Friday, January 31, 2014

Potty is the New Screwball

Cary Grant in Leo McCarey's
The Awful Truth (1937)
I finally saw This Is the End (2013). In a nutshell: too many demon penises. Still, I'd take it over a dick and fart joke Kevin Smith flick any day of the week. Having said that, when the next phase in big-budget comedy is featuring a finale with an outdated music act from a former decade (Wilson Phillips in Bridesmaids; Backstreet Boys in This Is the End) we got trouble. Right here in River City. At least the Farrelly Brothers used Jonathan Richman and an act like this.

Remember when the Farrellys made really funny moves? Okay, so Hall Pass was actually one of my favorite releases of 2011. Prior to that, the best film the impish Duo wrote and directed was hands down the Woody Harrelson-Randy Quaid bowling epic Kingpin (1996); even if Dumb and Dumber (1994) and There's Something About Mary (1998) were bigger box office champs.

The Farrellys are fairly well-known for their artful elevation of potty humor as well as being fearlessly offensive to just about anyone including the physically or mentally disabled. We all remember the blind kid in Dumb and Dumber. The surprisingly docile Johnny Knoxville flick The Ringer (2005) was produced by the Farrellys and was a laugh riot.

singer/songwriter Jonathan Richman
Then there were those near-bizarro cameos by sports people in their films: Cam Neely in Dumb and Dumber; Roger Clemens in Kingpin (as well as a baker's dozen professional bowlers and golf players combined); Brett Favre in There's Something About Mary; Anna Kournikova, Brendan Shanahan and Cam Neely (again) in Me, Myself & Irene (2000); Ron Darling and Lyndon Byers in Shallow Hal (2001); Neely, Tom Brady and a whopping dozen pro athletes in Stuck on You (2003); the entire Boston Red Sox team in Fever Pitch (2005) among others.

They were like little kids putting sports heroes in their movies. There was something almost endearing about it. Almost. So the Farrellys weren't the first to cameo sports celebrities. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was in Airplane! (1980); Joe Namath did an episode of The Brady Bunch (1973); but they were the first to feature an exploding diarrhea scene against a shower wall.

Even if I tuned out most of their infantile antics between 2000 and 2011, I still have fond memories of Bill Murray's crazy "Ernie McCracken" hair in Kingpin, and Jim Carrey spiking Jeff Daniels' beverage with laxatives and the subsequent toilet explosions in Dumb and Dumber. Yes, I love Robert Bresson films as well as toilet pranks. I'm not a total snob.

above left: Preston Sturges (The Lady Eve; Sullivan's Travels
above right: Ernst Lubitsch (Heaven Can Wait; To Be or Not to Be); below: George Orwell

As we have now made it exactly thirty years beyond George Orwell's dystopian milepost Nineteen Eight-Four (first published in 1949), it would seem that potty humor has become the popular form of entertainment, and is here to stay. Let's face it, it's easier to churn out something disposably amusing like This Is the End rather than a sophisticated comedy like Sullivan's Travels (1941), The Awful Truth (1937) or To Be or Not to Be (1942). Not that the screwball era didn't have its share of turkeys too. Attitudes are different now; people have changed. Seth Rogan and the Farrellys have become the Preston Sturges and Ernst Lubitsch of our times, but only by default.

Michael Cera in
This Is the End (2013)
That's all well and good, as long as what they produce is actually funny. Rogan seems to be trying a little harder, pushing for something beyond mere stoner gags (even if the heaven bit in This Is the End was done a lot more funnier on an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm). He's already surpassed the one-note Judd Apatow who gave him his start, but he's no Mike Judge (Office Space; Idiocracy) or Jody Hill (Observe and Report; Eastbound & Down).

Then the Farrellys gave us The Three Stooges (2012) which featured the cast of MTV's Jersey Shore in an extended cameo. It's one thing to throw in some of your favorite sports players, but the cast of Jersey Shore? From my vantage, the audience just wasn't in on the joke. Especially since by 2012, Jersey Shore had long since run it's course and had fallen far out of pop culture favor; even for a puerile spectacle.

Not to mention the fact, the film just wasn't any good; Larry David playing a nun aside. Needless to say, when Movie 43 (2013) rolled around, I was extremely hesitant. Produced and co-directed by just Peter Farrelly this time (no Bobby) along with eleven other directors, the lowbrow sketch comedy anthology actually had it's moments.

Putney Swope (1969)
The "Middleschool Date" segment directed by actress Elizabeth Banks and Farrelly's early bit with Hugh Jackman wearing testicles on his neck were probably the most funny. Although Richard Gere was also in fine form as an "iBabe" executive. The framing device with Dennis Quaid (I guess Randy Quaid was uninsurable) and Greg Kinnear also made me chuckle, despite a cameo by the spectacularly mediocre Seth MacFarlane. The film was a resounding critical bomb.

I think the movie could have gone on to be a bit of a cult item one day (much like This Is the End), if only it were less, well...dumb. I was never much of a fan of the similarly styled The Kentucky Fried Movie (1977) as opposed to Robert Downey Sr.'s lesser-known and more experimental satire Putney Swope (1969). As a rule, I generally prefer my anthology films to be strictly horror related. If I want to watch sketch comedy, I can always see what's on The History Channel, or Animal Planet.

actual alien
It's true. Even our television programming has been invaded by lowbrow. Do people really enjoy watching shows about hillbillies wrangling alligators or men pretending to be scientists and historians talking about how humans once mistook alien visitors for angels during Biblical Times? Hell, I liked Hall Pass, so I guess anything is possible.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Hackman 84

illus. by Hedward Brooks
     Gene Hackman turns 84 today. Unfortunately, the two-time Oscar winning actor and historical fiction scribe hasn't been seen in anything since 2004's Welcome to Mooseport. Just prior to that it seemed like the December period of his long and celebrated career was only getting started with a sterling part in Wes Anderson's follow-up to Rushmore (1998), the less intriguing but equally distinctive The Royal Tenenbaums (2001). Hackman has always had a unique appeal to all genders, races and ages. Like Steve McQueen was to a generation of post-hippie, would-be badasses, Hackman brought a real-world quality to every role and seemed like he was someone you could glean sage advice from over a couple beers. He was no bullshit. From such diverse parts in I Never Sang for My Father (1970) to Night Moves and Bite the Bullet (both 1975), Hackman proved he could master any genre; whether just supporting (Bonnie and Clyde, 1967), starring (Hoosiers, 1986) or simply playing a walk-on (Reds, 1981). To celebrate, I've selected five of my favorite Hackman performances in no particular order. So, as you go about your day, take a moment or two to give thanks to Mr. H., and think of the void his retirement from acting has left the film world.

Young Frankenstein (1974)
as Harold, the Blindman
Hackman went uncredited in the original theatrical release for his hilarious bit as Harold, the blind hermit out to spare Frankenstein's poor Monster on the lam, only to eventually scare him off with some dangerous hospitality. It left some viewers scratching their heads at first trying to place a name with that unmistakable voice and visage behind the old man beard and wig. Hackman had just scored an unqualified hit with the waterlogged The Poseidon Adventure (1972), played in two back-to-back character-driven classics (Scarecrow; The Conversation) and it seems as if it was finally time to do something just for fun. Plus, he earned points for pronouncing "espresso" correctly; without an "x". Next stop: Superman (1978); Loose Cannons (1990)

The Birdcage (1996)
as Senator Kevin Keeley
Of all Hackman's great comedic performances, and there have been several (Get Shorty also springs to mind), his surprisingly fresh turn as a loony Senator out to meet his daughter's future in-laws and save his own career in the process was one of the best. Mike Nichols' film is a marvel of efficiency. Every single character is fully developed, and Hackman gets just as many laughs playing the proverbial "straight" guy as his more flamboyantly funny costars. Some fans of the original (La Cage aux Folles, 1978) may have shrugged this one off, but I'm telling you, this film is a modern classic. Next stop: All Night Long (1981); Full Moon in Blue Water (1988)

French Connection II (1975)
as Det. Jimmy "Popeye" Doyle
Sure, Hackman won an Oscar for the first film, but his obsessive "Popeye" Doyle was played to complete perfection in this oft forgotten continuation of the 70's greatest dope saga. With John Frankenheimer at the helm (replacing William Friedkin who won an Oscar for The French Connection, 1971) Hackman really got a chance to settle into the part that made him a household name. This film was darker, edgier and more European in style as well as locale. A must-see for all aspiring Hackman aficionados. Next stop: Uncommon Valor (1983); Mississippi Burning (1988)

Unforgiven (1992)
as Little Bill Daggett
I never seem to tire of talking or writing about this film. It's one of those rare, perfect scripts; conventionally straight-forward yet somehow experimental in the way it refuses to be pigeonholed or predictable. The brilliance of course is that it intentionally ends up being an example of the very thing it professes not to be: a legend. Hackman finally landed the role he had been preparing for his whole career as the villain we somehow still love (that is until he whips Morgan Freeman's character to death). The Academy honored him with a second Oscar (for Supporting Actor) and Eastwood's film has since aged like fine wine. They broke the mold with this one. "Duck, I says." Next stop: Cisco Pike (1972); No Way Out (1987)

Zandy's Bride (1974)
as Zandy Allan
Not much really happens in terms of plot in Jan Troell's (The Emigrants; Everlasting Moments) largely overlooked film, but like a Wyeth painting, there are secrets hiding just beneath the seemingly simple surface. Just as polarizing with critics as it was with audiences, this is the type of film my friend (and fellow Western-connoisseur) Eddie might say: "looks like one that could make me ball my eyes out"; not from any histrionics or melodramatic devices, but from the very honesty of its essence. Hackman plays Zandy, an angry, cruel man who seems to have it in for his new bride (the luminous Liv Ullmann) the moment he sees her. Troell simply lets the actors breathe in their parts, and stays out of their way. It's an approach that in the wrong hands could spell disaster, but here it accentuates the plainness and authenticity of these character's lives. Hackman is incredible in the way he never slips into caricature and somehow earns our sympathy. Harry Dean Stanton and the late Susan Tyrrell (two of my all-time favorites) also shine. Next stop: Prime Cut (1972); Eureka (1984)

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Divine Enervation
Hollywood's Totalitarian Blueprint

     I only became aware of the Pre-Code film Gabriel Over the White House (1933) very recently. Based on the book Rinehard by Thomas Frederic Tweed (a British political adviser), it was directed by native Pennsylvanian Gregory La Cava who also made one of my favorite films, the Carole Lombard-William Powell classic My Man Godfrey (1936). Gabriel stars Walter Huston as a serving U.S. President, a lame-duck, who after an automobile accident and subsequent coma, awakens a changed man.

He decides to make certain adjustments in the way his cabinet, and the Country do business. He starts by firing all the greedy corporate lackeys. Congress responds to his abrupt termination of the crooked money-men by impeaching him. The President responds by declaring martial law, dissolving the legislative branch, revoking the Constitution and assuming absolute power for himself. Now a dictator, he begins to impose his own will over the people. Backed by his own militia of brown-shirted goons, he simply removes anyone that opposes him or stands in his way.

The up side to all this is, his radical policies have a positive effect on the economy, the cost of which is the dissolution of certain freedoms and civil rights. He lifts the Country from a state of depression, people have jobs again and all those self-serving politicians on Capital Hill (the same as organized gangsters) have been extracted. He even manages to fool the rest of the world into thinking he possesses a doomsday weapon of mass destruction, instilling fear abroad, thus bringing about world peace.

So, it's a fascist propaganda film with a happy ending. It's a warning of what could happen if we let someone like Hitler or Mussolini come to power in our own back yard, right? In a way, we did allow someone to assume totalitarian control over us, benevolent or otherwise, that same year. That someone was the 32nd President of the United States, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who held office from 1933 to 1945. In fact, Gabriel was sponsored by none other than media magnate William Randolph Hearst (whom Orson Welles' Citizen Kane was based on) who was one of FDR's staunchest supporters.

above left: Walter Huston in Gabriel Over the White House (1933); above right: Adolph Hitler
below: Franklin Delano Roosevelt

To invoke a line from a completely unrelated film (Waiting for Guffman, 1996): "What does this mean, Corky?" In 1933, Americans wanted a President with dictator-like powers, to set things right from the inside out, and that's exactly what they got. FDR was so much more than his predecessor, Herbert Hoover, that history tends to lionize nearly everything the father of the New Deal had ever done. FDR saw Gabriel and reportedly loved it. MGM head Louis B. Mayer (a Jew born in Minsk) felt quite the opposite.

It would seem some of the same men responsible for getting FDR elected were also directly responsible for making this film. It's no wonder FDR supported America's secret development and construction of nuclear weapons (not unlike Huston's character in Gabriel). I suppose it's unknown whether or not he ever intended to use them, unlike his successor, Harry Truman.

Perhaps FDR really was guiding the Country (and the World) by the model put forth in the film. In his controversial Harvard University Press book, The Collaboration: Hollywood's Pact With Hitler, historian Ben Urwand suggests that Hollywood was in financial and political bed with Adolph Hitler, a film buff whose top brass also screened Gabriel and applauded it's message and political agenda.

It's really not shocking given the known connections between the Nazi Party and America's banks and corporations at the time. Some would argue that the totalitarian ideology is alive and well today, only hidden in plain sight. Like Ned Beatty's character professes in the uber-prescient Network (1976):

"The world is a college of corporations, inexorably determined by the immutable bylaws of business. The world is a business, Mr. Beale. It has been since man crawled out of the slime. And our children will live, Mr. Beale, to see that... perfect world... in which there's no war or famine, oppression or brutality. One vast and ecumenical holding company, for whom all men will work to serve a common profit, in which all men will hold a share of stock. All necessities provided, all anxieties tranquilized, all boredom amused."

There's no denying that a dictatorship in the wrong hands (Hitler) is bad; in the right hands (FDR) it can be good. Gabriel Over the White House was viewed as naive fantasy at the time of its release and was quickly forgotten. The American way of life was facing terminal illness and people had more important things on their mind like basic survival. The angle of Huston's character being divinely inspired was played up in favor of him just being totally insane. But, to quote another completely unrelated film (This Is Spinal Tap, 1984): "It's such a fine line between stupid, and uh..."

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Monte Walsh (1970) review

     Monte Walsh (1970) is a sad, lonesome ode to the American cowboy of the Old West. The project, based on a novel by Jack Schaefer, was very close to star Lee Marvin's heart. In addition to script and director approval written into his contract, he fought to cast co-star Jack Palance who wound up arguably giving the best performance of his career. When Palance was holding out for more money, Marvin ensured that producers Hal Landers and Bobby Roberts give it to him.

above left: first edition hardcover of Monte Walsh, 1963 Houghton Mifflin Company 
above right: author Jack Schaefer posing with a copy of Shane, circa 1959

Marvin and Palance had worked together before in Robert Aldrich's underrated Attack! (1956) and Marvin saw a different side of Palance, who was normally cast as a heavy. Here he plays Monte's partner and best friend, Chet Rollins. Chet is a hard man, like the rest of the cowhands facing down the end of an era, but he's also a gentle soul. Palance of course played the iconic villain in Shane (1953) which was also adapted from a classic Western novel by Schaefer.

The great Jeanne Moreau (Jules and Jim, 1962) plays Monte's love interest, a saloon girl named Martine, but the real love story is between the main characters, Monte and Chet. The scene when Chet has to break the news to Monte that he's settling down and getting married, and becoming a "hardware man" is one of the most touching moments to ever grace the Western genre. Equally as touching, and hard to get through dry-eyed, is the scene in which Monte sits at Martine's deathbed. It is easily the finest piece of acting that Marvin ever committed to film, and he plays it almost completely silent.

There's another stunning bit of acting when Monte stares at himself in a full-length mirror and imagines what life would be like to give up the open range and be a Wild West Show entertainer. It's moments like these that remind one how powerful the medium of film can be with the right marriage of script and actor. Marvin was undoubtedly the right actor for the role of Monte, and he owns every frame of this gorgeously shot picture. Mitch Ryan, who plays the reluctant outlaw Shorty, is also quite memorable.

It's rare that a Western not have a traditional bad guy, but Monte Walsh is ultimately about the real people who inhabited the Old West, not the matinee heroes or Machiavellian gunslingers that Marvin and Palance both excelled at playing numerous times before. Schaefer's book was essentially a collection of previously published short stories that the author said he always intended to link together in novel form. It's a film of quiet, understated moments that seem to linger forever; and true to life, like those we love, can simply slip away from us.

Marvin also must have felt a strange attraction to the project being as how his own father was nicknamed "Montey" and had an affair with a French woman, just like Marvin does with Jeanne Moreau's character in the film. Marvin and Moreau also had an intimate relationship off screen as well. There's a wonderfully playful scene they perform in bed as Monte is trying to roll a cigarette while Martine attempts to seduce him. It appears so real because their attraction was real. There's nothing in the competently made Tom Selleck version from 2003 that can touch it.

Alas, Marvin was not satisfied with the final product. The director was William A. Fraker, a well known cinematographer (Rosemary's Baby; Bullitt). Monte Walsh was his first time in the director's chair, and Marvin realized too late into the production that Fraker was not confident at directing actors. Although he remained proud of it and thought the film was saved in the editing, Marvin did not consider it a great picture. This is where I think every die-hard fan of this movie would disagree.

Fraker's instincts as an accomplished cameraman elevate the precise casting and excellent storytelling. There's a single crane shot early on that illustrates just how in-tune Fraker was with what was going on around Monte and Chet's story. One aspect of the film that often polarizes people is the soundtrack. The recurring song (The Good Times Are Comin') performed by Mama Cass in addition to the heavy symphonic John Barry score have been rightly criticized as not matching the elegiac tone of the film. Personally, I've never heard a John Barry score I didn't eventually fall in love with, and the Mama Cass song is inoffensive, and thoroughly catchy (if not the Academy Award winning hit that Burt Bacharach and Hal David's Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was the year before).

Monte Walsh didn't do exceedingly well at the box office even despite it's playful qualities. Although it can be quite somber, it never falls into maudlin territory. The far jauntier Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) had just preceded it, as did Sam Peckinpah's melancholic masterpiece The Wild Bunch (1969). Perhaps mainstream audiences were simply tiring of yet another big screen sagebrush saga. Marvin had also just abandoned the lead role in The Wild Bunch to star with Clint Eastwood in the loony, Lerner and Loewe musical Western Paint Your Wagon (1969).

above left: original U.S. one sheet movie poster for Monte Walsh (1970); above right: director William A. Fraker (1923 - 2010)

Marvin's rendition of the song Wand'rin' Star from that film went to number one in the U.K. and held Let It Be, the last Beatles single (released while the group was still officially together) at number two. Marvin had already won an Oscar for Best Actor (Cat Ballou, 1965) and was making a million dollars per film; a hefty sum at the time. Fortunately for us, he was able to use his muscle to bring Monte Walsh to the screen. It's a beautiful film that is ripe for rediscovery.