Viva Las Vegas
Elvis Presley’s film career can be seen in two halves. The first half is the '50s. It consists of just four films. It’s interesting. Elvis showed some potential and even ambition to become a serious actor. The second half is the '60s. Elvis made over twenty films in the decade: two or three a year. They’re not as interesting; most were totally forgettable, formulaic vanity projects. Elvis appears to have lost his ambition to be a real actor and was willing to accept any cookie-cutter musical as long as a paycheck was involved. However, many of those second-half films still have their fans. The one standout for me is Viva Las Vegas. It’s another cut-and-paste job. It’s fluff. But besides a couple of catchy songs and some fun actual Vegas locations, it has one very special thing going for it -- Elvis’ co-star.
Love Me Tender was Presley’s first film in ’56. He got third billing. It’s actually a pretty effective Civil War drama with Elvis also crooning the title song. His third film, Jailhouse Rock, was a solid B-movie drama/musical. His final film of the decade, King Creole, co-starred Carolyn Jones and Walter Matthau and was directed by Michael Curtiz -- you know the guy who directed Casablanca. When Elvis emerged in films, still at the height of Elvis-mania, it looked like he was going to carry on the Marlon Brando/James Dean torch of misunderstood youth rebellion and alienation as he tried to pattern his acting after them: mumbling, blatant sexuality, a coyness with the camera. But by the sixties, any pose of artistic rebellion had given way to capitalist goals. Elvis had done his stint in the army, he was now married and hanging around with Sinatra on television. And by the time we get to Viva Las Vegas in ’64, The Beatles are now king and Elvis is just a dated caricature of himself.Continue Reading
The Linguini Incident
Following the death of David Bowie last month, many people are no doubt still rewatching films that he starred or was featured in. I've always paid close attention to the similarities in Bowie's acting throughout his career and noticed an almost adorable sense of charm that I'd assume was fed by his neurotic and eclectic personality. These qualities shine and lend a certain edge to films like The Man Who Fell to Earth, Labyrinth and The Hunger. Somehow in the midst of all the obvious options of films I had almost forgotten that, for me, the same can be said the lesser-known flick The Linguini Incident.
The movie is a contemporary screwball comedy that fits the “formula” to a T. It's female-driven, features a zany romantic plot that emphasizes silliness more than sentiment and even has the typical love triangle. The dialog is choppy and awkward and the jokes are suggestive without being offensive or crude. Unlike romantic comedies—the predecessor of screwball you could say—films like this are refreshing as they bring on lots of laughs without manifesting cheap sentiment. In fact, there's virtually nothing to be gained in the movie except for laughs and it's completely merited.Continue Reading
Addams Family Values
Since they all seemed to spring from The Honeymooners and I Love Lucy, early sitcoms mostly followed the same basic comedy concept: the battle-of-the-sexes, men-vs-women formula. Breaking that rule is one of the many traits that made The Addams Family TV show and the two big screen movies so different and special. Here instead of bickering and plotting against each other, the married couple have a passionate and deeply sexual love, leaving most comedy hacks at a loss for creating conflict. And in the case of the films directed by Barry Sonnenfeld, the even bigger ace-in-the-hole is the brilliant casting of the couple, Raul Julia and Anjelica Huston as Gomez and Morticia Addams (taking over for John Astin and Carolyn Jones who were pretty fantastic themselves on the small screen). The first Addams Family flick was the directing debut of Sonnenfeld, who had made a name for himself as the cinematographer of the first three Coen Brothers films (Blood Simple, Raising Arizona and Miller’s Crossing, which had a then completely fresh look to them). Here he combines his zapped-up camera energy with a Tim Burton-like appreciation for the comically macabre (the first film was written by some of the writers of Edward Scissorhands and Beetlejuice). That first Addams Family movie was good but the second one, Addams Family Values, proves to be one of the rare sequels that is even better than the original.
Based on Charles Addams' now legendary cartoon for The New Yorker depicting the bizarre and wealthy family that skewered traditional family values, they horrified all the straight people who encountered them, and although not self-aware were totally confident in their own beings. The first film gave us the basic update of the show; Gomez and Morticia are the heads of an eclectic family clan of eccentrics that includes their daughter, gloomy Wednesday (Christina Ricci, born to play the role), their son Pugsley (not as funny as the chubby kid on the show) and the witchy Grandmama (played by Judith Malina in the first one and Carol Kane in the sequel). Also hanging around are their Frankenstein’s monster-looking valet/butler Lurch (the film version is not nearly as memorable as the TV version played by the giant actor Ted Cassidy) and their devoted assistant Thing, a disembodied hand, who really gets to shine in the movies with the help of technology. Both films really revolve around Gomez’s brother, Uncle Fester, played here by Christopher Lloyd much more grotesquely then Jackie Coogan’s TV version. Lloyd, with his gravely voice, comes off like a sheepish version of Murnau’s Nosferatu as opposed to Coogan, who is just a fat guy with a high pitched voice, but who is very funny. The first film revolved around crooks trying to swindle the Addams’ fortune by having a guy pose as Fester (similar to the plot of the second Brady Bunch movie, A Very Brady Sequel), and in the end it turned out the impostor was actually the real Fester.Continue Reading
If you're a fan of Charlie Kaufman you'll find plenty to love and adore about Adaptation, a film written by Kaufman (and oddly credited to him and his non-existent twin brother, Donald) who is behind such films as Being John Malkovich, Synecdoche, New York and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. If you are not a fan of the larger name celebrities in the film's cast--which would be Nicholas Cage and Meryl Streep--and have avoided the work due to them being in it, I'd urge you to see this often overlooked masterpiece where they give their finest and most revealing performances.
Told by way of jumping through a three year time frame, the film surrounds the mystery and truths involving several characters on the brink of self-discovery. Charlie Kaufman (Nicholas Cage) is an eclectic but shabby screenwriter trying to grow as an artist and a person. Susan Orlean (Meryl Streep) is a writer for The New Yorker who is assigned to write a piece on John Laroche (Chris Cooper), an eccentric agriculturalist on trial with three Seminole natives for removing a series of plants, mostly orchids, from a federal reserve. Her article is expanded into a book, The Orchid Thief, and the publicist (Tilda Swinton) wants to take it further by adapting it into a film. Kaufman is the man given the job, following the success of his script for Being John Malkovich and an ingenius reputation for his craft.Continue Reading
When I was ten years old I declared Foul Play to be the funniest movie ever made. Maybe now it’s not quite as amazing as I thought it was then, but it’s still pretty entertaining. After hitting gold with the scripts for Harold and Maude and Silver Streak, screenwriter Colin Higgins made his directorial debut with Foul Play. Like Silver Streak, Foul Play is a sorta romantic-comedy (slash) mystery-thriller hybrid. It both romanticizes the old style of Cary Grant and accepts the newer Saturday Night Live inspired raunch that has dominated American film comedies ever since. This was Goldie Hawn’s peak years, coming off of Shampoo and just before her signature performance as Private Benjamin. In her mid thirties, she was still playing the big eyed pixie to perfection and she matched Chevy Chase, in his first lead role (he had played some bit parts in The Groove Tube earlier). The film is definitely a time-capsule of disparaging styles, jumping between slapstick sex comedy and violent Hitchcock spoof, there is more would-be suspense than comedy, but when the comedy works I can see why ten-year-old me got so excited.
The plot is some kind of murder mystery that has something to do with an assassination attempt on the Pope or something. It really doesn’t matter. Goldie plays a beautiful San Francisco librarian, one of those unlikely lonely hearts who goes to see old movies by herself. Through a number of contrivances she ends up with a dead man as a date which puts her into a vast conspiracy including an albino hitman working for a corrupt Catholic church until bumbling cop Chevy Chase comes to her rescue. The two eventually put the case together (along with his trench-coated partner Brian Dennehy) and, of course, fall in love. And in-between their Charade-like pleasantries, there’s Burgess Meredith as her wacky karate-chopping neighbor, Dudley Moore as a sex crazed swinger, Billy Barty as a dwarf door-to-door salesman, a laughing snake, opera, car chases, murders, and an Oscar-nominated theme song by Barry Manilow. I may sum this up shallowly, as if I’m poo-pooing, but it’s actually with much affection.Continue Reading
The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming
Written by William Rose, who was also responsible for the loud, brash and big It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World a couple years earlier (as well as the overrated Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner), The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming is also a big ensemble comedy, but much better executed and focused than his previous script, with more heart and less mean-spiritedness. It also helps that it has a very able director at the helm, the nearly forgotten Norman Jewison, whose socially-conscious films still hold up (In The Heat of The Night, A Soldier’s Story, The Hurricane; The Russians Are Coming could also be considered part of that group). He had a number of films which were popular and respected in their day (The Cincinnati Kid, The Thomas Crown Affair, Fiddler on the Roof, Agnes of God, Moonstruck) and some fascinating curios (Jesus Christ Superstar, Rollerball and F.I.S.T.). He falls into that group of directors who emerged in the sixties like Arthur Penn, George Roy Hill, John Boorman and John Schlesinger who had a lot of acclaim and made some classics, but never became brand names like Polanski and Coppola, or even to a lesser extent Mike Nichols and Sydney Pollack. Jewison has as many solid films as his peers, though looking back none reach that same level of transcendence as a Bonnie and Clyde, Midnight Cowboy or Deliverance. For my money, though many would disagree, The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming is his film that holds up best today.
Based on a novel by Nathaniel Benchley (whose son Peter wrote the novel Jaws), set in a little New England beachy island community (very similar looking to that one in Jaws, though surprisingly actually shot in Northern California), where a Russian submarine gets stuck in a sandbar, leading to havoc in the town. This was a few years after the Cuban Missile Crisis, so this was the height of cold-war hysteria (think Dr. Strangelove), so even just having likable Russian characters was enough to make this film subversive to some. The film has dozens of characters, with top character actors of the day in peak form.Continue Reading
American independent cinema has been ghettoized and marketed into a certain type of cinema. Popular types of independent films include low budget digital cinematography about post-collegiate confusion or Indiewood films about “quirky” relationships and situations involving beautiful losers. It's a sea of films that has flooded festivals like SXSW or Sundance that leave great works of independent cinema behind in the dust. So it’s a grand pleasure to have Andrew Bujalski’s Computer Chess emerge out of Sundance, a film that openly breaks these stereotypes and proves that American independent cinema can be exciting, experimental and even fun.
Taking place sometime in the late '70s or early '80s, several groups of professional, amateur and student programmers meet at a motel to compete in a computer chess tournament where computers are pitted directly against one another to see which program has the most advanced AI. But this is almost just an excuse (a mundane MacGuffin?) for a film that takes leaps into computer philosophy, surrealism and hippie hedonism. Bujalski steps out of his comfort zone of painful, singular character based comedies shot on 16mm with a pastiche shot on low-grade video on a Sony AVC3260 (never a gimmick, but an integral part of the aesthetic and feel). Lesser filmmakers would lament and moan about the use of such an anti-cinematic camera and look, but Bujalski and his excellent regular cinematographer Matthias Grunsky revel in it with jump cuts, bad split screen, video errors, and unsynced sound and light that smears like old live television. The first minute or two of Computer Chess start as a faux-documentary with programmers speaking into mics directly into the camera about why they want to win the championship. Jump cut to an audience preparing to sit down in an auditorium while the camera dollies across the audience--until it crashes too hard into the end of a dolly track, causing another jump cut to static. If you were watching this on an old CRT-TV, you’d probably be provoked to slap the TV straight a few times.Continue Reading
Lost In America
Three comic masterpieces in a row is enough to put you on the higher rung of American humorists. The Marx Brothers had that run with Horse Feathers, Duck Soup and A Night at the Opera. Mel Brooks had The Producers, Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein (with the less vital The Twelve Chairs mixed in). WC Fields had that amazing trifecta of You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man, The Bank Dick and Never Give a Sucker an Even Break. Preston Sturges, Charlie Chaplin and Woody Allen are three more legends whose hot streaks went beyond three. Albert Brooks, an underrated comic genius of recent generations, is the forgotten man. Throughout the '70s he shined as a cutting edge stand-up comic and made groundbreaking short films for that first season of Saturday Night Live. He made his writer/director feature film debut in 1979 with Real Life, a wonderfully uncomfortable comedy that predicted the coming of reality TV. He followed it with Modern Romance, often called Brooks’ Annie Hall, a deadeye take on both Hollywood and love. And then finally maybe his most perfect gem, Lost in America, the most biting satire of Ronald Reagan’s "greed is good" 1980s yuppie culture. (A less sophisticated comic mind like Steve Martin poked fun at the culture with L.A. Story, but was actually embracing the superficiality.)
The first step in embracing an Albert Brooks film is deciding whether or not you can stomach him. The guy plays some of the most neurotic and deeply insecure characters in movie history, and as David Howard in Lost in America, he’s as obnoxious as ever. The movie opens with him laying in bed with his wife, Linda (Julie Hagerty, fresh off another comic masterpiece, Airplane!). He can’t sleep; he has second thoughts on the much bigger house they just bought and he’s excited with anticipation for the big promotion he is expecting to get at the advertising agency he has worked at for eight years. He assures her once that promotion comes he will no longer be the uptight husband he can’t help being. Linda is a study in understanding, but the next day she breaks down to a co-worker wondering if she can go on like this. To his shock and disappointment, instead of the promotion, he is transferred to New York. He throws a massive tantrum and is fired. In a sorta melt down, he convinces himself that he has been freed from the rat race and talks Linda into quitting her job too. They make a plan: sell the new house, cash out all their stocks and bonds, leaving them with $180,000 to live on for the rest of their lives (this was considered a lot in 1985), buy a motor home to escape from Los Angeles and travel the country (just like Easy Rider!), and maybe settle in a lighthouse in Connecticut where they can paint and write and no longer have to worry about ambition. Deal! First stop, Las Vegas, for a wedding vowel renewal. A monkey wrench is thrown into the works though. While David sleeps, Linda gambles away their entire fortune in a casino. It’s even more downhill from there as they head East and now must rediscover themselves without the comfort of the nest egg.Continue Reading
This is Spinal Tap
Although it has had a lot of competition since it was released in 1984, This is Spinal Tap still remains the greatest mockumentary, the best spoof on the rock music scene, and one of the funniest, most continually quotable flicks I’ve ever seen. This was the first film directed by Rob Reiner who, at the time, was primarily known for his role as Meathead on the legendary sitcom All in the Family. He would go on to have a mostly pedestrian directing career with a few stand-outs (Stand By Me). With This Is Spinal Tap, Reiner and his three costars - Michael McKean, Christopher Guest, Harry Shearer (all four of whom are the credited writers) - created something very special whose style has been copied many times over, especially by Guest himself. But nothing has hit it so far out of the park as this one did.
The mockumentary (a spoof of a documentary) was not new at the time. Though rather dull, David Holzman’s Diary was considered a landmark in 1967. Woody Allen made the now classic Take the Money and Run. There was that Beatles spoof, All You Need is Cash, and Albert Brooks foresaw the coming of reality TV with his Real Life. What makes This is Spinal Tap especially impressive is that it keeps the documentary format the entire film, something most other mockumentaries rarely sustain (including Guest’s later work). Most of the other films often cheat and have moments to try and help the plot along that couldn’t have been documented by a pesky camera crew. Every moment in This is Spinal Tap keeps the documentary format humming. By 1984 the ego-driven rockumentary had been a standard cash generator for most megabands (peaking in the seventies before the music video came to dominate the self-promotion machine). Going at least as far back as Bob Dylan’s Don’t Look Back in ’67 and the music festival docs Monterey Pop and Woodstock, it was really The Rolling Stones’ Cocksucker Blues and Led Zeppelin’s The Song Remains The Same that gave This is Spinal Tap its most potent fodder.Continue Reading
Considered by some to be an interesting historical footnote as the film uber-nerd George Lucas directed before he became a zillionaire with Star Wars, American Graffiti is actually much more. Besides helping to usher in a nostalgia wave during the '70s for a more innocent time before the Vietnam War and playing like catnip for classic car geeks, American Graffiti is a perfect ensemble comedy with a then cutting-edge use of wall-to-wall classic Rock & Roll songs on the soundtrack and a wonderful piece of Americana. It’s Lucas’s homage to those years in Modesto, California when kids drank milk shakes at Mel’s Drive-In and then cruised up and down the boulevard all night with their radios blasting, looking for kicks. The film is set in 1962. JFK was still alive, most Americans couldn’t yet point out Vietnam on a map, the Beatles hadn’t even touched down yet, and the baby boomer youth culture was beginning to dominate but still looked a lot like leftover 1950s innocents.
In a now classic coming of age set-up, American Graffiti takes place one August night after high school graduation. With the summer coming to an end, four buds (and the women around them) face the dilemma of impending adulthood about to overtake them. The clean cut Steve (Ron Howard) is excited to be heading off to college but has to figure out how to break it off with his longtime girlfriend, Laurie (Cindy Williams of future Laverne & Shirley fame). The much more thoughtful Curt (Richard Dreyfuss, in a role that would jump start his career before Jaws would make him a superstar a few years later) isn’t so sure about leaving for college out East the next day and goes on a search for some kind of meaning to his life and for the beautiful blond (Suzanne Somers) he spotted cruising around in a T-Bird. Instead he ends up taking part in antics with a gang of Greasers known as The Pharaohs (lead by the hilarious Bo Hopkins). Steve leaves his beloved Chevy Impala in the hands of his nerdy pal Terry "The Toad" (Charles Martin Smith who would go on to play a similar bumbler in The Untouchables). Now sporting a bitchin’ set of wheels, Terry spends the evening wooing a much more experienced woman, Debbie, played wonderfully by Candy Clark who scored an Oscar nomination for the performance and went on to appear in The Man Who Fell to Earth. The fourth strand of the story follows the more blue-collar, street racing cool kid, John Milner (Paul Le Mat, an actor who had the charisma and looks to hit the big time, but unlike many of his costars, his career never really took off other than playing the lead in Jonathan Demme’s acclaimed flick Melvin and Howard). He is being pursued for a drag race by a new guy in town, Bob Falfa (a cowboy hatted Harrison Ford), but his nightly fun is interrupted when he gets stuck with an annoying "tweener" Carol (Mackenzie Phillips), the two start off at odds but end up with a sweet brother/sister like relationship. A final "where are they now" epilogue scroll tells us what happened to the guys, bringing the film even more powerful pathos.Continue Reading