Stringer Bell was apparently a very good man

June 15, 2014 progress: 1 movie

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom (2013)
Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom (2013)

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom (2013)

Released just months before Nelson Mandela’s death, this film serves as a eulogy for the former South African president.

For fans of HBO’s The Wire, Idris Elba will always be Stringer Bell, the ambitious drug dealer.  He’s also great as the eponymous detective Luther in the BBC program.  If you haven’t watched either of these shows, you should.   Recently, Elba has become a tentpole fixture with roles in the big-budget science fiction / fantasy films Thor (2011), Prometheus (2012), Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance (2012), Pacific Rim (2013) and Thor: The Dark World (2013).  He’s fantastic in this film and his delivery of Mandela’s famous “I am Prepared to Die”“ is powerful stuff.

As great as Elba is, Naomie Harris does an even better job portraying Winnie Mandela, managing to make us both sympathize with her struggle and condemn her zealotry.  Harris was Tia Dalma / Calypso in the second and third films in the Pirates of the Caribbean series and Eve Moneypenny in Skyfall (2012), but she shows a lot more potential here than in anything else she’s been in.

Despite the solid performances of two leads, the film doesn’t work as well as it should.  Part of the problem is the medium.  Mandela’s lifestory was so big, it feels rushed in a 150 minute movie.  Part of the problem is the lack of bias.  Based on Mandela’s autobiography, it occasionally wanders into hagiography and is way too interested in making sure we realize how great a man Mandela was, instead of just telling his story.

However, the biggest flaw is that Winnie Mandela, for all her flaws, is the more interesting character.

It’s a a great starting point to understand one of the most important men of the later twentieth century, but it’s too one sided to be definitive.

The One True Special Relationship

June 14, 2014 progress: 2 movies

One True Thing 91998)
One True Thing 91998)

1) One True Thing (1998)

Ellen Gulden (Renee Zellwegger) is a writer for a magazine in New York.  Her father, George (William Hurt), is a semi-famous author and professor who can’t seem to write a second novel.  Her mother, Kate, (Meryl Streep) is a housewife.

When Kate is diagnosed with cancer, Ellen is coerced to stay home and care for her.  During this time, she grows closer to her mother.

The Gulden’s have a son, but he’s barely in the movie.

This would have been better as a play. It’s very claustrophobic and features long patches of dialogue between the three primary characters.

The ending is a sucker punch.  Kate, in immense pain, chooses to end her life with an overdose of morphine.  George and Ellen each think the other gave it to her.  When they realize she did it herself, they wax philosophically about how brave she was; her suicide is elevated to a grandiose act, as if it was the best thing she ever could have done with her life.

Kate Gulden is a misunderstood housewife who sacrificed an opportunity to lead an interesting, useful life, so her husband could lead one.   She takes joy in being a mother and wife, and finds fulfillment in their accomplishments.   It’s a one-dimensional role, beneath Meryl’s talent.

William Hurt is good at playing self-centered assholes. George Gulden knows he’s a dick.  He wants to be a better husband and father, but he wants to sleep with his young students more. His humiliation by a visiting Pulitzer Prize winning poet at Thanksgiving dinner is the highlight of the film.

Renee Zellwegger was cute in Jerry Maguire (1996).  She saved Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001) from being horrible.  She was fantastic in Chicago (2002), and her work in Cold Mountain (2003) was excellent.  She’s clearly capable of great things, but despite a valiant effort she can’t rise above the whininess of the character.  Ellen Gulden is no different than millions of others who struggle with stepping out from behind their parent’s shadow.

The film was adapted from a novel by Pulitzer  Prize winning columnist Anna Quindlen whose mother died from ovarian cancer when she was 19.  This makes sense because the film feels like an attempt to work through feelings of guilt and loss.

I’m not  sure what the titular One True Thing is. Family? Dying with dignity? Loving someone, despite their faults?  I’m not convinced the people who made this film know either.

The Special Relationship (2010)
The Special Relationship (2010)

2) The Special Relationship (2010)

This film traces the relationship between Tony Blair and Bill Clinton. When Blair was elected, the press immediately cast him as the British equivalent to Clinton: a young, baby boomer leader of a left-leaning party. This movie does much to highlight the similarities between the two, but makes us aware of the stark differences between them.

In the beginning, Clinton is clearly the better politician. He manhandles Blair and treats him like an underling.  However, by the end of the film, Blair, having learned from Clinton and his time in office, has  become the more skillful of the two and manipulates the scandal plagued President.

The 1992 presidential election was the first time I was old enough to understand. The summer I turned thirteen, I watched the political conventions and was mesmerized. I grew up during the Reagan administration, but Clinton was the first President I was invested in.

Having played Tony Blair in two previous films: The Deal (2003), The Queen (2006),it’s almost to the point where I picture Michael Sheen’s face when I see a story about Blair.  He inhabits Blair in a way few people can when they portray very famous people.

Dennis Quaid captures the spirit of Bill Clinton, but his performance occasionally slides into caricature. Quaid has the charisma and the natural look of a movie star, but the question has been: does he have the talent and self-discipline to be a great actor. There have been moments where the answer was yes: Great Balls of Fire! (1989), Any Given Sunday (1999), Frequency (2000), Traffic (2000), and Far from Heaven (2003). After his ugly divorce from Meg Ryan, Quaid’s career took a downtown and his recent roles have tended towards generic family films or light comedy in The Day After Tomorrow (2004), Yours, Mine, and Ours (2005), G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra (2009), and Footloose (2011).

When his divorce from Meg Ryan became contentious, the public turned on him. We knew Meg Ryan from her beloved 1990s romantic comedies.  As “America’s Sweetheart,” the dissolution of their marriage couldn’t be attributed to her, so he took the fall.

Hope Davis does a good impression of Hilary Clinton, but her performance is overshadowed by Helen McCory’s turn as Cherie Blair because of American familiarity with the Clintons.  We know Bill and Hilary (they’ve been in our lives for over twenty years), so any performance of them will be compared to the fountain of knowledge we have accumulated about them. The role comes with significant baggage.

This is a fun movie, demonstrating how personalities can determine the fates of nations.

I love the minor details. Just after Blair is elected, Clinton calls him and offers a display of his legendary ability to remember arcane political facts by reciting the voting history of some small constituency in Britain.

Bill and Hillary’s struggles with the fallout of the Lewinsky scandal is excellent stuff. The private conversation between the Blairs about the scandal mirrors the countless conversations American families were having.

The movie ends with Clinton saying farewell and Blair contemplating his relationship with the next US President.  This movie helps us remember the Bush-Blair alliance was forged from the relationship built by Bill and Tony.

On the Road to Charisma

June 13, 2014 progress: 2 movies

Zero Charisma (2013)
Zero Charisma (2013)

1) Zero Charisma (2013)

Scott is a thirty something, overweight man living with his grandmother, whose life revolves around the weekly Dungeons and Dragons game he hosts in his basement.

When one of the regular players quits to save his marriage, Scott recruits  Miles, a successful blogger, to join his game, but soon grows jealous of Miles’s success and popularity with the other players.

Scott is what everyone thinks of when they think of Dungeons and Dragons.  Miles is what everyone who plays Dungeons and Dragons imagines themselves to be.

Scott’s fatal flaw: he takes gaming too seriously which is probably true for a lot of self-identified “nerds.”   Superman, The Simpsons, Spider-Man, and video games are healthy outlets, but when we take our passions too seriously, we deprive ourselves of the joy they provide.

As Scott’s idol, Greg Goran, counsels him “it’s a game… if your players aren’t having fun, you’re not doing your job.”

This low budget, passion project is amateurish in places, but feels genuine in a way blockbusters rarely do.  In a Hollywood version: Scott, the outcast gamer, would have been played by Brad Pitt.

The film’s authenticity is the source of its charm.  You instinctively know this is based on someone’s life experience and the actors in the film are probably close to the characters they’re portraying.

I loved this movie, but not everyone will.

Road to Perdition (2002)
Road to Perdition (2002)

2) Road to Perdition (2008)

Michael Sullivan (Tom Hanks) is an enforcer for Irish mobster John Rooney (Paul Newman).  Michael’s curious son follow him to a meeting where he witnesses a murder.  Sullivan’s family is targeted for assassination to keep the murder quiet, but Sullivan and his eldest son survive to plot their revenge.

Tom Hanks is too likable and has too much goodwill for me to believe him as a hired hitman.  The film would have been better served with a less wholesome, slightly more menacing lead, like Tommy Lee Jones or Josh Brolin.

Sullivan is the protagonist, but Newman’s Rooney is the central character, and Newman is fantastic as the conflicted mobster who loves his son, but loves Sullivan more.  If we don’t believe the turmoil in Rooney’s decision, the rest of the movie would collapse.

Daniel Craig is serviceable as Rooney’s scheming, overmatched son, who is, in essence,  a slightly more competent Fredo Corleone.  Sadly, Craig’s role in the film is not as large as it could have been and the relationship between the elder and younger Rooney is not developed.

Stanley Tucci is always a delight and shines as Al Capone’s henchman, Frank Nitti, but the Capone element of the film feels like it was shoehorned into the story to namedrop Al Capone and credibility.  As resourceful as Michael Sullivan is, he could have found a way to avenge his family without indebting himself to Al Capone.

Jude Law’s is Harlan Maguire, a fellow contract killer hired to  eliminate Sullivan who moonlights as a scandal photographer, often taking photos of his own murders.  While Sullivan claims to possess a moral code which governs his less than savory behavior, Law’s character exists outside of morality.   This character did not exist in the graphic novel which inspired the film and it shows; the scenes involving him feel different, like they don’t belong.

Jennifer Jason Leigh is only in the movie for a minute as Sullivan’s wife and is more of a plot device than a character.  Leigh’s name is more famous than her career merits.  I know she’s a good actress, but she’s rarely the most memorable thing in her films.

Tyler Hoechlin plays Michael Sullivan Jr. who becomes a reluctant partner in his father’s scheme to rob Al Capone.  This has been Hoechlin’s biggest film role by far.  He currently stars as werewolf Derek Hale in the MTV series Teen Wolf.  I’m a fan of the original Teen Wolf film and Teen Wolf Too and watched the brief cartoon series as a child; I won’t try to claim the latest addition to the franchise is must see television, but I watch out of nostalgic loyalty.

This was Sam Mendes’s second feature length film following American Beauty (which is slightly overrated).  Mendes’s films take a bleak view of humanity.  If you don’t believe me,  try watching American Beauty and Revolutionary Road back to back.  However, his vision of James Bond in Skyfall is the most realized version of the character and the first time in a long time he hasn’t been reduced to caricature.

There are great performances by Law and Newman, and the ending is very good, but the movie tries to do too much at once and Hanks was the wrong choice for the lead (although I’m sure he helped the box office).

I liked the movie, but it felt like a disappointment.

 

Be Kind to the Women

June 12, 2014: 2 movies

Be Kind Rewind (2008)
Be Kind Rewind (2008)

1) Be Kind Rewind (2008)

This is a weird, almost great movie.

Mr. Fletcher (Danny Glover) claims Fats Waller (his hero) was born in the building he owns and operates as a video rental story.  For some inexplicable reason, Mr. Fletcher refuses to upgrade the store to DVDs and continues to rent VHS tapes exclusively.  Mike (Mos Def) is left in charge when Mr. Fletcher goes out off town.  During this time, local weirdo Jerry (Jack Back) magnetizes himself and accidentally erases every tape in stock.

Mr. Fletcher’s friend, Miss Falewicz (Mia Farrow) wants to rent Ghostbusters.  To avoid telling her every tape has been erased, Jerry and Mike video themselves in the iconic moments from the movieThe results are inadvertently hilarious; before long numerous people are requesting the duo provide alternative versions of their favorite films.  To explain the differences in their version, they claim the movies are imported from Sweden.

Soon, lawyers arrive with a cease and desist order, and the VHS store is in danger of being closed.

In a last-ditch effort to save the store (although how it will do so is never explained) the group films a biography of Fats Waller according to Mr. Fletcher.

The best parts of the movie are the fake movies within the film, but overall it falls a little flat.  It’s like a very bad episode of Seinfeld; bizarre characters, contrived situations, and what feels like a million stories somehow converge in the end.

Mos Def is likable as Mike, but he’s not a competent enough actor to play such a large role.

Jack Black is funny, but he’s approaching the age when he needs to transition to less manic, more reserved roles.  A thirty something ill adjusted man-child is amusing.  A fifty year old man who acts the same way is a loser.  As if one cue, Black has recently dabbled in more dramatic work (such as Bernie in 2011).

In a career spanning over thirty years, Danny Glover seems more in demand than ever and commands respect regardless of the quality of the movie.

I love Mia Farrow’s work with Woody Allen, but since their relationship ended, her career has stagnated.  I suppose it’s easier to have a vibrant career when a powerful director is writing roles just for you.

Michael Gondry directed Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, a brilliant movie about loss and the pain of relationships.  This movie shares the same off-kilter worldview, but lacks the intelligence or depth of the previous film.  He also directed The Green Hornet (2011), which was a likable, generic film, and The We and the I (2012), a movie which wants to say something profound, but doesn’t know what.

This movie sounds funny on paper, and it did manage to make me chuckle a few times, but not nearly enough.  VHS tapes are a forgotten relic of the past, and this movie is destined to become one as well.

Little Women (1994)
Little Women (1994)

2) Little Women (1994)

This is a fine family film, which is a backhanded way of saying it’s just an okay movie.

Full disclosure: I’ve never read the books and my impression is based entirely on this adaptation.

Despite the popularity of Alcott’s books, I’m not sure how well they hold up.  It may be better to see them as a historical artifact.

It feels like Jane Austen set during the US Civil War. The titular women are all determined to find a husband, because apparently it’s the most important thing in the world.  But while it may have been vitally important for a woman in the mid-nineteenth century to have a spouse, it’s increasingly difficult to understand a world where this is true.

The cast is fine, but forgettable.  The only person I’ll remember is Winona Ryder, although the romance between her and Gabriel Byrne seems a little weird (he’s 24 years older.  It was fun seeing a young Kirsten Dunst, Christian Bale, and Claire Danes.

Palestenian angst

June 11, 2014 progress: 1 movie

Omar (2013)
Omar (2013)

Omar (2013)

A little but of Romeo and Juliet, a tad of pro-Palestinian propaganda, a little but of Manchurian Candidate skullduggery, set in the middle of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

If you need a film which humanizes Israeli-conflict, this film is for you.  I found it boring and forgettable. Already, I can feel the details of the film fading from my memory.  It reminded me of A Prophet (2009), a critically praised film which left me going “meh.”

 

 

We took a Picture at the Beach

June 10, 2014 progress: 2 movies

Beaches (1989)
Beaches (1989)

1) Beaches (1988)

Directed by Garry Marshall, and starring Bette Midler and Barbara Hershey, this celebration of the power of friendship is a bit too weepy for my taste.

The friendship between C.C. Bloom (Midler) and Hilary Whitney (Hershey) survives cultural differences, social status inequalities, petty jealousies, affairs, bitter fights, and even death.

Midler’s public persona is so similar to C.C.’s, it’s a bit distracting and the movie occasionally feels like a self-parody.   Midler’s song from the film, “Wind Beneath my Wings,”  was such a massive hit, it’s hard to imagine or remember she had a career prior to this movie.

The song has become a touchstone to demonstrate the beauty of friendship, but it’s a little narcissistic.  “It must have been cold there, in my shadow.” Translation: I’m great obviously, but you helped me get to be so great, so you should take solace in knowing that while I always overshadowed you, you helped make me great.  I didn’t say you were great, let’s not get carried away, just that you helped make me great.  You’re really great because you helped me to be so great and famous.

In the 1980s, Barbara Hershey’s career skyrocketed with roles in The Stunt Man (1980), The Right Stuff (1983), The Natural (1984), Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), Hoosiers (1986), and The Last Temptation of Christ (1988).  She claims her marriage to David Carradine prevented her from achieving success earlier.  Prior to her appearance in Beaches, she had collagen injected into her lips  to make them appear fuller.  The resulting look was the subject of a mini-controversy when the film premiered.

As the 1990s began, her career plateaued, with fewer roles in significant films.   She’s a drag in this movie, so full of self-righteousness it’s overbearing.  She doesn’t add anything to the movie.  She’s there just to provide someone for C.C. to talk to.

John Heard will always be remembered as the dad in the Home Alone movies, or the killjoy toy company executive in Big, but when he shows up in movies like this, playing the love interest of both main characters, I’m reminded how much talent he had.  Now, he’s a character actor, who takes whatever work he can get: see Sharknado.

Spalding Gray, who plays Hilary’s husband, is believable as a stiff, upper crust blowhard.  Gray has a reputation as a fantastic and influential monologist.  This is my first encounter with his work, and it didn’t make much of an impression.

Mayim Bialik who would soon gain fame as the titular character in  Blossom, plays 11-year-old C.C. in flashbacks.   She’s full of infectious energy and way more entertaining than Midler.  I would have preferred to see a movie based on the adventures of younger C.C. and Hilary

Garry Marshall began his career in television and was responsible for creating Happy Days (which launched the career of his sister Penny) and The Odd Couple.  He’s since made a career of directing melacomedies (films which combine the romantic comedy genre with the weepy, exaggerated emotions of melodramas).  His movies are, for the most part, safe entertainment; they don’t challenge conventional notions or ideas, but serve to reinforce them.  The exception to this rule is the weird Exit to Eden, a comedy about a heist starring Dan Aykroyd and Rosie O’Donnell set on a BDSM vacation getaway.

This is worth watching once.  The beginning of the film, featuring the origin story of the friendship between Hilary and C.C. was mesmerizing.  Unfortunately, the rest of the film couldn’t keep up this frantic energy and instead turned into a predictable soap opera.

The Missing Picture (2013)
The Missing Picture (2013)

2) The Missing Picture (2013)

This is an interesting experiment.  Half of the film is archival footage, the other half uses claymation figures to dramatize the events in Cambodia when Pol Pot came to power.

I get a little confused about the players and the details of the atrocities in Cambodia and other Asian nations.  I know Pol Pot was a bad guy, but beyond that my knowledge is a little hazy.

Films like this help to cement the historical record in my mind.

As we put more time between these events and our own lives, they recede into forgotten crevices of history.   We have vague impressions of them, but the details are fuzzy and the importance unclear.

In the US, some of this ambivalence towards the history of the region comes from our own ambivalence and embarrassment about our involvement in the Vietnam War.

This film helps us separate those feelings and view it objectively.

Porky’s Still Fat

June 8, 2014 progress: 4 movies

1) Meet John Doughboy (1941)

Released just before the United States entered World War II, this faux news reel is a humorous look at military life.

It’s not one of the best Looney Tunes shorts, but it does provide insight into American attitudes before the war.

2) Porky’s Hare Hunt (1938)

This fun short features an early version of the character that would become Bugs Bunny.  Porky plays the role now usually reserved for Elmer Fudd: he’s hunting rabbits.

3) Jeepers Creepers (1939)

Porky is a police officer called to investigate a haunted house,

The ghosts in the house proceed to torment him.

The film ends with a bizarre, racist scene when Porky’s car backfires as he’s fleeing the house.  The exhaust covers one of the ghosts and causes him to appear in blackface and perform an impression of Rochester, a famed African-American performer of the day.  It’s almost like the writers said, you know we went almost seven minutes without a joke about race, our audience won’t know what to do, let’s end with a blackface pantomime so we don’t disappoint them.

This short demonstrates why Porky was starting to lose his place as the preeminent figure in the Looney Tunes stable.  He was too passive

4) Little Beau Porky (1936)

Porky’s in the French Foreign Legion for some reason.  His platoon is called to battle, but Porky is left behind.  While everyone else is gone, Porky fights and captures a wanted criminal.

Once again, I’m surprised how large Porky is and how much of the humor in these shorts stems from his size and physical limitations.  In this short, the joke is he’s left behind because he’s so large and worthless.

Foghorn Leghorn, Bugs, Daffy, Sylvester, Elmer, Yosemite Sam, Wile R. Coyote, all try to take control of their situation and plot to achieve their goals.  Porky, on the other hand, is passive, content to let the world come to him.

I’m guessing the passivity of the character played a large role in his declining popularity in the US following WWII.  After the war, US audiences wanted to see decisive, action oriented characters.

The Thief from Karama lives in the Castle in the Sky

June 7, 2014 progress: 3 movies

Karama Has No Walls (2013)
Karama Has No Walls (2013)

1) Karama Has No walls (2013)

Nominated for an Academy Award for Best Short Subject Documentary, this film chronicles the Yemini revolution of 2011, one of the many protests and revolutions encompassing the Arab Spring.

It’s an interesting, insider account of the uprising, but too short to get really invested in the story it tells.

Castle in the Sky (1986)
Castle in the Sky (1986)

2) Castle in the Sky (1986)

Directed by famed Japanese animator, Hayao Miyazaki, this was the first Studio Ghibli film.

Many in the West have never heard of Studio Ghibli, but it’s one of the most successful and important producers of animated films, like Japan’s version of Pixar.

Princess Sheeta is last in a line of royalty from an ancient civilization which lived in Laputa, a floating castle in the sky.  She possesses an amulet which, unbeknownst to her, contains the secret to gaining entry into Laputa.  She’s pursued by Colonel Muska, a descendant from another royal line of Laputa who wants the power of her amulet. During her escape from Muska, she befriends Pazu and his seemingly addled grandmother Captain Dola (who leads a group of pirates).

Eventually, they arrive at Laputa and discover the city was abandoned because its people realized a civilization relying on science and rationality was devoid of the things that make life worth living.  The movie becomes a criticism of a society too reliant on cold, rationality.

The Disney produced English language dub of this film was released in 1998 and features an all-star cast including Anna Paquin, James Van Der Beek, Chloris Leachman, Mark Hamill, Many Patinkin, and Andy Dick.

In recent years, it’s become a badge of artistic hipness to voice a role in an English dub of Studio Ghibli film.

This is a vintage 1980s production and reminds me of the cartoons I grew up with.  For some reason, the style and tone made me think my old friend Teddy Ruxpin was just around the corner.

If you like anime, you’ve already discovered Studio Ghibli and probably already seen this film.  If not, you’re probably not interested.

It’s worth watching, there are hints of the studio’s future genius, but it’s not as polished as later efforts in Graves of the Fireflies (1988), My Neighbor Totoro (1988), or the phenomenal Spirited Away (2001).  These later films managed to combine the format of a kid’s adventure story with adult themes of death and purpose and spirituality.  This film wants to meld them together but doesn’t know how yet.

The Book Thief (2013)
The Book Thief (2013)

3) The Book Thief (2013)

A World War II film about the lives of everyday Germans during the period.  The atrocities of the war are present but play a largely background role.

The movie is bookended by narration from the Grim Reaper who tells Liesel Meminger was one of the few humans who made him stop to consider the possibilities of life.

Liesel was abandoned by her communist mother at the beginning of the war to live with Hans and Rosa Hubermann (Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson).

Liesel can’t read and a good bit of the film is her personal journey to literacy fostered by Hans and the wife of the mayor in town.  She befriends local boy Rudy Steiner and a Jewish refugee who hides in the Hubermann’s basement.

The movie almost says something new about the war and the Holocaust, but falls just short of its lofty goals.  The tragic ending is predictable and the bookended narration deflates the impact of the story.

The movie is well made, but forgettable.

Three Kings with fantastic Hair

June 6, 2014 progress: 3 movies

The King of Comedy (1982)
The King of Comedy (1982)

1) The King of Comedy (1983)

This movie is a sharp and refreshing take on celebrity culture and the worship it inspires / demands.  The flip side to Andy Warhol’s prediction everyone would get fifteen minutes of fame: everyone thinks they should already be famous.

There’s a whole generation of filmgoers who only know Robert De Niro from comedy roles spoofing his tough guy image, but this film stands out as a comedy done at the height of his dramatic career.

It’s subtle work, much more nuanced and impressive than his broad comedy films of recent years in Meet the Parents, The Big Wedding, and Grudge Match.

Rupert Pupkin is a wannabe comedian, looking for his big break; he’s seen countless comedians debut on Jerry Langford’s talk show and become stars.  He doesn’t see the hard work (the countless hours performing at small night clubs, the touring, the auditioning) required to get to this point, but instead sees the end result and thinks it’s the starting point.

In so many ways, Pupkin is just as deranged as Travis Bickle, the sociopath in Taxi Driver (another collaboration between Scorcese and De Niro).  This could be seen as a spiritual sequel to the earlier film.

Jerry Lewis’s turn as Jerry Langford is not flashy, but if you don’t believe his arrogant and dismissive attitude towards Rupert, the movie falls apart.  Lewis wisely allows his frustration and anger to build over the course of the film; he realizes his role is the straight man to Pupkin’s dangerous joke, and reigns in his performance making it subservient to De Niro’s.

The first choice to play Jerry Langford was Johnny Carson, who sadly turned it down. That level of meta narrative would have been perfect for a movie about a man who can’t distinguish between his own fantasy and reality.

Scorsese doesn’t direct many comedies.  Most of his films don’t lend themselves to comedy because they’re driven by violence.  His other major comedy of the 1980s, After Hours, is more disjointed and not as successful.

A lesser movie would have ended the film with Rupert killing Jerry, but this film ends with Rupert blackmailing his way into a prized spot on Langford’s show, guest hosted by Tony Randall, and giving a surprisingly funny performance.

The movie wisely leads us to believe Rupert is too bumbling to be funny.  When he comes onstage and seems like a competent comedian it changes our whole perception of him, making him much more sympathetic  Because he’s talented, it almost makes us feel like the lengths he went to get his break (kidnapping Langford and negotiating a spot on the show) were worth it.

The movie ends with a news broadcast about Rupert’s upcoming release from prison.  He’s in high demand and has a promising career in front of him; the culture of celebrity guarantees he will be successful.

Rupert confesses to the live audience at the taping for his debut he kidnapped Langford, telling them “tomorrow you’ll know I wasn’t kidding and you’ll all think I’m crazy.  But I figure it this way: better to be king for a night, than schmuck for a lifetime.”  This sentiment has since been corrupted to justify behavior once thought unseemly. This is the secret, unspoken mantra of thousands of reality television stars in the twenty-first century.  We are all Rupert Pupkin now, it just took thirty years to get there.

Hair (1979)
Hair (1979)

2) Hair (1979)

My first impression of Hair came from a series of 1990 episodes of Head of the Class: “From Hair to Eternity, parts 1 and 2.”  The students at Monroe High School fight censorship from the head of the English department when they put on a production of the musical.  I still don’t understand why a school administrator raising objections to high school students performing a play where the cast strips naked was somehow portrayed as the height of fascisim.

This film adaptation was nothing like the angry, anti-war diatribe I expected.

Directed by Milos Forman, who had recently won an Oscar for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, this film is funny and kinetic.

The end is tragic, but the movie is so full of life, and love, and joy I almost forget how it ends.  My chief memory is not the anti-war sentiment or the semi-self sacrificial death of George Berger, but of the positive, life-affirming sentiment of the film as a whole.

The movie is so different from the musical and apparently changes the tone of the film so much, the writers of the musical have disavowed the film.

I loved this movie.  Treat Williams and Beverly D’Angelo were engaging; the music was catchy, the lyrics hysterical.  It had something to say about a variety of topics: war, race relations and the generation gap, but never felt like it was pushing an agenda.

This film belongs to a series of musicals in the late 1970s and early 1980s which attempted to merge the music of rock and roll with the aesthetic of opera including Pink Floyd’s the Wall and Tommy. The experimental genre died by the mid 1990s (although Baz Luhrman’s Moulin Rouge (2001) was obviously influenced by it); the few non-animated musicals to come out of Hollywood since have more in common with classic MGM musicals of the 1940s and 1950s than this.

Three Men and a Baby (1987)
Three Men and a Baby (1987)

3) Three Men and a Baby (1987)

The ridiculous concept: a mom abandons her newborn baby on the doorstep of the man she thinks is the father.  His two bachelor roommates assume this is the “package” he told them to expect.  They struggle with the responsibility of parenthood, but bond with the child.  Inexplicably, they get involved in a drug smuggling operation.

Leonard Nimoy directed this film, which is so bizarre.  It’s hard to reconcile Nimoy’s public persona with something this lighthearted.

Because of the cast, the film plays like a reunion of 1980s stars.

Steve Guttenberg was in a number of well received and commercially successful films in the early 1980s: Diner (1982), Cocoon (1985), Short Circuit (1986), and the Police Academy movies.  But when the clock turned 1990, his stagecoach reverted to a pumpkin and his career became a punch line.  He’s not outstanding in any of these earlier films, but doesn’t merit the ridicule he’s received.  One can only assume he pissed off Harvey Weinstein.  In recent years, he’s been reduced to reality TV stints on Dancing with the Stars and trying to drum up demand for sequels to his hits from the 1980s (including his proposed Three Men and a Bride).

Tom Selleck is well-remembered as Thomas Magnum and Monica Geller’s older boyfriend, Richard, but his film career never materialized.  He famously turned down the role of Indiana Jones because of his commitment to Magnum, P.I.  His best films are Mr. Baseball (1992), In & Out (1997), and a series of TV movies based on the Robert Parker character Jesse Stone, which my mother loves.

Ted Danson will always be Sam “May Day” Malone, but like Selleck his film career has never been able to eclipse his iconic TV work.

Celeste Holm has a brief cameo as the mother of Ted Danson’s character.  She won an Oscar in 1947 for her work in Gentleman’s Agreement and costarred in All About Eve (1950).  Those entries alone mean she had the most impressive big screen resume of the participants in this film.

Despite its cheesiness and nonsensical plot, I really like this movie.  Full disclosure: I wore out my VHS copy when I was a kid and dreamed of having an apartment decorated like the one in this movie.  By decorated, I mean: covered with hand-drawn pastel comic book paintings.

This film is so wrapped up with fond memories of my children, I can’t claim to be impartial, but it never fails to make me smile.

Out of the South Pacific and into the Fifth Estate

June 5, 2014 progress: 3 movies

Out of the Furnace (2013)
Out of the Furnace (2013)

1) Out of the Furnace (2013)

I liked this film a lot more than I anticipated.

Russell Blaze (Christian Bale) is sent to prison after he kills a little boy in a drunken accident.

When he’s released, his dad has died, and his girlfriend (Zoe Saldana) is now in a relationship with the city police chief (Forest Whittaker).

Russell’s brother, Rodney Blaze (Casey Affleck) is a gambler who fights in underground boxing matches to pay off his debt to John Petty (Willem Dafoe).

In an attempt to pay off his debt once and for all, Rodney convinces Petty to arrange a fight with the sociopath Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson).

Christian Bale is fantastic as the honorable Russell who fights against the windmills of his fate at the steel mill, knowing it killed his father.  He has an incredible sense of loyalty and affection for his younger brother, Rodney which propels him to the film’s tragic conclusion.

Zoe Saldana is great as Lena, who’s still in love with Russell but was so desperate to start a family she began a relationship with someone else while he was gone.

Forest Whitaker is the weakest member of the cast as the chief of police and Lena’s current boyfriend.  In my opinion, Whitaker is a tad overrated.

Casey Affleck almost threw away his career with the disastrous high concept fauxumentary I’m Still Here.  Still in the shadow of his more famous brother, he might be more talented.  In this film, he’s almost as good as we was in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.

Am I the only one who confuses Wilem Dafoe for Dennis Leary? I’m not sure why, but whenever I see Dafoe, he gives off a creepy vibe and I have a difficult time trusting whatever character he portrays.  He has to earn my trust.  Nonetheless, he’s responsible for the most effective and human Jesus Christ I’ve seen on film in The Last Temptation of Christ, and his version of the Green Goblin in the Sam Rami Spider-Man movies is one of the very best big screen supervillains.

The best part of this movie is Woody Harrelson as the psychotic Harlan Degroat.  Harrelson has been on a career roll with his role in the megablockbuster Hunger Games film series and the first season of True Detective.  His performance as Harlan is a perfect balance of maniacal blood lust and cold rationality.  When all’s said and done, Harrelson will finish with one of the most impressive and diverse resumes in Hollywood.

Scott Cooper also directed the 2009 film Crazy Heart starring Jeff Bridges.  I liked that film, but this is much better and makes me excited for his upcoming film Black Mass about notorious Boston mobster Whitey Bulger.

The story isn’t spectacular or out of the ordinary, but the movie is well crafted and beautifully acted,  An entertaining movie.

The Fifth Estate (2013)
The Fifth Estate (2013)

2) The Fifth Estate (2013)

The promotional campaign did not serve this film well.  I saw the commercial with Cumberbatch bellowing, “the world deserves to know” about a hundred times, and his delivery of the line was so off-putting it became comical.

The story of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange didn’t scream, “blockbuster movie” to me, but I liked it better than I thought I would.

Cumberbatch is on the cusp of overexposure.  In 2013, he was in Star Trek into Darkness; 12 Years a Slave; The Fifth Estate; The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug; August: Osgage County; and the third series of the BBC smash hit Sherlock.

Laura Linney is too stiff and wooden for my taste.  This film is no exception.

I’m sympathetic to Julian Assange’s extreme free speech position, but, from what I can tell, the movie took a complex figure and, because the filmmakers wanted him to be seen as a hero, whitewashed any part of his life story which didn’t contribute to this narrative.

Bill Condon, the director of the last two entries in the Twilight film series and Dreamgirls, doesn’t seem like a good fit for a biographical film about a political terrorist.  If someone with a little more background in thrillers or political espionage films had been given the material it would have worked better.

It’s a better than advertised film, but it’s so busy justifying what Assange did, it doesn’t bother to look at who he is, which is a far more interesting story.

South Pacific (1958)
South Pacific (1958)

3) South Pacific (1958)

I understand this is a fairly faithful adaptation of the musical, but it drags a bit; it’s about an hour too long.

The original stars of the famed Broadway production, Ezio Pinza and Mary Martin were set to star in this adaptation, but when Pinza died, producers went in a different direction.

Some of the songs are catchy; I found myself awkwardly humming “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair” weeks after seeing the film, and “There is Nothing Like a Dame” is a fun, lively number, but the famed number “Some Enchanted Evening” was not as memorable as I would have thought and fell a little flat.

The dual stories in the film: in the early stages of the second World War, a soldier falls in love with a pacific  islander and a woman falls in love with a shadowy, widowed exiled Frenchman, but struggles with her prejudices when she finds out his previous wife was an islander.  The movie’s anti-racism message, while controversial and cutting edge in the mid 1950s, seems dated and tame today.

In an ironic twist, some of the songs, such as “Happy Talk” are often criticized as racist today.

The filmmakers made an odd decision to use color filters to convey different emotions.  It’s never effective and often distracting.

Joshua Logan who cowrote the book and directed the original Broadway production, directed this film version as well. In retrospect, he was too close to the material and could not bring himself to make the necessary cuts.

It’s probably a very fun musical, but it’s too padded for a film, and plays like material written over sixty years ago.  It’s dated and too self-important.