Saturday, July 31, 2010
From the Vault: Ghost World
By Edward Copeland
Movies can succeed by taking you to places you've never known or showing you worlds you know too well. The latter is the land where Ghost World resides.
Ghost World spins the tale of Enid (Thora Birch), a high school graduate (assuming she makes up a failed art class in summer school) who pursues her angst enthusiastically, dwelling almost exclusively in a land of deadpan irony with her best friend Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson).
Enid cloaks herself in wardrobes and hairstyles designed to provoke, daring the world to mock her while she sneers at everything and everyone she encounters. Birch, so good as a different type of alienated teen in American Beauty, nails Enid, capturing her wit and her pathos. Birch seems likely to escape the child actor's curse as she moves into adult roles.
Faithfully adapted by Daniel Clowes and director Terry Zwigoff from Clowes' great comic book, how well Ghost World works depends almost entirely on the degree with which you recognize its characters.
The movie's biggest departure from the comic book is the character of Seymour, a middle-age bachelor and audiophile who begins an unlikely friendship with Enid. Steve Buscemi plays Seymour and it's his best role in quite some time. He slips so easily into Seymour's skin, you'd think a tailor had sewn the character to him.
Zwigoff makes his fiction directing debut with Ghost World, his first feature since making 1995's best film, the documentary Crumb. Zwigoff's pacing lags occasionally, but it seems right for a film about a character as directionless as Enid.
Still, Ghost World entertains consistently, using its sarcasm to hide its more downbeat turns. Again, if this universe seems familiar, you have to know those moments are inevitable.
Ghost World won't please everyone and will leave some viewers cold. However, for those who recognize friends and acquaintances in its vivid character sketches, the movie provides a nostalgic tonic of warmth.
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Friday, July 30, 2010
Each frame a little grayer than the one before
By Edward Copeland
I have a defect as a moviewatcher and a critic. While I hold no bias against the dramatic or the serious, there must be some element of relief within them, usually some levity here or there, to offer a release valve before the going gets so oppressive that I get bored or my mind wanders (I think it explains my aversion to the films of Terrence Malick — he strikes me as someone who has never laughed in his entire life.) Sometimes movies such as these will offer some undefinable magic that makes the package work anyway, to offer welcome pause from the bleakness of their nature, but unfortunately this is not the case with The Road.
Don't misunderstand what I'm saying. I'm not asking that Steven Spielberg insert a few kneeslappers when he makes a Schindler's List or that Alain Resnais toss some slapstick into Last Year at Marienbad, yet I adore both films. It's just that some films go so deeply into the morass that the pain they depict translates into viewing that requires cinematic Vicodin of some sort.. It reminds me of the story I heard from a critic friend following a screening of The Hours when one of the writers stood up and said (quite appropriately, I believe), "Cyanide capsules for everyone?"
Granted, a film such as The Road, based on Cormac McCarthy's novel about a post-apocalyptic America, doesn't start with a premise that allows for much in the way of hope, let alone levity. Though it's never stated explicitly, one assumes that we are witnessing the few surviving stragglers of a nuclear holocaust, focusing on a father and his young son (Viggo Mortensen, Kodi Smit-McPhee) as they try to persist, wary of any strangers who might feel other survivors threaten their own continued existence.
The father and son struggle with a few meager belongings they lug in a shopping cart, searching for food and clinging closely to the father's gun and its remaining two bullets. In flashbacks, the father recalls his now deceased wife (Charlize Theron).
Directed by John Hillcoat and adapted from McCarthy's novel by Joe Penhall, the film unfolds, as one would expect, as a series of vignettes only, with rare exceptions, they aren't very interesting vignettes and it just adds to the film's feeling of ennui. The two episodes that stand out most are when the pair encounter an old man (well played by the always reliable Robert Duvall) and the film's briefest glimmer of hope when they discover a bomb shelter fully stocked with canned goods.
Unfortunately, those moments are rare ones and as the father and son continue on their long walk to nowhere in particular, you begin to feel as if you've been walking for miles as well without a destination in mind. It's not that the movie's points aren't spelled out loud and clear, it's just that the message gets weighed down by the burden of the film's gloom.
Mortensen does fine as the father but in a way he's almost upstaged by the young Smit-McPhee whose character, despite the horrors he's witnessed, manages to maintain some of a child's innocence even as he's forced to mature and question some of the decisions his psychologically scarred father makes.
Having not read the novel, I'm curious as to what novelistic magic McCarthy worked on the page because the filmmakers certainly didn't conjure any on the screen, at least as far as I'm concerned.
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Thursday, July 29, 2010
Sometimes the movie isn't what you want to talk about
By Edward Copeland
The biggest plus to deciding what movies you want to write about, as opposed to the days when I worked at a newspaper and had no choice in what I saw and wrote about, is I also have great latitude in how I choose to write about them. This comes in handy with a movie such as The Runaways, which I might bypass altogether after seeing it if it weren't for Michael Shannon's performance. His sudden appearance as a welcome name to see in credits in just the span of a couple of years justifies me "reviewing" The Runaways, when it's really just my excuse to wax rhapsodic about Shannon's rapid rise as one of my favorite actors.
The Runaways, based on the memoir by Cherie Currie (played here by Dakota Fanning) tells the story of the brief run in the mid-1970s of an all-girl rock band whose impetus was a teen Joan Jett (Kristen Stewart). Given the period and the subject, you'd think the movie would have real possibilities, but it never seems to get its engine going, with one exception.
That exception is Shannon, playing the oddball rock figure Kim Fowley who tries to shape the girls less into a band than into a publicity stunt. It's as if he wants to create a jailbait version of The Monkees, only without the TV show and disregarding the fact that Jett and the other members except for Currie have real musical talent.
Until this film, Fowley was unfamiliar to me, but looking up his bio (and his own Web site), it seems as if a much more compelling film could have been made about Fowley, who produced or co-wrote songs for acts such as KISS, Blue Oyster Cult, Helen Reddy and many others, including some notable one-hit wonders. He also had a childhood bout of polio that makes him dependent on a cane to this date. More importantly, if that film had been made and the biopic were built around Shannon's wild and entertaining performance, that film might have been something worthwhile as opposed to this rather tepid outing by writer-director Floria Sigismondi.
Every scene in which Shannon appears as Fowley in The Runaways brings the movie to vivid, vibrant life. When he's off-screen, it's as if the film has experienced a serious drop in blood pressure. Shannon's work here carries that much importance to the energy of The Runaways, but in films of all range of quality and roles of all sizes, he's fast providing a welcome boost of adrenaline.
The 35-year-old actor first began appearing in things, according to IMDb, around 1992 with his distinctive face that for years made him one of those performers who always looked familiar, but whom you couldn't name. His early work included episodic television appearances as well as notable movies such as Groundhog Day and Jesus' Son, though I don't recall him in either. He also had the misfortune of appearing in clunkers suck as Pearl Harbor, Vanilla Sky and Bad Boys II.
Then came 2007 and Shannon seemed to explode, first in a small but attention-grabbing role in Sidney Lumet's Before the Devil Knows You're Dead. The following year, two magnetic scenes in the film adaptation of Richard Yates' Revolutionary Road earned him an Oscar nomination for supporting actor.
In 2009, he soared as the lead in the quirk and underseen detective story The Missing Person and this year has brought The Runaways and, still to come, a major role in the Martin Scorsese-produced series for HBO Boardwalk Empire starring Steve Buscemi. (I'm being nice and omitting his presence in Werner Herzog's awful The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call — New Orleans and I haven't seen Jonah Hex.)
Did I mention Michael Shannon will turn a mere 36 in August? He has a long career ahead of him and while he's been at it a while, when he can make an otherwise dull film such as The Runaways watchable — hell, just about anything watchable — Shannon must have found his lucky star. Then again, maybe it's us, the viewer, who are the ones who found that lucky star.
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Wednesday, July 28, 2010
When the press still made us proud
By Edward Copeland
The subject of this documentary, nominated for the 2009 Oscar for documentary feature, gets spelled out fairly clearly in its rather lengthy title, The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and The Pentagon Papers. While the subject and film itself both are interesting, what the movie did most to me was make me sad for a time long past, in the days before cable news, when journalism seemed to be dominated by ethical professionals who believed in their sacred role in this country's history and functionality. Today, with more and more newspapers long gone and television news a joke, I viewed this documentary less as the tale of the man who leaked America's secret role in Southeast Asia dating back to Truman and more about how today's Fourth Estate fails us every day.
Directed by Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith, the documentary is narrated by Ellsberg himself, telling how the one-time Pentagon military analyst for the Johnson Administration who served under then-Defense Secretary Robert McNamara began to doubt the United States' mission and felt guilt over his own involvement in the conflict, particularly once he'd moved into a position at the Rand Corporation. Moved by what he saw at a war protest where anti-war activists were prepared to go to jail if they thought it would help stop the bloodshed, Ellsberg began smuggling out the voluminous history of the war to make copies once he realized that newly elected President Nixon really had no intention of ending the U.S. involvement quickly.
First, Ellsberg tries delivering the papers to members of Congress, but they were uncertain of what to do with them. Even then, those legislators must have had disdain for too much reading. Frustrated, despite fears of possible violations of the U.S. Espionage Act, that's when Ellsberg gave the Pentagon Papers to The New York Times and caused the Nixon Administration (as shown on many of the Nixon tapes) to blow a gasket. The administration sued and actually got an injunction bringing a temporary halt to the Times' series and that's when the American press proved itself proud in a way it never does today. The Washington Post picked up the ball and started carrying the story where the Times left off. When they were similarly enjoined, another newspaper took up the case. In all, 17 newspapers across the country took part in telling the story of how each U.S. president from Truman through Nixon had deceived the American people about our involvement in Vietnam. Television even got into the act. Once it was determined Ellsberg was the leaker and he was on the lam, Walter Cronkite managed to get a hold of him and do an interview with him for the evening news.
Can you imagine any of the starstruck buddy-buddy members of the media acting this way today? Even more so, when the case got to the Supreme Court, do you think the bunch we have sitting there now would rule 6-3 in favor of the press on the side of the public's right to know? Everyone knows that the Vietnam War was a tragic time in U.S. history, but for me knowing that now we live in a time where the media doesn't do its job and the courts wouldn't back them up is even sadder. Perhaps we will soon see a test with Wikileaks' release of more than 92,000 Afghanistan war documents revealing, among other things, that Pakistan aids the Taliban as much as it helps us (as if we didn't already know that). It is telling that WikiLeaks chose to go publications such as The Guardian and der Spiegel first since the former big names in newspapers now seem firmly entrenched as another arm of the establishment. That may not have been the filmmakers's intent, but that's what The Most Dangerous Man in America left me with.
As for the film as a documentary, it's fine, if basically of the talking head variety, though it is interesting to see Sen. Mike Gravel, the Alaska Democrat, when he was a vital member of the Senate, filibustering against the draft and reading the Pentagon Papers into the Congressional Record as opposed to the image of him as the loony old man who was on stage at those 2008 Democratic presidential primary debates and made those odd, though funny, commercials. It does lead to a funny part of the film with an animated depiction of the handoff between Ellsberg and Gravel of the papers.
Of course, the sad truth is that while it was a proud moment for the press and the Supreme Court and the Nixon Administration's chicanery led to Ellsberg getting off as a free man, all it did was further raise opposition to the war. It still dragged on for a few more years until Nixon finally was driven from office and President Ford pulled everyone out. What sort of end do we face in Iraq and Afghanistan? Are there the equivalent of Pentagon Papers out there? Would anyone publish them? Would it make a difference?
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Tuesday, July 27, 2010
By Jonathan Pacheco
I've grown somewhat suspicious of Jean-Pierre Jeunet, wondering if my immediate excitement for his films exists because he does quality work or rather because the French filmmaker knows how to push my cinematic buttons. Here's a director with flair, his films vibrantly and dynamically shot, his scenes painted using lush color palettes, special effects fearlessly integrated into his worlds, which are populated with an array of quirky, endearing characters. To the modern quasi-hippie dabbling in foreign films, Jeunet is an absolute darling. I suspect that his demonstrative style, on full display in Micmacs, represents a new, more appealing idea of French cinema to the demographic turned off by the "boring" stereotypes of talkative, avant-garde, cerebral pictures littered with black turtlenecks.
Bazil (Dany Boon), after receiving an accidental (but nonlethal) bullet to the head one night, comes out of the hospital jobless and homeless, but fortunately is taken in by a band of near-nauseatingly quirky misfits that might as well belong to a touring circus. The mathematically brilliant, reserved, wide-eyed, smooth-skinned Audrey Tautou substitute, the rough, leather-skinned ox with a forehead like a two-story brick house, the spry, bird-like old man with a honking nose for a beak, adorable in his energy and kindness — it's like Jeunet was thumbing through his Rolodex of "Zany Characters That Make for Great Close-Ups." They exist only out of a certain necessity, as each of their designated "skills" will be needed later on for some of the plot's Ocean's 11-style antics.
Jeunet's camera makes love to the characters and the world they inhabit with such intoxicating passion, but it's clear that the film uses the director's trademark pizazz to thrust not a story but a blatant political and moral stance. This film doesn't have a message, it is its message.
Happy to be adopted by his new family of ragtags, Bazil turns to them for help when he makes a shocking discovery: the company responsible for manufacturing the stray bullet lodged in his skull sits across the street from the weapons dealer that created the land mine that blew up his father many years earlier. Of all the luck! Our scruffy, blank-faced hero vows revenge on both company heads for their indirect hands in his life's miseries.
Neither proactively good or bad, Micmacs is satisfied with simply existing as a sort of pacifist propaganda. Conflict is all but missing. Characterization, too. The film is a medley of somewhat amusing hijinks (living up to its full translated title: "Non-Stop Shenanigans") laid on a bed of perceived moral superiority, presented to us with that irresistible Jean-Pierre Jeunet glaze. Sure, it looks tasty, but its empty whimsy does little to satisfy my hunger.
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Monday, July 26, 2010
Remembering James Gammon in Major League
By David Gaffen
For avid moviegoers one of the pleasures of the film-viewing experience is the chance to see recognizable faces again and again — character actors who are so instantly familiar that they bring a knowing smile upon their first appearance on the screen. Sometimes these people turn, however slowly, into the kind of name that ends up third- or fourth-billed in a movie, like Steve Buscemi or Sam Elliott, or into a strange sort of star such as Philip Seymour Hoffman.
More often than not, though, they appear in what seems to be every movie made, like M. Emmet Walsh. We lost one of those character actors recently, a gem of a movie presence, James Gammon, a longtime theater performer who was best known for his portrayal of Cleveland Indians manager Lou Brown in Major League.
Gammon had a bushy mustache and one of the most recognizable voices in the business, a raspy, gravelly croak perfectly suited for cowboys and weary authority figures. He shows up in Urban Cowboy and had a memorable bit in Silverado as a gunman incredulous that Scott Glenn’s character has brought a posse to one of his best hideouts.
Major League was released in 1989 and exists in the public consciousness as a sister to Bull Durham, which hit theaters a year earlier, because they share a subject matter (baseball) and they’re both comedies.
The reality is that Major League isn’t half the movie Bull Durham is, and without Gammon, it would be more or less unwatchable.
Looking back, with the exception of Bob Uecker’s moments as the team announcer, just about every amusing part of the movie involves Gammon in one way or another. He dismisses Wesley Snipes’ Willie “Mays” Hayes, who says, "I hit like Mays but I run like Mays," after he bats a pop-up with this terse summation: “You may run like Hayes, but you hit like shit.”
His early reaction to Dennis Haysbert’s breaking-ball challenged Pedro Cerrano is another great throwaway moment. Cerrano is crushing the ball during batting practice, and Gammon muses, “This guy hits a ton. How come nobody picked him up?” Cerrano then whiffs, badly, at a breaking ball, and Gammon, deflated, groans, “Ohhhhh.”
Frequent moviegoers are demanding of actors, generally not wanting to see big-name guys assume the same persona throughout each movie, which may be part of the reason certain stars seem to dim after they’ve been seen mining familiar ground. (Samuel L. Jackson’s shtick, for one, is really tired these days.)
Character actors get a good bit of latitude in this way, perhaps because their part in a production is limited, and so a familiar personality livens up the screen for a brief period of time before they fade into the background. Think of Dylan Baker in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment of glee in the underrated Changing Lanes, or Bill Nighy’s venomous pharma exec in The Constant Gardener.
Gammon will forever be one of those. He had a couple of good meaty roles in later years, playing another cowboy in Traveller, a little-seen, but interesting character study with Bill Paxton and Mark Wahlberg, and one of the only roles really worth a darn in the overwrought Cold Mountain.
But it will be Lou Brown for which Gammon is most remembered for movie fans. It’s fitting that the sequel, Major League II, was vastly less successful than the original. (The original grossed nearly $50 million; five years later, the sequel only made $30 million.)
On some level, that had to be for the disastrous decision by the writers to sideline the character with a heart attack, only to give more screen time to the sleep-inducing character played by Tom Berenger. Lou Brown, given the chance to look at the script, would have reacted to that in the same fashion he did when confronted with an annoying provision in Roger Dorn’s (Corbin Bernsen) contract — threw it on the ground and pissed all over it.
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George Costanza's Dream Comes True in Cyrus
By Eddie Selover
A couple of years ago, watching Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, I was seriously offended on behalf of Marisa Tomei for her having to participate in some fairly explicit sex scenes. The problem wasn’t Tomei, who looks more devastating than ever in her 40s. The problem was that she was in bed with the last actor on earth who should be seen unclothed (even a little bit): Philip Seymour Hoffman. Though Hoffman was great as always, the physical disconnect between them made it impossible to suspend disbelief... she was acting all turned on by him, and man, that was some acting.
Now, three years later, here is Tomei cast as a “sex angel” to the lumpish, skeevy John C. Reilly in Cyrus. She hasn't had a relationship in years, the movie would have us believe, but she's attracted to Reilly. Uh-huh. To add insult to injury, she also plays the mother of the spectacularly bloated and unattractive Jonah Hill. The unlikelihood of either of these gentlemen getting anywhere near a woman like Marisa Tomei isn’t the main problem with Cyrus, but it was the one that irritated me the most.
Reilly plays John, a film editor who has been divorced for several years and lives alone in a messy apartment, eating junk food and staring at his computer screen. As with the heroes of so many of today’s slacker movies, whether mumblecore or not, John is a slovenly loser with no looks, physique, hygiene, money or career prospects… and who yet manages to have giddy, happy sex with a hot woman who responds to his sincerity, or basic decency, or something. Cyrus opens with John’s unbelievably non-acrimonious ex-wife Jamie interrupting him in the middle of masturbation; later he meets Tomei while peeing in some bushes. Are these the sorts of moments that bring hot women into a man’s life? Only in the minds of male screenwriters who have spent way too much time staring at their computer screens.
So John and Tomei’s Molly hook up, and things are going great until he meets her son Cyrus. Fat and beady-eyed, Cyrus is an antisocial lout who has an unhealthy Oedipal obsession with his mom and no intention of sharing her with a boyfriend. (Hill, by the way, looks more like the child of Danny DeVito's Penguin than that of Marisa Tomei, but let it go.) The first third of the movie is standard comedy-of-social-awkwardness as this situation is set up, but as John moves closer, and eventually into Molly’s house, Cyrus begins a passive-aggressive campaign to break up the relationship. For a while, with the handheld camera moving through the bluish darkened rooms of the house, it’s like a horror movie, and you half expect Cyrus to pop out with a knife like Norman Bates. Then for the last third, the movie makes another shift in tone, and goes all soft and sensitive as we see how much Cyrus is hurting, and he and John forge a tentative reconciliation.
This is one shift too many for the audience, whom I felt were ready for something darker and edgier. There are suggestions of an incestuous relationship between Cyrus and Molly — she spends the night in his bed when he’s upset, he uses the bathroom while she’s showering, etc. But these scenes don’t go anywhere, and Molly is ultimately portrayed as a sane, sweet earth mother who has evidently played no part in making her son a borderline psychopath. Like Mildred Pierce, her only sin is loving her child so much that she’s blind to what a monster she’s created. Or hasn’t created. Again, these are screenwriter contrivances — everything that happens in the movie is for an immediate effect and has no grounding in psychological truth.
The performers are left to make the movie work, and it must be said that Reilly almost pulls it off. He’s a very likable actor, maybe because of the glints of suffering in the little raisin eyes set too close together in his doughy face. We’re with him all the way, and when Cyrus begins his campaign of lying and manipulation, we want John to come up with some clever strategies to beat the little bastard at his own game. But although the movie makes a couple of feints in this direction, evidently the writer/directors Mark and Jay Duplass aren’t up to writing a battle of wits. In fact, much of the movie was improvised by the performers, and several scenes have that repetitive, vamping tediousness that improvisation gets when there’s no inspiration behind it.
Catherine Keener fares particularly badly — she has now officially tilted her head, squinted compassionately and laughed unexpectedly in one too many movies. She plays Jamie, the ex who dumped John several years previously, but still hangs around solicitously, trying to get him to socialize and find happiness in a new relationship. Uh-huh. Cyrus is like a loser’s daydream in which he doesn’t have to change a thing about himself: everybody loves him anyway. Even Marisa Tomei.
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Sunday, July 25, 2010
It's still alright
By Edward Copeland
A realization washes over me each time I've watched Caddyshack in the past 30 years since it was first released, an anniversary we mark today: my memories of the film always are of a movie that's better and funnier than the one I've just finished sitting through. This is not to say that Caddyshack is bad or unworthy of salute — no film that contains so many memorable moments and pop culture touchstones can be completely devoid of value — it's just that the Caddyshack that runs in my mind is a helluva lot better than the one I recently re-watched on DVD.
Each time you see Caddyshack it becomes more glaringly apparent what a patchwork production the movie truly was. I revisited the film on an older DVD whose extras included interviews with some of the principals who freely admitted how much was improvised and how the film began as the story of caddy Danny Noonan (Michael O'Keefe) and his coming of age and search for a mentor until more big-time comic stars joined the cast and, while it did make for some hysterically funny moments, it also made Caddyshack feel as if many of the actors were performing in different films and just happened to cross paths occasionally. Some scenes actually were worked out that way, as director and co-writer Harold Ramis tells it on the DVD, when they realized they had no scenes between Chevy Chase and Bill Murray and scrambled to cook one up.
Now, who knows what the real film that focused on Danny and his other caddies might have looked like? Though Chase, Murray, Rodney Dangerfield and Ted Knight get above-the-title credits, the starring credit goes to O'Keefe and it's his character we begin with, trapped in a house in Nebraska with too many siblings to count, making his escape from home via fire escape and heading to work at the Bushwood Country Club atop a bicycle in some of the most obvious back-projection scenes seen in a movie that wasn't using them as a spoof in ages. Odds are that Ramis and co-writer Douglas Kenney did what they could with the semi-autobiographical script by Brian Doyle-Murray (Bill's real-life brother and the actor who plays Lou, manager of the caddies here), but still maybe we should have expected more since Ramis and Kenney were the main writers of National Lampoon's Animal House (and the late Kenney also played Delta member Stork in that film). Besides, Ramis also was dealing with the fact that he was directing a movie for the first time, so his attention was divided. We shouldn't feel too bad for O'Keefe though: He had a pretty good 1980 anyway, earning a best supporting actor Oscar nomination for playing Robert Duvall's son in The Great Santini.
Because of this schizophrenia inherent in the screenplay, you have a movie that bounces all over the place. Danny's path does cross most of the comic stars brought in to save the film and transform it into a comedy, but at times when they go back to his isolated story, it just seems very strange. There will be parts when Lou, the caddies' manager, warns them that they could all be replaced by golf carts that sort of reminded me of all the times on TV's WKRP in Cincinnati that they feared radio stations becoming automated without live disc jockeys. You have his relationship with snack bar worker Maggie (Sarah Holcomb) while lusting after Judge Smails' niece Lacey Underall (Cindy Morgan), complicated by his need to suck up to Smails (Knight) in hopes of winning the caddy scholarship to go to college. (It's sort of a sign of desperation when there's an overabundance of names that are silly puns: Judge Smails, Lacey Underall, Bushwood, Dr. Beeper, etc.) You also get weird diversions such as when Maggie fears she's pregnant only for that plot worry to be resolved as a negative three scenes later. They seem as if they were spliced into the film from another movie by mistake and are speed bumps to the comedy. Having written with Ali so recently about the 30th anniversary of Airplane!, which was released just a matter of weeks before Caddyshack, part of me wonders if the good will generated by the other film rubbed off on this one. I also find it interesting that two comedies released in the same month in the same year both used John Williams' Jaws score for laughs, though here it serves as accompaniment to a floating Baby Ruth candy bar. The caddies-invading-the-pool sequence does have the movie's one moment of bizarre inspiration that I've always appreciated: When out of nowhere, the male caddies all perform a water ballet as if it's out of an Esther Williams' film or composed aquatically by Busby Berkeley to appropriate music that seems to spring from nowhere. It's hilarious because it's so inexplicable.
The person who more or less steals the film was basically making his film debut, having appeared in only one other theatrical release back in 1971 — and he was 58 at the time. Though a legend as a comic, Rodney Dangerfield was a novice as an actor and no one can make the claim that he was giving a Method performance or a carefully modulated turn here, but he did spark a comedic cinematic explosion as Al Czervik and his work in Caddyshack definitely deserves respect. He's not just repeating his standup routine (he does utter his catchphrase "I don't get no respect" once, but it's said so quietly, almost under his breath, that you have to be listening very closely to even hear it). It's not to downplay the other great comedic talents in the film — Ted Knight delivers brilliance and it goes without saying that Bill Murray turned Carl into a creation that's a work of wonder that will last for eons — but I believe Dangerfield really deserves a great deal of the credit for the film's reputation. (I apologize Chevy Chase fans — I don't think he adds much.) In the DVD extra, Ramis mentions how Dangerfield was convinced he was doing a terrible job on the set because no one was laughing. It had to be explained to him that if everyone laughed, it would ruin the soundtrack and that he was doing great, but he was so used to the immediate feedback a comedian gets from an audience he couldn't be certain that his jokes were working. Boy, were they working. Dangerfield performs like a manic dervish, whirling out of control through the film, dropping insults and one-liners and leaving chaos in his wake. (Introducing a Chinese business associate, he tosses out that the man has property behind the Great Wall of China — on the good side.) His compliments always end up sounding uncomplimentary as when he tells Smails' wife (Lois Kibbee) that she must have been something before electricity. Of course, he also gets the film's final line, after the final round of golf has been completed and all the good guys have gathered back at the clubhouse and he shouts to them from below, "Hey everybody — we're all gonna get laid!" He's a vulgar lout, but a joyously vulgar lout — pure id — and only sticks in the mud such as Judge Smails can't appreciate the fun he contributes when he's around, but movie audiences certainly did.
As much as I (and millions of others) love Rodney in Caddyshack, I don't want to give short shrift to some of his co-stars who also played a major role in making such a flawed and uneven film into a beloved comedy classic. First, I feel the need to pay special tribute to Ted Knight as Judge Smails. While he is the ostensible "villain" of the piece, he also is hysterically funny. In a way, his performance reminds me of the ones put forth by Robert Stack, Leslie Nielsen, et al. in Airplane! except that instead of being known as a serious actor as the Airplane! crew were, Knight would forever be labeled as the buffoonish dunce anchorman Ted Baxter from The Mary Tyler Moore Show. (His second successful sitcom, Too Close for Comfort, wouldn't premiere until the fall after Caddyshack's opening to give Knight a chance to distance himself further from the Baxter persona.) Knight's Smails though proves to be a fine comic creation, at times charming, mostly full of bluster, but downright hilarious, especially when he's exploding with indignation at Dangerfield's antics. He's also funny when being frustrated by his nitwit nephew Spaulding (John F. Barmon Jr.) as when Spaulding rattles off what he's going to order at the snack bar, quickly and in monotone changing from one choice to another until an exasperated Smails finally spits, "You'll get nothing and like it!" Then there is his scene with Danny after he's caught him in his bed with Lacey and attempts to have a calm conversation with him in his office, starting with the expression when he spins and smacks his own leg into the desk and then for a punchline tires of trying to see Danny around his desk lamp. While his performance is purely a comic one (and a masterful one), what makes it so great is that in his own way, he does play it straight, at least when compared to the zaniness that surrounds him. Too often his contributions to Caddyshack don't get the credit they deserve.
Then there is Carl Spackler. Earlier, I mentioned how many of the actors seemed as if they were in their own movie and there is no clearer case than Bill Murray's Carl whose main co-star is a puppet of a gopher. I didn't realize how many special effects were involved in the gopher and his series of tunnels, all designed by John Dykstra and his team, visual effects wizards who worked on Star Wars and Star Trek: the Motion Picture and the TV pilot for the 1970s Battlestar Galactica. Still, that doesn't compare to the special effect that was Murray's Carl. From his lusting after older female golfers ("You wore green so you could hide") to his menacing speech to the young caddy about carrying the golf bag for the Dalai Lama, who was going to stiff him on the tip, but who said at the end that he wouldn't give him money, but on his deathbed, Carl would experience complete consciousness, "So I've got that going for me — which is nice," the entire monologue delivered as he poking the young caddy's neck with a pitchfork. Mostly though, Carl battles the elusive gopher with his "license to kill gophers by the government of the United Nations." The bizarre creation that is Carl gives the payoff to the Baby Ruth scene and to the movie itself. He also gets to take part in a nice little vignette where he caddies for the reverend (played by veteran actor Henry Wilcoxon) during a driving thunderstorm. Despite the dangers, the clergyman persists because God wouldn't dare ruin the best game of his life. Well, yes He would and Carl just leaves the reverend prone on the course after he misses a putt, curses the heavens and gets struck by lightning, only to later renounce his faith and declare that there is no God. As many problems as I have with Caddyshack as a film, writing about it makes me grin again and forget most of the flaws I find in it when I watch it. Still, recollecting those good parts contributed by Dangerfield, Knight, Murray and some of the nameless others, I'm forgetting again what an imperfect comedy it is. Perhaps this is a Cinderella story after all.
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Saturday, July 24, 2010
From the Vault: Mulholland Drive
Twin Peaks co-creator Mark Frost once said the TV series he spawned with David Lynch was more about the journey than the destination. That sums up Lynch's film career, from Eraserhead through his exquisite G-rated surprise, The Straight Story, to his latest release, Mulholland Drive.
Mulholland Drive began life as a television series. After ABC passed on the two-hour pilot, Lynch got financing to expand the film into a stand-alone theatrical release. Lynch's new film returns to the land of dreams and nightmares, self-parody and general silliness that is a joy when it works (as in Twin Peaks on television) but unbearable when it doesn't (see Lost Highway).
In many respects, Mulholland Drive turns out to be his most satisfying excursion into this realm.
It's pointless to describe the story of Mulholland Drive, which, in vague terms, tells a story of Hollywood focusing on a troubled director and two women, one an aspiring actress, the other an amnesiac.
However, the plot is just an excuse to explore Lynch's recurring theme of duality and, in some cases, multiplicity.
As is the case in most of Lynch's work, his cast is at the mercy of his whims, so much so that you're uncertain about their talent. This time, Lynch proves his point within the same film, most notably with Naomi Watts as the naive, wanna-be starlet.
Watts' performance is so wide-eyed that she sparks laughs as she uncovers Hollywood's seamier side. The tables are turned on the audience when Watts replays a scene in a casting director's office, putting an unexpected spin on dialogue the viewer heard only moments before.
Mulholland Drive isn't perfect. The first hour and a half is spellbinding, but it wears out its welcome in its final hour as it spins in darker, less coherent directions.
Then again, Lynch has produced another movie as fever-dream, and logic doesn't apply. If you're not a Lynch fan, Mulholland Drive will prove frustrating. If you are, sit back and enjoy the ride.
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Friday, July 23, 2010
The best of "This is you, America" TV dramas
By Alex Ricciuti
You know, I'm ambivalent about Mad Men. It's a consistently well-written show with realistic, resonating drama but sometimes it's excessive ambition misses and reduces the show to something far more facile and trite and easily mockable. It's also a little too fetishistic about its period details and style. Its actors use this often very annoying idiom where they blend what is a 2010 idea of how people behaved in that era with a throwback acting style that mimics how a Tony Curtis or a Jack Lemmon would have acted in a Mad Men movie made in 1960.
And another thing...Mad Men is one of those “This is you, America” television dramas with an antisocial protagonist who inevitably becomes an allegory for America itself. Yes, this is you, America: self-absorbed, amoral, narcissistic and in denial about your true nature. A theme that's a little too tired and sophomoric for me. “Yeah, man, America, man, is a criminal enterprise, man, and the whole shithouse is going up in flames, man!"
Fortunately, though, Don Draper isn't a murderous sociopath like Tony Soprano — a contrivance of a protagonist meant to make the audience squirm — something I really resented. He's more the opportunistic con man with a tinge of conscience. Like a Bill Clinton, say. An American archetype I thoroughly enjoy exploring. Don Draper is a chameleon, a shape-shifting con artist perpetually reinventing himself in the tradition of Richard Nixon. What I don't buy is the the reductiveness of seeing this as an exclusively American critique.
Still, I like Mad Men because a television show is the perfect medium with which to pose that big zeitgeist question — Who are we? And Mad Men does it by showing us who we were before and subtly leaving the "Who are we now?" to the audience.
But let's get back to Clinton because, let's face it, we are all a little Bill Clinton today. Don Draper carries a borrowed name just like that other slick, womanizing salesmen with a shifty sense of self. But former President William Jefferson Clinton was actually born William Jefferson Blythe. His biological father was a traveling salesman who died at the age of 28 in a car wreck before little Bill was even born. (He died in a ditch like Ira Hayes — how's that for a little Americana synchronicity?) Clinton grew up in the wheeler-dealer Arkansas middle-class. His uncle owned a large auto dealership from which the teenage Clinton had his choice of new cars to drive around in. In a flashback in Season 2, we see a young Don Draper working as a car salesman. The salesman is but one dimension of the confidence man archetype. And what better representation of that confluence between conning and selling than someone who sells advertising? That's what advertising does: It sells you an empty box wrapped up to look like the American dream.
But Don Draper is more than just an archetype, he's a fairly well-defined character even if his shifty personality is a part of that definition. The question of his identity is still the central conceit of the show but it is played as much as a character study as it is a mystery.
Take Draper's casual paternalism/misogyny toward his wife Betty — a product of the times, yes, but he also encourages Peggy in her careerism and is (pardon the Van Halen reference in advance) hot for his daughter Sally's teacher Suzanne because she's a free-thinking, independent woman. He's not dismissive or jealous of either of their abilities. He also shares with Peggy and Suzanne's epileptic brother an underlying kinship as outcasts looking for validation. Sometimes it looks like he's simply calculating his actions from a vantage point of pure self-interest, but in others, true empathy is at work. Yes, he indulges the fruits of being on the outside, as evidenced by his serial womanizing. But he's not of the mistress/kept woman cheater breed — seeing women as a trophy of success. From Midge to Rachel to Bobbie Barrett to Suzanne, these women provide Don with a form of companionship, spiritual and intellectual, that he seems to desperately need.
That is what makes the character compelling. Humans beings are a confluence of (often counterintuitive) internal dynamics. Don Draper's shame of his origins is the flip-side to both his arrogance as well as his empathy with those aforementioned characters. Remember the look on his face when Jimmy Barrett said to him, "You're garbage and you know it." It was a look of horror and recognition. It stung not just because it was true (for him, at least) but what was more devastating was the fact that Barrett was able to see through the elaborate facade he had put up around himself.
Another revealing moment for the character came in Season 1 when Don spends some time with Midge's (a character name borrowed from Vertigo) beatnik friends. He's contemptuous of Midge's boyfriend/1960-variant-of-screw-buddy Roy not only out of jealousy over Midge but because Roy benefited from a luxury that was never afforded to Don. As a Beatnik, Roy could easily reject the values of his comfortable middle-class upbringing because they had never refused him. This guy isn't social garbage like Don and he enjoys a freedom Don could never exercise. When Don snaps the picture of Roy and Midge together on the bed, and Don, with his keen ad man's eye, sees that they are in love, he more than understands his exclusion. He can't give that much of himself away. He never had the capital.
This is where we find Don's greatest fault, best evidenced by his cruel and expedient treatment of closeted gay art director Sal in Season 3. Simply put: he feels he can't afford to be emotionally generous or have too many scruples because any unnecessary commitment could hamper him and reveal his great shame. His greatest fear will always be what Jimmy Barrett did to him.
Like most human beings, Don Draper is afraid to look inward. When Don said to Bobbie moments before their car crash, "I feel nothing,” it was more than romanticized nihilism. I once had a very smart friend of mine remark to me that superficial people are the way they are not because they are empty on the inside but precisely because they are afraid that if they search within themselves they will find that there is nothing there. That they are just the superficial assholes they know other people think they are. There are many clues that tell us Don is tempted toward introspection, as with his flirtations with art-house cinema and literature, but somehow his fear gets the better of him.
As a viewer, you may be asking, "Who is Don Draper?" but maybe Don Draper has a few questions for you. Are you afraid to look beneath your habits of material consumption and flaccid human relationships because you're afraid there won't be anything real of yourself to discover? That your identity is just a graven idol you've crafted as a distraction? If you look inward, do you fear you will find nothing but illusions?
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Thursday, July 22, 2010
My Missing Picture Nominees: Blossoms in the Dust (1941)
By Edward Copeland
When people argued in favor of expanding the best picture category to 10 nominees, one of their most frequent arguments was looking back at some of the years in the 1930s and early ‘40s when the Academy had 10 or more nominees for best picture. This was the case in 1941 and that’s how melodramatic malarkey such as Blossoms in the Dust ended up in the final derby. Watching this howler alone might get the Board of Governors to decide to go back to five.
To give you an idea of the type of movie this Greer Garson vehicle is, let me give away some of the plot. Edna and her sister Charlotte (Garson, Marsha Hunt) are both engaged to upstanding men in Wisconsin society, though a bank teller named Sam Gladney (Walter Pidgeon) puts the moves on Edna. The next thing you know, Edna is engaged to Sam and Charlotte goes to ask her potential mother in-law about the possibility of a double wedding. Unfortunately, the old crone has discovered that Charlotte was a “foundling,” adopted by Edna’s family after having been born as an illegitimate child. Oh, the scandal it would cause. She can’t allow Charlotte to marry her son. Charlotte didn’t know. She leaves the room, tells Edna everything is OK and proceeds to go upstairs and blow her head off.
Don’t worry that I just gave you spoilers. This all happens in the first 20 minutes.
The movie that Blossoms in the Dust reminded me most of is the god-awful Beaches, at least in terms of structure. They have one scene that sets up an obvious obstacle or problem, the next scene gives the payoff. Next scene, new situation, etc., etc., etc. Edna gives birth to a son; doctor tells Sam it’s too dangerous for her to have more children; next scene, son is older and decides to go on a horse and buggy ride. I’ll take bets now on whether the boy returns with a pulse or not.
The overriding plot (or theme) of Blossoms in the Dust is Edna’s mission to help place abandoned children in good homes and to remove the stigma of illegitimacy. It is meant to be inspirational and I imagine in the right hands, it could have been, but nothing director Mervyn LeRoy or the story by Ralph Wheelwright and screenplay by Anita Loos offer do anything other than offer boredom and laughter at its over-the-top histrionics and predictability.
Garson received the first of her five consecutive best actress nominations for this, but it certainly wasn’t deserved. I guess we should be grateful this wasn’t the film that beat Citizen Kane for best picture in 1941, but I bet there were certainly many more unnominated contenders that were worth a best picture nomination that year, such as (in no particular order) The Devil and Miss Jones, Dumbo, The Wolf Man, All That Money Can Buy aka The Devil and Daniel Webster, Sullivan's Travels, The Lady Eve, Meet John Doe, Ball of Fire, High Sierra, Never Give a Sucker an Even Break...I think I've made my point. Blossoms in the Dust sucks.
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Wednesday, July 21, 2010
An idea is a greater monument than any cathedral
"Fanaticism and bigotry is forever busy and needs feeding and soon your honor, with banners flying and with drums beating, we'll be marching backward, backward through the glorious ages of that 16th century when bigots burned the man who dared bring enlightenment and intelligence to the human mind."
By Edward Copeland
Admittedly, I am sucker for Inherit the Wind. Be it Stanley Kramer's 1960 film version, which premiered 50 years ago today in Dayton, Tenn. (the site of the real Scopes monkey trial), before its wide opening in November, or the 1955 play by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee from which it was adapted, fictionalizing the infamous 1925 trial where a high school teacher was convicted for violating a law barring the teaching of Darwin's theory of evolution. However, it's not because I'm a die-hard Darwin disciple that I love this play and this movie: That's not even why the playwrights wrote it. They were intending it as a parable against the McCarthyism of the time. The truth is Inherit the Wind always seems to be relevant, because we never find ourselves running short of fanatics of all stripes afraid that if anyone thinks differently than they do, their own belief structure will crumble like saltines. You look at the belligerent shouters and name-callers now and their issues might not be evolution, but it's not a huge leap from there to where those of us who prize free speech and free thought fear the petrified wish to take us. As Gene Kelly, in a rare straight role as E.K. Hornbeck, the H.L. Mencken equivalent, says, "Darwin was wrong. Man still is an ape." That's why I celebrate Kramer's film today.
Kramer's film opens somewhat ominously (helped by stark black-and-white cinematography by Ernest Laszlo) as we see the words denoting the Hillsboro Courthouse as "(Gimme That) Old Time Religion" plays. Men in suits march from there as more join, eventually with a minister (played by Claude Akins, one of many television stalwarts in the film), the last of the group, who leads the way through the schoolhouse doors. Inside, we find the classroom of Bertram Cates (Dick York) where Cates has just pulled down a chart to illustrate a lecture he is about to give about Charles Darwin's Theory of Evolution. By this time, the men have joined them (a newspaper photographer among their ranks). Cates gets few words on the subject out of his mouth when the sheriff steps up and announces that he is in violation of the state's law against the teaching of the theory and places him under him arrest.
The incident gains national attention — and not the good kind. Some of Hillsboro's leading citizens worry about the town's image and fear they are being turned into a laughingstock. A banker (Wendell Holmes) notes that some students will be ineligible to apply at the country's better universities because of this law and he might like to see his son go to Yale. "We can't close our eyes to all progress," he tells the room. I wonder if that's something the current Texas board of education considered or even cared about. Still, more of the citizens fear for the town's soul and Reverend Brown (Akins) believes God has sent them a sign as they read the news that Matthew Harrison Brady (the William Jennings Bryan equivalent played by Fredric March) has agreed to act as special prosecutor for the case. As much as some leaders would like the case to go away, there's no turning back now. The clip above begins with Cates' arrest and continues through the town meeting. Adding to the ruckus is the renowned troublemaking journalist E.K. Hornbeck (Kelly) who also has arrived with the news that his paper will put up the money for Cates' defense and have hired for the teacher the famed defense attorney Henry Drummond (the Clarence Darrow equivalent played by Oscar nominee Spencer Tracy). The tent has been raised and the train is on the tracks, steaming toward town. The circus is well on its way to Hillsboro.
When Brady arrives, Hillsboro gives the three-time presidential candidate a hero's welcome, complete with signs not only supporting him but denouncing evolution, Darwin and Cates. The mayor (Philip Coolidge) even announces that he's been given the authority to grant Brady the honorary title of colonel in the state's militia. The veteran pol, well known for his stem-winders, loves receiving the warmth of a rally's enthusiasm again and takes to the stage to cheer them on and get ready for the fight ahead. His official role may be to serve as special prosecutor in the case against Bertram Cates, but you can see from the glow spreading across Brady's face and balding pate that this really is just another chance for a campaign. His words may defend the Bible and the law against teaching evolution, but anyone whose eyes are wide open enough can see that it's really all about Brady himself, at least for Brady. There was one other plot detail that I've failed to mention so far. The daughter of Rev. Brown, Rachel (Donna Anderson), happens to be in love with Bert Cates and is understandably torn (though the end of the clip above gives that away along with the fact that the jailer lets Bert out of his cell so they can play cards). As the Brady rally reprises "(Gimme That) Old Time Religion" substituting Brady on the line "If it's good enough for (mother or father or Hebrew children or whomever)." One of the crowd's stern church ladies shakes her finger at Rachel when she notices she's not joining the chorus. The only person in the crowd seeming to arch an eyebrow at the whole display is the cynical Hornbeck and this is where he makes his announcement about Drummond for the defense. A woman, obviously peeved, asks the reporter if he needs a nice, clean place to stay while he's in Hillsboro, obviously waiting to turn him down, but she gets no such chance. "I had a nice clean place to stay," E.K. replies, "but I chose to come here."
Have no fear that a film with a subject as important as Inherit the Wind will waste much time on the story of star-crossed lovers — it’s just a minor complication to the bigger issues at hand. However, before the trial really begins to get rolling it does set the stage for one of the film’s best scenes and one of Tracy’s best speeches. (It seems ridiculous to single out a best Tracy speech in this film when you could practically just list most of his dialogue and let it stand by itself in place of analyzing the film.) Bert has started to have doubts about what he’s become embroiled in and as he is having these thoughts Sarah, after having another run in with her father who has practically condemned her to the fires of Hell for loving Cates, urges Bert to give up so they can have a normal life together in Hillsboro without everyone turning on them, prompting Drummond (as shown in this YouTube clip) to give them the following illustration of why they are all there and why this case is important and why quitting would be taking the easy way out.
Once the jury has been selected and the courtroom drama begins in earnest, you would think Drummond would have the upper hand, with reason and the First Amendment on his side, but the town has stacked the case against him, refusing him to enter any evidence pertaining to Darwin, call experts on science or question witnesses pertaining to evolution. He does get some points with one of Cates' students, asking him if the teaching of evolution affected him in anyway, such as hurting his pitching arm or causing him to murder anyone since breakfast. The teen gives him the answers he's looking for that it didn't really affect his faith in the least and he liked Cates' teaching. Then, at one point, Brady puts Sarah on the stand (after she’d gone to him for help from her overbearing father) and basically uses her to tear Bert apart, explaining how a young boy’s drowning led him to question his own faith when Rev. Brown said the boy would be going to Hell because he’d never been baptized. Sarah is devastated on the stand and Cates refuses to let Drummond cross-examine her in an attempt to repair the damage and when Bert refuses, Drummond asks to withdraw from the case in frustration and lays into the town and the court, telling them you cannot administer a wicked law impartially and that he's “simply trying to prevent the clockstoppers from dumping a lot of medieval nonsense into the U.S. Constitution.” He angers the judge (played by Harry Morgan) to the point that he charges him with contempt. A man in the audience (Noah Beery Jr.) offers to put up his farm for the bond and the banker from the earlier town meeting guarantees that his bank confirms the farm’s worth. Drummond, puzzled by this stranger’s act, asks the farmer who he is and learns that he is the father of the boy who drowned.
Down and defeated, Drummond retreats to his hotel room where he finds little comfort from Hornbeck. It’s quite interesting, not only to see Kelly in a straight role such as this but to see the character of the cynical journalist basically portrayed as someone that no one on either side of the issue particularly likes. His paper is paying for Cates’ defense and he pledges to make him a "modern day Dreyfus" but Cates sometimes seems to physically cringe at his presence. What’s more, Hornbeck seems to relish the distaste people have for him. Upon first meeting Bert and Susan, he takes pride in telling them that he’s “admired for his detestability.” Hornbeck goes on to remind them that he "may be rancid butter, but I'm on your side of the bread." In one of Kramer’s nicest touches in the film, he begins a scene with Reverend Brown going off on one of his appeals to save Susan’s soul in front of his home hearth and the camera creates an image that makes it appear as if there was a flame on the back of the minister’s hand which then fades into the flame coming off a gas burner from which Hornbeck lights his cigarette. As Hornbeck watches the crowds outside Drummond’s hotel window, it truly is a frightening sight as they burn Cates in effigy and sing that they’ll hang Bert Cates and Henry Drummond (in alternating verses) from an apple tree to the tune of “Glory, Glory Hallelujah.” During Hornbeck’s talk to Drummond, because it can barely be called a conversation, he tosses the hotel room’s Bible to him. Suddenly, Drummond lights up. He has an idea.
Denied expert witnesses, forbidden to question witnesses about anything specifically relating to Darwin, Drummond decides to stay on the case. He apologizes to the court and makes an unorthodox move. He’s going to play in the prosecution’s ballpark by calling an expert on the Bible and the self-proclaimed expert he has chosen is none other than Matthew Harrison Brady himself. The town’s prosecutor tries to block the move, but the ego in Brady loves the chance to be viewed as the expert and God’s defender and agrees to take the witness’s chair. Drummond comes to life, approaching Brady as the former friends and political allies the men once were but proceeding to befuddle the former candidate with simple questions such as how did anyone know how long those first few days were, if you took the Bible literally, if God didn’t create the sun until the sixth day? Were they 24 hour days? Could they have been longer? Shorter? Could they have been millions of years and perhaps reconcilable with Darwin’s theory? He also asks why would God give man the ability to think when no other species does. Didn’t God grant Darwin the ability to come up with that theory? Does a sponge think? Brady says that if God wants a sponge to think, it thinks. “Shouldn’t man have the same rights as a sponge?” Drummond asks. “I don't think about things that I don't think about,” Brady responds. As the give-and-take continues between the two men, Drummond says, "It frightens me to think about the state of learning in the world if everyone had your driving curiosity." At another point, Brady says that agnostics and atheists such as Drummond don’t consider anything sacred or holy, a charge Drummond denies. “In a child's ability to master the multiplication tables there is more sanctity than all our shouted amens, holy holies and hosannas.” Finally, Drummond reminds his legal adversary that, “The Bible is a book. It's a good book, but it's not the only book.”
Despite all the points that Drummond does end up scoring a guilty verdict still is returned against Cates, but the town leaders continue to worry about negative impact and make it clear to the judge to consider that when making his sentence. As a result, all Cates receives is a nominal fine, which Drummond announces he won’t pay since they plan to appeal immediately. Brady goes apoplectic, having had a speech ready for his victory, but Drummond objects saying the court’s business is done and Brady should give the speech elsewhere. The judge agrees. Brady tries to read his words over the clamor of the crowd to no avail and he finally collapses (with a nice shot from the point of view of the overhead fan) and eventually dies. With the courtroom emptied, Hornbeck and Drummond are the last remaining. When E.K. shows little sympathy for Brady’s passing, Henry indicates that Brady once was a great man and even quotes a Bible verse, prompting Hornbeck to say they are growing a strange crop of agnostics that year. When Drummond is packing up, he weighs The Bible and Darwin in his hands and places both books in his briefcase as he prepares to leave Hillsboro.
Why I love Inherit the Wind is not because it’s anti-religion (it really isn’t) or pro-evolution, but because it makes a strong case for the greatest reason to be an American, something a lot of today’s fanatics on all sides of the political spectrum don’t seem to respect or realize: The ability to speak and think freely and to disagree, no matter what the issue. What progress would ever be made if everyone always stayed stuck thinking and believing the same things when new evidence presents itself. I remember back in my freshman year of college when I was taking a class called Philosophy of Religion. My roommate's ultrafundamentalist mother noticed that one of my textbooks was titled Atheism: The Case Against God and asked in all seriousness if I were going to protest having to read it. I just can't fathom people who are so afraid that their own beliefs are so vulnerable that exposure to opposing views might decimate them. If someone’s values prevents them from reading or watching certain books or films, that’s fine, but it doesn’t give them the right to stop others who do want to read or watch. Some may be blissful in ignorance, but I choose not to be. As Drummond says in the movie, which I used as the title for this post, “An idea is a greater monument than any cathedral.”
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Tuesday, July 20, 2010
The Godfather Part IV: The Farce
By Ali Arikan
One of the more esoteric behaviors of the male Homo Sapiens is his tendency, within minutes of being in the company of another male, to talk about The Godfather. It’s in our blood, and we can’t help it. Begin the sentence “If Clemenza can figure a way to have a weapon planted there for me,” and someone else will impulsively finish it: “Then I’ll kill ‘em both.” Just say the name Enzo (Gabriele Torrei), and the other person will recall not only his profession, but why he so desperately wanted to stay in NYC. Hum the first few notes from Nino Rota’s Love Theme, and our eyes will glaze over, like Michael’s (Al Pacino) in the third film, as he remembers his darling Apollonia (Simonetta Stefanelli), and the cruel fate that befell her and her pert little breasts. Sure, some might say this is not unique, and that Star Wars, This Is Spinal Tap and Jaws also inspire the same reaction. But The Godfather is different: in its unabashedly romantic portrayal of the most despicable form of capitalism, it speaks to men’s basest instincts: it’s OK to be a manipulative murderer as long as you’re loyal, a terribly uncomfortable and totally unflinching theme. We quote it, we mimic it, we laugh at it; and maybe we do so because of these qualities. The Godfather (the first film; though to a lesser extent the second, and the least the third) is the ultimate male wish-fulfillment fantasy: great power and no responsibility. It’s cinematic masturbation.
And, like both cinema and masturbation, The Godfather is a crucial part of civilization. We can question its morality, or lack thereof, but it would be unwise to fail to recognise its importance in popular culture. Apart from stimulating interminable quotathons and countless dreadful impressions, the film has shaped the way modern audiences enjoy a blockbuster, especially those as layered as Coppola’s masterpiece. One of the ways the film managed to do this was, of course, through incredibly vivid characters (I might eat crow about this, but one of the reasons why I predict Avatar will all but disappear from the public consciousness in, say, 20 years is because it does not have one single interesting character). Even though the film’s cast had already enjoyed, or would soon achieve, varying degrees of greatness and fame, they became one and the same as the parts they played, which would stand apart from all the other characters in their filmographies. I like this observation by Roger Ebert: “All of the…roles are so successfully filled that a strange thing happened as I watched this restored 1997 version: Familiar as I am with Robert Duvall, when he first appeared on the screen I found myself thinking, ‘There's Tom Hagen.’” Ebert’s observation was perhaps most true of Marlon Brando as Don Vito Corleone. Of course, Brando arguably is the greatest of all screen actors, and between sweating through the Vietnam War and finding ever more ingenious ways of using butter, the ‘70s were probably the last decade in which his genius was allowed to fly free. Of course, if one felt inclined to stretch the metaphor, it was in the ‘70s that he soared so close to perfection that his hubris got the best of him in the ensuing decades, when he acted, and was perceived as, a parody of his former self. So, when Andrew Bergman approached him in the late ‘80s to reprise his most mannered performance in a spoof of The Godfather, he leapt at the chance to star in The Freshman as aging mobster Carmine Sabatini (a tip of the hat, surely, to Carmine Coppola).
After The Freshman, 20 years old today, was finished, Brando famously denounced it, and then, a week later, retracted his statement. In hindsight, you could see that he was fucking with us, and that it was a part of his performance. Or he was batshit insane, which is an explanation I can also live with. There are two main reasons why The Freshman works as well today as it did when it first came out, if not better: one major, the other minor. The first is, obviously, Brando, and his unrepentant self-mockery. In his eyes is the joy of revisiting an old character he relished, as well as the childish and naughty sense of fun. Brando was a true radical, and lampooning, arguably, his most famous character was right up his alley. Brando does not just stuff his face with Kleenex and lower his voice. Instead, he walks a very fine line between loving mimicry and grotesque travesty. At least 40 pounds heavier here than he was during The Godfather, he still has a bizarre grace, and, watching the film for the first time since Brando passed away, I found the infamous ice-skating scene terribly touching. These days, we laugh at him more than we appreciate his amazing talent, but, every now and then, it’s better to sit back and realize that, even in a film as fluffy as this, if he wanted to, the old man could bring it.
In fact, Marlon Brando doesn’t just ape Vito Corleone, he also pays homage to his own performance in The Godfather. When he is first introduced to Matthew Broderick’s character, Clark Kellogg, watch as Carmine says: “Just like the cereal.” Brando’s delivery is virtually the same as his “…read the funny papers” line in the garden from the earlier film. When he asks Clark to come to his house, the way he phrases the invitation and puts his arms round him is identical to a similar scene with the Godfather and Johnny Fontaine (Al Martino). Even the flickity-flick face scratch makes it in! These are all minor touches, sure, but they complete the illusion. This is arguably the very last film (apart from, perhaps, 1994’s Don Juan de Marco) where Brando doesn’t go through the motions.
The second reason is Bergman’s direction. Working from his own script, he fashions a wonderful sense of the world of The Godfather, and the film is always evocative, and never derivative. William A. Fraker’s cinematography and David Newman’s score pay tribute to Gordon Willis and Nino Rota and Carmine Coppola’s work respectively. Bergman has a solid cast (the late Paul Benedict is especially wonderful as an acerbic film professor), and what elevates the film from being a feature-length proto-Funny and Die sketch (aside: is it me or is pretty much everything on that site, what’s the word, shit?) is the masterful way Bergman’s direction weaves them into a fish-out-of-water comedy.
But that’s a pleasant side order next to the glorious main dish that is Brando’s performance (if I can’t use a food metaphor when talking about Brando, then the terrorists have already won). Both Marlon Brando and Don Vito Corleone have become such a huge part of the cultural establishment that it is impossible to imagine cinema, or, indeed, culture, without them. When he first walks into the working men’s club that Carmine uses as his office, Clark notices a portrait of Mussolini hanging on the wall. “The older ones like to have it up there for nostalgia,” Carmine says. “To remember the old times, the good and the bad.” The camera stays behind him and we see the portrait in the far back. On Sabatini’s desk, facing him, is a figurine of Dante Alighieri. In a single shot, we see one of history's most infamous dictators, one of its greatest poets, and one of its most celebrated actors. Don Corleone embodies everything they represent, mindless destruction and timeless art, and that's why he endures, even in the wake of such caustic parody. This is our culture. The good and the bad.
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A blockbuster with an arthouse sensibility
Ten years in the making, Inception (2010) is the culmination of Christopher Nolan’s career to date. It mixes the ingenious plot twists of his independent film darling Memento (2000) with the epic scale of his Hollywood blockbuster The Dark Knight (2008). His new film takes the heist genre to the next level by fusing it with science fiction as a group of corporate raiders steal ideas by entering their dreams — think Dreamscape (1985) meets The Matrix (1999) as if made by Michael Mann. While Nolan and his films certainly wear their respective influences on their sleeve — and this one is no different (2001: A Space Odyssey, Heat, etc.) — there is still enough of his own thematic preoccupations to make Inception distinctly his own. This film continues his fascination with the blurring of artifice with reality. With Inception, we are constantly questioning what is real.
Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his team extract thoughts of value from people as they dream. However, during his jobs, Cobb is visited by deceased wife Mal (Marion Cotillard), a beautiful femme fatale character that serves as an increasingly dangerous distraction from the task at hand. The film’s opening sequence does an excellent job establishing how Cobb and his team extract information from the dream of Saito (Ken Watanabe), a Japanese businessman, in a visually arresting sequence. He catches up with Cobb in the real world and offers him a new deal: plant an idea Robert Fischer’s (Cillian Murphy) mind that will help break-up his father’s vast empire before it becomes too powerful and do it in a way so that it seems like Fischer thought of it for it to work. This is something that has never been done before. In exchange, he’ll make it so that Cobb can return home to the United States where his children live but where he is also wanted by the authorities. So, Cobb recruits a literal dream team of experts to help him pull off the most challenging job of his career.
Inception delves into all kinds of aspects of dreams as evident in a scene early on where Cobb explains how they work, how to design and then navigate them. This is arguably the most cerebral parts of the film as Nolan explores all sorts of intriguing concepts and sets up the rules for what we’ll experience later on — pretty heady stuff for a Hollywood blockbuster. And when he isn’t examining fascinating ideas, he’s orchestrating exciting and intense action sequences. There’s an incredible sequence where Nolan juggles three different action sequences operating on three different levels of dreams that are impressive staged while also a marvel of cross-cutting editing. He anchors Inception with Cobb and his desire to return home to children while also dealing with the death of his wife. It gives the film an emotional weight so that we care about what happens to him. It also raises the stakes on the Fischer job.
Dom Cobb continues Nolan’s interest in tortured protagonists. With Memento, Leonard Shelby tried to figure out who murdered his wife while operating with no short-term memory. Insomnia (2002) featured a cop with a checkered past trying to solve a murder on very little sleep. The Batman films focus on a costumed vigilante that wages war on criminals as a way of dealing with the guilt of witnessing his parents being murdered when he was a child. With The Prestige (2006), magician Robert Angier is tormented by the death of his wife and an all-consuming passion to outdo a rival illusionist. Inception’s Cobb also has a checkered past and is haunted by the death of loved one.
Leonardo DiCaprio delivers what may be his finest performance to date, playing a complex, layered character with a rich emotional life. Cobb must come to terms with what happened to his wife and his culpability in what happened to her. DiCaprio conveys an emotional range that he has not tapped into to this degree before. There’s a captivating tragic dimension to Cobb that DiCaprio does an excellent job of expressing so that we become invested in the dramatic arc of his character.
Nolan populates Inception with a stellar cast to support DiCaprio. The indie film world is represented by the likes of Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Tom Hardy while also drawing from international cinema with Ken Watanabe and Cillian Murphy. And it wouldn’t be a Nolan film without his good luck charm, Michael Caine, making an appearance. As he has done in the past, Nolan plucks a once dominant actor from the 1980s, now languishing in relative obscurity — think Rutger Hauer in Batman Begins (2005) or Eric Roberts in The Dark Knight — and gives them a high-profile role. Inception gives Tom Berenger well-deserved mainstream exposure, reminding everyone what a good actor he can be with the right material.
Regardless whether you like Inception or not, you’ve got to admire Nolan for making a film that is not a remake, a reboot, a sequel or an adaptation of an existing work. It is an ideal blend of art house sensibilities, with its weighty themes, and commercial conventions, like exciting action sequences. Capitalizing on the massive success of The Dark Knight, Nolan has wisely used his clout to push through his most personal and ambitious film to date. With Inception, he has created a world on a scale that he’s never attempted before and been able to realize some truly astonishing visuals, like gravity-defying fight scenes and having characters encounter a location straight out of the mind of M.C. Escher. It has been said that the power of cinema is the ability to transport you to another world and to dream with our eyes open. Inception does this. Nolan has created a cinematic anomaly: a summer blockbuster film with a brain.
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