During one of the ugliest periods in American political history, as the Cold War hit hysteria, a drunk congressman named Joseph McCarthy managed to destroys thousands of American lives and careers with his House Un-American Activities Committee. HUAC would accuse people of being Communists (many of the accused at one time may have belonged to the then totally legal Communist Party or donated to causes that were Russian-related—this was years earlier when Russia was our ally against Germany). To clear your name you needed to name names and praise HUAC. Most famously many in Hollywood (almost always Jewish folks) were called to testify; some played ball with McCarthy and were considered “friendly witnesses” (Sterling Hayden, Elia Kazan) while many others refused to testify and either went to jail or were blacklisted from working.
Screenwriter Walter Bernstein was one of those blacklisted, but by the end of the ‘50s many gutsy producers began to break the blacklist by hiring the recently unemployable. Bernstein made a comeback writing the script for Fail-Safe and eventually wrote The Front, a semiautobiographical memoir of the period. Besides Bernstein the film is full of blacklisted talent on both sides of the camera, including actor Zero Mostel and Director Martin Ritt (Hud, Norma Rae).
Howard Prince (Woody Allen) is a two-bit Brooklyn hustler; he’s in constant gambling debt and is a schmuck in every way. When he’s approached by a childhood friend, blacklisted television writer Alfred Miller (Michael Murphy, who would play Allen’s old pal again a few years later in Manhattan Continue Reading
Life During Wartime
If you've yet to see Todd Solondz's film Happiness and you plan on seeing it, I suggest you watch this film afterwards because it is a sequel of sorts and would therefore spoil much of the movie's plot. As with Palindromes and other movies, Solondz has revived characters from a previous film with an entirely different cast and a different agenda. In Life During Wartime we find the Jordan family in an aged distress. Set in Florida, where the bulk of the family has now migrated after their experiences with divorce and heartache, the movie follows their path of forgiveness as they try to forget and/or interpret what went wrong in their lives.
In Happiness, the film ended with the entire family sitting at a table. The three sisters, Joy, Helen and Trish, were more or less sulking with their parents who were on the brink of separation. Joy was a humanitarian who wanted to make a difference, Helen a disillusioned housewife, and Trish a vain author. Helen and Trish played matchmaker to Joy, the black sheep, and Trish offered to set her up with her neighbor Allen, who enjoyed calling women from a phone book to sexually harass them. In Life During Wartime, Joy (Shirley Henderson) works with ex-cons instead of refugees and is now married to Allen, who confesses that he still makes lewd phone calls to women. Feeling betrayed, she goes to Florida to visit her sister Helen (Ally Sheedy) in the hopes that she can help her put her life in order.
The Blues Brothers
There was a time in 1978 when John Belushi had the number one movie in theaters— National Lampoon’s Animal House. He also starred on the massively popular Saturday Night Live and his band The Blues Brothers, a group he co-fronted along with SNL co-star Dan Aykroyd, had the number one album in the country. The success of their album Briefcase Full of Blues led to a film adaptation, The Blues Brothers—the first and still the best of many films to originate from SNL skits. It’s a loud musical-action-comedy film that works in all three genres while boasting some great car chases, stellar music, and staying very funny throughout.
Fresh from a stint in prison Jake (Belushi) reunites with his brother Elwood (Aykroyd). Spurred on by an old friend, Curtis (Cab Calloway) they visit their childhood orphanage and learn that it’s on the verge of being shut down for owing back taxes. After a vision “from God” in church they decide to reform their old blues band and raise money with a large charity concert. Most of their bandmates have contempt for them and need convincing to reunite. Along the way they tend to wreak havoc and leave large swaths of destruction wherever they go which leads the police after them. They also create foes with a country/western band, The Good Ol' Boys (led by Charles Napier), when The Blues Brothers steal their bar gig. They disrupt a Nazi rally and manage to put a carload of uniformed Nazis on their trail (led by the hilarious Henry Gibson of ...
On first appearance what could be just another high school comedy is actually much, much more. From Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor, the directing and writing team later responsible for About Schmidt and Sideways, Election is a wonderfully smart political satire as well as a rich character study of suburban Omaha, full of truths about both teen and adult life. Reese Witherspoon, in her best performance and perhaps best role, brilliantly plays Tracy Flick, an ambitious high school overachiever, so driven she mostly comes off as unlikable and vindictive, but her back story proves to be much more complicated.
Jim McAllister (Matthew Broderick) seems perfectly content in his life; his marriage may be stale, but he finds an almost smug satisfaction in being a beloved teacher. Tracy is running unopposed for student body president in the upcoming school election and the inevitable outcome starts to grate on Jim, not just because he finds her generally annoying as a student but also because he knows a secret about her. His one time best teaching bud, Dave Novotny (Mark Harelik), had an affair with Tracy. After some manipulation she told her mother, which inevitably led to Dave’s firing and his wife, Linda (Delaney Driscoll), leaving him. Jim and his wife Diane (Molly Hagan) are trying to get pregnant, but with Dave now out of the picture, Jim has developed an attraction for Linda and tries to have an affair with her.Continue Reading
Play It Again, Sam
If Play It Again, Sam looks a little more like a generic 1970s romantic comedy than the usual Woody Allen flick of the period, that’s because Allen didn’t direct it. But it was based, seemingly line-for-line, on his own popular Broadway play with the three stars (Allen, Diane Keaton & Tony Roberts) reprising their roles. Allen was still early and raw in his directing career, so the much blander Herbert Ross (The Goodbye Girl), an ex-theater choreographer, took the helm. But it still has Allen’s incredibly funny script, showing many signs of the more mature style that would explode into Annie Hall, later in the decade.
Woody plays Allan, a San Francisco film fanatic and writer. Recently dumped by his wife, he’s even more of a mess than usual and in need of constant consolation from his friends, the married couple Dick and Linda (Roberts and Keaton), though Dick always seems to be preoccupied with work. Allan is hoping to score with a chick to help mend his broken heart, but he’s more comfortable watching movies than talking to a woman. Like a classic film geek, his life and his relationship to the world are based on a pose he has seen in films (usually the classics). He’s so lonely and extreme in his film obsession that he has developed an imaginary friend, Humphrey Bogart in his full Casablanca trench coat and hat get up. Bogart imparts two-bit noir advice, "I never saw a dame yet that didn't understand a good slap in the mouth or a slug from a .45." Allan usually ignores the advice and does the opposite or when he tries to obey, it usually goes hopelessly wrong.Continue Reading
Thirty-something years later, the little Canadian gem Meatballs is still the quintessential rowdy summer camp movie. It’s one of those flicks that if you saw it for the first time as a kid you still love, while later generations may have a hard time getting into its '70s groove. In his first real post Saturday Night Live break out role, Bill Murray carries Meatballs as the camp's head counselor. He and director Reitman would go on a comic rampage with their next couple of films, dominating early '80s comedy. This was an era in movies when nerds were nerds, everyone just wanted to get laid, and sexual harassment was considered comedy not bad behavior. For my generation this was the film that made you fantasize about going to summer camp, an unfulfilled fantasy I still carry.
Meatballs goes for an Altman-like ensemble, splitting between the counselors and the young campers at Camp North Star. But two characters eventually become the main focal point, the goofy but charismatic head counselor, Tripper (Murray), and a wimpy first time camper, Rudy (Chris Makepeace who plays almost the exact same character a few years later in the equally memorable My Bodyguard). Most of the counselors and their love life issues are interchangeable, except for the often cruelly pathetic escapades of ultra nerd Spaz (Jack Blum) and his overweight buddy Larry Finkelstein (Keith Knight who later played a tough punk in Class Of 1984). Spaz’s goal is "scoring" but in a sweet moment he does find some satisfaction in holding a girl's hand.Continue Reading
The Boys & Girls Guide to Getting Down
Are you one of those people who drives past a club and sees all the scantily clad ladies and roguish gents lined up outside a club and wonder, “Is that really their idea of a good time?” I've never understood the thrill of clubbing and, upon seldom experience, always walked away with anxiety over the smell of sweaty bodies and hard liquor. Clubs are often featured in films as this oasis of sexy young 20-somethings and pulsating music to which anyone with pizazz and the right clothing can go and have a great time. This movie not only takes you into the cliched world of nightlife in Los Angeles, but it also sheds a light on the absurdity and downright funny aspects of partying. By mocking those who thrive on heavy drinking, narcotics and noisy music, it presents the party-hardy lifestyle as something to experience, if only for the opportunity to marvel at mankind in one of its most praised, and yet semi-barbaric, rituals.
The movie supports an extremely large cast and focuses on no one in particular. It begins with several groups of friends and roommates choosing where to hang out in Hollywood. The goal for most of the men is to get laid, while the women, the narrator claims, act as if they are hanging out with their girlfriends but are really after the same thing. It then differentiates between clubs, house parties, and after parties when the dreaded last call has been shouted. Mixed into the action is a series of energetic doctors who are “researching” clubbers in their natural habitat. The club sequence is short, and of course we never see the inside of them.Continue Reading
Robert Altman’s MASH, 40-something years later still works as a funny, dark comedy and as a kinda-sorta anti-war statement, but most impressive is what Altman was able to do with his innovative sound design, still cutting edge today. Though it was a big hit film, for a number of years it was more famous as the inspiration for the then even more popular television show, M*A*S*H*, but as that show now feels musty and dated, MASH the movie is just as relevant today as it was in 1970.
M.A.S.H. stands for mobile army surgical hospital. Made during the heart of the cantankerous Vietnam War, MASH is actually about the medics near the front lines of the “forgotten” Korean War of the 1950s. These are talented doctors and surgeons, but drafted away from their private practices they fight the stifling rules of the military. They deal in blood and guts (at the time the surgery scenes were rather graphic for audiences), but when casualties aren’t mounting they drink, party, and cause mayhem just as hard as they work.Continue Reading
Todd Solondz is, without a doubt, one of the best living American directors. His two works from the '90s, Welcome to the Dollhouse and Happiness, served as groundbreaking material in terms of dark comedy and a ruthless exploitation of sorts. Some regard them as his best work with the knowledge that the films that follow only get harder to swallow. But it isn't just the steadfast exposure to topics such as backyard abortion and pedophilia that unsettles his audiences, but rather his approach. Through bright colors and jovial songs, Solondz mocks suburbia and the tortured souls of those suffering with mediocrity and mental illness to the point that it is hilarious. And while you feel bad, or perhaps uncomfortable with the development of each film, there is something about them that keeps you focused and satisfied. Storytelling is wedged in between Solondz's nastiest and most complex work, Palindromes, and those aforementioned ones that made him big. Being in the middle means that it is not as easy-going and lighthearted as the first two (if you could even call them that), nor is it as nuanced and off-the-walls as Palindromes. However, this is the movie in which no one is spared as he attacks the hidden comedy within racial taboos, servants, rich Jewish families, and our education system. To add to this lineup of targets was a fresh approach; the movie is split into two unrelated character developments, one called Fiction, and the other Non-fiction. The separation of these two storytelling methods was not only interesting in a way that pars with anthology Horror films, but gave meaning to such methods for anyone who fancies themselves a storyteller.
FICTION: In this segment we find Vi (Selma Blair), a pink-haired college student looking for substance in all the wrong places. She and her handicapped boyfriend Marcus (Leo Fitzpatrick) have a writing course with a professor of great prestige. Vi is just short of obsessed with him, though not because he's won the Pulitzer Prize for his literature, nor because he's a brutally honest teacher. Now's the time to mention that her professor is black. Solondz exposes her loyalty as a sort of Mandingo fetish, which causes an outrage in Marcus when he discovers that she and other white girls on campus seem to be under the same spell. Meanwhile, we see their classroom atmosphere develop as Professor Scott ruins his classroom's general hope of becoming writers. From there, we follow Vi as she pursues her professor and receives the lesson of a lifetime that is nothing short of brutal.Continue Reading
The Brady Bunch Movie
When I lived in Chicago there was this Johnny Rockets in the city’s “Gold Coast” area that had a painted mural near the entrance depicting an assortment of yuppie types seated at the diner’s counter enjoying milkshakes and hamburgers. I always thought it was kind of fascinating because the mural had clearly been painted sometime in the 1980s. One of the women depicted in the mural had kind of a big perm hairdo and her young son had on a sweater with an Esprit logo on it. I assume the mural was painted to showcase how a cross-section of then-modern society would have tons of fun hanging out in a fake '50s diner. Once the cultural attributes endemic to the 1980s started to look dated it gave that Johnny Rockets a doubly anachronistic atmosphere.
The Brady Bunch Movie has a similarly surreal kind of effect because the whole conceit behind the film is that standard comedy trope of the fish-out-of-water scenario wherein the Bradys and their perversely naive and dorky ways are transplanted from the 1970s sitcom world – where they belong – to the cynical world of mid-1990s Southern California. The film manages to serve as both a time capsule of '70s cheese and '90s-ness. In an ironic twist, the way the film depicts the “gritty” '90s as chock full of grungy attitude actually seems almost as quaint as the Bradys.Continue Reading