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
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
There is a middle-ground in comedy that transcends generations and surprises us all with its wit and components. Screwball comedies are on one side of this spectrum, and while they hold up great and are considered classics, the heavy traditional overtones and lack of modern humor make them harder to relate to. Not that they aren't enjoyable for the seasoned film fanatic, but with younger and more industrialized audiences, I think they serve a more historical purpose. And then there is current comedy, consisting of mainly crude and sexy plots or dark comedies, both with the possibility of going overboard and disappointing. So it seems that '80s cinema is this middle-ground. I can't think of a movie in the '80s, including dramas, that is not half comic relief. Perhaps the sappy plots only come off as funny now, but I still think a lot of it was intended.
Mischief walks the tightrope between these two worlds and replenishes what is missing or poorly done in either one. Set in Ohio, 1956, it already stands apart from others by being a period piece in a way. Gene (Chris Nash) has just moved into a small suburb with his widower father from Chicago. Here they hope to find peace from city life and to enroll Gene in a new school, on account of him being expelled from his previous one. From the start you can tell that he won't last long in the new town as he takes a break from moving in to ride his motorcycle across all of his neighbors' lawns. The only person who seems more than eager to make his acquaintance is his next-door neighbor Jonathan (Doug McKeon). The two couldn't be more unlike each other; Jonathan in his pastel sweaters and Studebaker, and Gene in his leather jacket and motorcycle. But behind their differences, the two reach out and bond simply on the basis of being outcasts.Continue Reading
With Modern Romance, writer/director/star Albert Brooks was dubbed a West Coast Woody Allen and, like Allen, Brooks has one of those personalities that can alienate an audience. People usually love him or find him way too annoying to watch. In Modern Romance Brooks takes his neurotic persona to new daring heights of annoyance playing Robert Cole, a Hollywood film editor. When the film opens he's breaking up with his girlfriend, Mary (Kathryn Harrold), again, which seems to be a hobby for him. But like an addict for relationships it sends him into a torturous obsession over her, again. He tries to concentrate on his work and even tries dating others, but he can't, his obsession and jealousy get worse and worse. And with it Brooks turns the romantic comedy on its head, making one of the funniest films of the '80s.
Before moving into feature films Brooks was a cutting edge stand-up comedian. His style was almost a spoof of stand-up comedy and he was one of Johnny Carson's favorites, cutting his teeth on The Tonight Show. He made some brilliant short films the first season of Saturday Night Live (very unheralded in the show's history, they seem to never be acknowledged in the show's many retrospectives). Brooks has directed seven features since, the first four of which are gems. Real Life back in '79 foresaw the coming of reality TV early. It brilliantly teamed him with another underrated, acquired taste, Charles Grodin. Then Modern Romance, which could be considered his Annie Hall, took him in a new more sorta-mature direction. His next film, Lost In America, was an angst-epic and then Defending Your Life found Brooks romancing Meryl Streep in the afterlife. His next two films, The Muse and Mother, were forgettable at best and his last go as a director, Looking For Comedy In The Muslim World, was abysmal. As an actor outside his own films he's had an interesting career, with roles ranging from Taxi Driver to Out Of Sight, he was the voice of Nemo in Finding Nemo, and got an Oscar nomination for his hilarious turn in Broadcast News.Continue Reading
National Lampoon’s Animal House
The impact that National Lampoon Magazine had on American comedy during the 1970s was enormous, eventually spawning the massively ripped-off comedy movie National Lampoon's Animal House (as well as the Vacation series and some crappy forgettable flicks). You could say that the long running sketch comedy show Saturday Night Live symbolically evolved from National Lampoon (as well as from the Second City comedy clubs in Chicago and Toronto). Following the success of SNL's first breakout star, Chevy Chase, John Belushi would earn a cult following from his performance in Animal House that would last past his untimely death four years later from a drug overdose, leading the way for SNL alumni to dominate comedy for decades.Animal House follows two freshmen, Pinto (Tom Hulce) and Kent (Stephen Furst), "a wimp and a blimp," at Faber College in 1962. After being turned away from the elite fraternities they end up joining "the worst house on campus," Delta House. These campus outlaws are in constant trouble with Dean Wormer (brilliantly played by the snaky John Vernon of Point Blank), as they are placed on “double secret probation.” Eschewing academics or athletics, Delta members are either out to get wasted or laid, lead by would-be playboy, Otter (Tim Matheson), and super slob, Bluto (Belushi). There are a number of memorable scenes including Pinto and fellow Delta, Boon (Peter Riegert), along with his girlfriend, Katy (Karen Allen), being introduced to pot by a professor (Donald Sutherland); Belushi's stroll through the cafeteria line hoarding food and then his zit imitation; the guys' trip to a Rhythm N Blues club where Otis Day and the Knights perform (a scene ripped off in Weird Science). After the fraternity is expelled their revenge on the sc...Continue Reading
A few years ago a film premiered at Sundance starring several major blockbuster stars, shot by a couple of music video directors, and produced by a small, but successful Hollywood production company. Because of an aggressive marketing campaign and a highly publicized distribution deal, the film won several Academy Awards and made more than $100 million. Regardless of its high star wattage, its directors’ wealth of commercial experience, and Hollywood development credentials, it was still termed an “independent film.” 11 years previous, for 1/50th of its modern counterpart’s budget, Party Girl was made in New York by a first time filmmaker, starring an actress who, except for a notable supporting turn in a Richard Linklater comedy, had had only small character parts in independent films. Party Girl was accepted into Sundance that year and garnered only a limited theatrical run. But over the years through word of mouth, it has become a beloved cult hit, quoted ad nauseam by its devotees, whose ranks multiply yearly.
The plot seems at first utterly conventional, straying between nominally feminist chick flick to slacker comedy. Downtown It girl Mary (Parker Posey) is unemployed, on the verge of eviction, and “fabulous,” which in movie parlance means she wears quirky outfits and uses her acerbic wit against her friends. When she gets arrested for turning her apartment into a makeshift nightclub, Mary is bailed out by her godmother, Judy, a librarian. In order to pay Judy back and to prove herself to as capable and trustworthy, Mary becomes a clerk at Judy’s library. Gaining her good opinion is complicated by Judy’s constant panting that she can’t trust Mary because she reminds her so much of her mother, an irrational grousing that is the movie’s only major flaw. Mary’s mother may have been quite the party-goer, but many young women are, and one can’t hold young people accountable for doing the same things that their parents did when they were the same age. I would be extremely frustrated if my grandparents always said, “Gillian, you’re such a bleeding heart liberal, just like your mother was when she was your age. I won’t be surprised if you end up getting divorced, too.”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
Prairie Home Companion
Robert Altman’s last film is an adaptation of NPR staple “A Prairie Home Companion,” Garrison Keillor’s liberal humanist weekly revue of folky Americana music, wry story telling, and gentle send ups of modern mores and it couldn’t be a more fitting film to go out on. Altman uses the big cast putting on their last show plot as a means of meditation on different kinds of death: the death of an old timer, the death of live radio as an art form and he creates something moving without being cloying, heartfelt without being sentimental....Continue Reading
This is the perfect example of a movie that was made, almost exclusively, for a teenage male audience in the '80s. So as a woman there was really very little to help me empathize with the characters, even during the forced moments that are supposed to be either romantic or tender. However, something about its shameless voyeurism and the sensational amounts of uncalled for nudity make this movie special when compared to other '80s comedies like Animal House and Fast Times at Ridgemont High, which are more popular and deserve to be. Two Fast Times stars are in the film, including the ever-radiant Phoebe Cates and Ray Walston, who played Mr. Hand and stars, for too brief of time, as a limo driver in this movie. It is also Kathleen Wilhoite's film debut, and a favorite of mine in terms of the characters she's played thus far. The point I'm trying to make is that this movie's success as a comedy is not in delivery, or being able to laugh at something that has happened to you. On the contrary, the funniest part about the movie is its raunchy depiction of private school girls, teenage boys, and all the supposedly sex-deprived adults who surround them. Point being, you shouldn’t watch this movie to have some '80s flashback or be able to say, "…Yeah, something like that happened to me in high school." You should watch it because of its unrealistic chain of events and lack of substance.
It's senior year for all the girls at Cherryvale Academy, a posh all-girls boarding school in some forgettable city. Chris (Phoebe Cates) and her best friend Betsy (Kathleen Wilhoite) are both trying to lose their virginity to their boyfriends, who are also pals and attend the neighboring all-boys academy. Chris's boyfriend, Jim (Matthew Modine), is extremely handsome and sweet, while Betsy's boyfriend, Bubba (Michael Zorek), fits his name perfectly as the profusely sweaty fat kid who's the biggest pervert in his class. A reccurring source of comedy has to do with Bubba trying to avoid the deed and convincing Betsy that they've already done it, she just doesn’t remember on account of being drunk. Meanwhile, Chris and Jim have made plans to book a hotel for a weekend in order to show some class and spark romance for their first time. The only problem is that Chris's rival, Jordan (Betsy Russell), also has the hots for Jim and will do anything to get his attention. As the openly catty Jordan starts to pursue Jim, Chris and Betsy retaliate by trying to be one step ahead of her. The boys from the other school try desperately to infiltrate the girls' academy in order to either get a peak at all the naked chicks walking around the dormitory or see their girlfriends. This includes dressing in drag and scaling the wall on each other's shoulders, with Bubba on the top of their pathetic pyramid. Their trespassing complicates matters for Chris and Jim because it brings Jim one step closer to the devious Jordan.Continue Reading
I’ve been on a Woody Allen kick of late and I’m not sure what prompted it. In the twilight of his career he remains a polarizing figure mostly reviled for personal indiscretions or ignored for his supposed cultural irrelevancy. He doesn’t always make it easy to defend his work. The things people used to find amusing about his movies now just elicit a kind of widespread yawning contempt—the gross age difference between him and his latest ingÃ©nue, the aloof quality of the writing, and the way his characters don’t seem to bear even the slightest relation to actual people in New York City or anywhere else. His last few international productions have been, by all accounts, hit-or-miss and the early fans who adopted Annie Hall and Manhattan as the films of their generation have deserted him. I don’t necessarily disagree that his films aren’t what they used to be, but I think his good films are still some of the best American films ever made. The period of his work I generally romanticize is the mid-1980s period and the film of his that I like best is, in some ways, the least representative of his work, Radio Days. It’s light, unabashedly sentimental, and probably the least cynical movie he ever made.
Radio Days is more-or-less a series of vignettes related to Allen’s childhood that revolve around the radio and the central role it played in everyone’s life. The scenes are breezy and comical with a wry knowing melancholy hovering over them because this is, after all, a lost world that Allen is eulogizing. The film shows Allen’s childhood in a nostalgic light. He lives in Brooklyn in a cramped house where various assorted aunts, uncles, and grandparents lived too. Their banter is typically neurotic for an Allen film but there’s a familial ease and a gentleness to it. It’s very funny but it’s not abrasive. Seth Green plays Allen as a kid who is obsessed with the Masked Avenger, a radio show about a super hero of sorts whom Green’s character imagines as a dashing crime fighter but in actuality is played by Wallace Shawn, the impish character actor. A lot of the fun to be had from the stories Allen tells about the golden age of radio is how the actuality of who the performers are bears little resemblance to the identities they assume on the radio for a rapt audience living vicariously through their glamorous exploits. None is funnier than Mia Farrow, a painfully ditzy supper club cigarette girl who is perpetually in the wrong place at the wrong time but who eventually gets (mostly) rid of her Brooklyn squawk and becomes the host of a sophisticated Hollywood gossip radio program.Continue Reading