would have been impossible for anyone to truly do what it would take to judge the best in TV the way you can judge the best in movies and Broadway. There are a finite number of films and shows, so it is feasible to see all or a good portion of them, but to watch every episode of every series and every special, miniseries or movie that airs on television, that's impossible. The Emmys have tried myriad ways to work with this, settling on series submitting a certain number of their episodes and performers picking out a single episode to highlight. They've played with blue ribbon panels and other groups to try to pick nominees, but nothing has seemed to work. If any award could benefit from letting critics help them at least nominate, it's the Emmys, since they do watch entire seasons sometime and look at things Emmy voters might not take a second look at. However, the endless attempts to fix the process has finally proved too exhausting for me. No matter what they do it's hard to imagine how every single process comes up with a list of nominee that looks like a mimeographed list of the nominees from the year before, year after year after year, allowing such crimes as Scrubs to complete its entire run without John McGinley ever receiving a nomination for supporting actor while the same names show up all the time.
It started last year when they decided that cast members of Saturday Night Live could compete in the supporting categories of comedy series instead of individual performance in a variety, music or comedy series though SNL itself stays in the category of variety, music or comedy series. This year, for some reason, the series acting categories jumped from five to six and Amy Poehler and Kristin Wiig took two of the six slots in supporting actress in a comedy series. Tina Fey's Sarah Palin guest shot also got nominated as guest actress in a comedy series and the category of individual performance was killed outright. I'm not arguing that Poehler, Wiig and Fey aren't talented or deserving, just that they are in categories where they don't belong and deprive nominations from people who actually should be there. The killing of that category was particularly egregious since this eliminates places for nominations for say Hugh Jackman's hosting stint at the Oscars or Neil Patrick Harris' at the Tonys. Still, they were able to add that reality host category last year.
The real controvery this year has come from the decision by the television academy to "time shift" some awards. What that means is that certain categories will be awarded early, taped and edited and then shown in the broadcast later. The idea is supposedly to save time by cutting out the walk from the audience, etc. It sounds good, until you see what categories they are choosing to do this for: movies and miniseries, all dominated mostly by non-network channels. HBO and other non-network nominees are crying foul. More evidence to support their case comes from a category that won't be aired on the broadcast, writing in a drama series, where four of the five nominations went to AMC's Mad Men. The Writers Guild is particularly perturbed by the move. Patric Verrone, president of WGA West, said in a statement:
"This action of the board of governors is a clear violation of a longstanding agreement the writers guilds have with the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences regarding their awards telecast. It is also a serious demotion for writing and a fundamental misunderstanding of the importance of writers in the creation of television programs."
Imagine when Hill Street Blues upped the ante for what quality on television meant and often took five out of five nominations in supporting actor if ABC or CBS chose not to broadcast that category in a year they were airing the Emmys. It's time for the networks to stop whining that they can't compete in quality because of "restrictions" and admit they are dinosaurs.
Now, I don't expect my diatribe to be the start of a campaign: It'll be hard enough for an Oscarphile such as myself to quit cold turkey, I don't expect anyone else to agree with me or to follow me. I can't unremember all the Oscar trivia taking up space in my brain, but this year and for the time being, I'm not helping them or the other awards play their game any longer by promoting their farces on this blog.
Labels: Awards, Disney, Hugh Jackman, Letterman, Mad Men, Oscars, Spacey, Television, Theater
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