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
The train movie has always been a favorite genre of mine (Horror Express, Runaway Train, Narrow Margin, Emperor of the North Pole, etc). Going back to the silents (The Great Train Robbery) the train trip has been used famously as a murder mystery setting (Murder on the Orient Express, The Lady Vanishes), a place for romance (North by Northwest), action (The Cassandra Crossing, Breakheart Pass), comedy (The General), and horror (Terror Train). In 1976 director Arthur Hiller wasn’t exactly sure what genre he wanted - romance, action, comedy. Though sometimes messy, his Silver Streak did mange to breathe some life into the train picture and it ended up being a perfect piece of genre-bending entertainment.
With a screenplay by Colin Higgins, who had written the cult flick Harold and Maude and would go on to write and direct another solid romantic-action-comedy, Foul Play with Chevy Chase, Silver Streak stars Gene Wilder. As one of the era’s most unique comic talents, the role feels very un-Wilder-like. Mater of fact it could have been Chase, Elliott Gould, George Segal, Burt Reynolds or any leading man of the mid '70s. It’s not until just over the half way mark when Richard Pryor enters and infuses the film with a fresh energy, bringing out the more manic Wilder that audiences had grown to love. After getting a co-screenwriting credit on the Wilder flick Blazing Saddles, but nixed as an actor, Silver Streak would mark Pryor and Wilder’s first onscreen comedy together. They would follow it with the sometimes hilarious Stir Crazy and then the mostly terrible Another You and See No Evil, Hear No Evil. But Silver Streak is the film that really best showcases the yin and yang of their different comic styles.Continue Reading
The great horror spoofs are far and few between. For every Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein or Shaun of the Dead (both excellent) there are at least a dozen Scary Movies, Saturday the 14ths or Vampire in Brooklyns, most tend to range from lousy to lame. Young Frankenstein falls in the excellent camp, working as both a laugh out loud comedy and a perfect dissection of the style used by Universal in their famous monster period, directly spoofing both Frankenstein and its sequel, The Bride of Frankenstein. For director Mel Brooks it would mark the apex of his career after The Producers and Blazing Saddles, all three films featuring Gene Wilder who cowrote the Young Frankenstein script with Brooks. Wilder went on to direct his own films and neither Brooks nor Wilder would ever make anything as inspired as the three films they made together. They would even both later direct lousy and lame horror spoofs: Haunted Honeymoon (Wilder... lame) and Dracula: Dead and Loving It (Brooks... lousy). But together, combining both men’s distinct comedy style, they created a film that is easily one of the two or three greatest horror comedies of all time.
American lecturer and doctor, Dr. Frederick Frankenstein (Wilder) can’t live down his famous mad doctor grandfather (Mary Shelley’s Dr. Frankenstein) and is truly embarrassed by his roots. When he inherits the family property in Eastern Europe he leaves behind his icy fiancée, Elizabeth, played by Madeline Kahn, on her own roll of big time performances in the period, including Blazing Saddles and Paper Moon. At the castle, he meets his new hunchbacked manservant, Igor (bug-eyed British comedian Marty Feldman), his sexy young laboratory assistant, Inga (Teri Garr) and the creepy maid, Frau Blucher (Cloris Leachman). After reading his grandfather’s journals, Frederick becomes convinced he can reanimate life and sets about recreating his experiments. Like the original Frankenstein story, he brings a patched together man back to life but the man (Peter Boyle, very crafty casting) is accidentally given an abnormal brain and is a relegated to being a monster.Continue Reading
Most films about the future seem optimistic about human intelligence levels rising, with Mike Judge’s depressing comedy Idiocracy being an exception. Woody Allen’s Sleeper splits the difference: the technology and science have evolved but people have gotten shallower. Since ’73 his vision looks to be almost prophetic. As a follow up to Every Thing You Always Wanted to Know about Sex * But Were Afraid to Ask, Sleeper was his most polished film at that point. It was the peak of Woody’s slapstick phase, just four years before his evolutionary jump into the more mature filmmaker he would become with Annie Hall and Manhattan (both films co-written with Marshall Brickman, who also worked on the Sleeper script). Kinda, sorta, slightly based on H.G. Wells’s 1899 novel When the Sleeper Wakes, it’s a film that, because of the science-fiction element and the high laugh count, has always been considered one of his more admired and easily digestible films from his non-fans.
In 1973, Miles Monroe (Allen), owner of the Happy Carrot Health-Food store, is put into a scientific sleep chamber, without his knowledge, and finally revived two-hundred years later in 2173. He wakes up in a futuristic American police state (similar to so many movie future societies from Logan’s Run to Conquest of the Planet of the Apes to The Hunger Games). The rebels need him because he’s the only citizen without an identification number. He ends up helping them by posing as a robot servant for a dingy socialite, Luna Schlosser (Diane Keaton, working ...
What About Bob?
It’s always been interesting to follow the cinematic career of Bill Murray, an actor and entertainer who, during the ‘80s, could do no wrong when it came to his comedic performances. Even during that period you could start to see his desire to make odd and unique film choices—The Razor’s Edge and Quick Change, for example—and those choices would eventually lay the foundation for the types of roles Murray would go on to play pretty much exclusively now. But there was one last great one-two comedic hurrah from Murray in the early ‘90s with the back-to-back films What About Bob? and Groundhog Day.
What About Bob? came first in 1991 and it stars Murray as a completely multi-phobic personality named Bob Wiley, a man incapable of doing even the smallest of tasks without completely panicking. Deep down, he’s a good-hearted person with the desire to do the right thing; he’s just petrified of everything and everyone around him. Hence, he works from his apartment by day, uses tissues to open doors or shake hands, and would opt to climb 44 flights of stairs rather than be confined in a claustrophobic setting like an elevator. He also starts off each day by repeating the phrase “I feel good, I feel great, I feel wonderful,” over and over again and the one and only companion he converses with is his pet goldfish, Gil. After a strong recommendation from a previous doctor, Bob meets up with Dr. Leo Marvin (Richard Dreyfuss), a stern, serious, and fairly egotistical psychiatrist hot on the heels of a successful new book and on the cusp of superstardom via an upcoming appearance on Good Morning America.
Once upon a time in the golden period of films known as the 1970s, Mel Brooks was, along with Woody Allen, the biggest directing name in comedy. Both had been on the legendary writing staff of Sid Caesar's Your Show of Shows in the '50s (along with Neil Simon and Carl Reiner) and both brought a distinctly Jewish tone to their slapstick. While Allen represented the Manhattan highbrow, Brooks’s style lurked more in the offensively low end Borscht Belt style. By the '80s, when Allen's status raised to the level of genius, Brooks’s comedy had already become passe and completely juvenile, working in the obvious (Spaceballs, Dracula: Dead and Loving It, etc.). But his early string of comedies, from The Producers through High Anxiety, created a lot of laughs, peaking in 1974 with two comic masterpieces: Young Frankenstein and, maybe even better, the bawdy western spoof Blazing Saddles.
The western spoof is almost as old as the western itself—you had Laurel & Hardy in Way Out West, The Marx Brothers in Go West, Mae West and W.C. Fields did My Little Chickadee, and Bob Hope had The Paleface and then Son of Paleface, not to mention Destry Rides Again with Marlene Dietrich (which Blazing Saddles actually directly spoofs). The '60s saw an examining of the western most directly through the Italian spaghetti westerns and American western comedies such as Cat Ballou and Support Your Local Sheriff! In the '70s, the reexamining went to the extreme as the western was turned in on itself and poked at by post-modernists with films as broad as Jodorowsky’s El Topo, Altman&r...
Though they hit the big-time as screenwriters and directors with their first film, Dumb & Dumber, the Farrelly brothers, Peter and Bobby, peaked commercially and critically with their third film, There’s Something about Mary. Their gross-out, dumb humor mixed with lazy sentiment became the standard for turn-of-the-century-era comedy; however, it was actually their less popular second film, Kingpin, which remains their best and funniest flick. It has the raunch, it has some heart, but most importantly, what makes the film special is the outstanding casting of its three leads: Woody Harrelson, Randy Quaid, and Bill Murray. Their performances, along with some of the supporting character actors, help the film rise above its sometimes weak script. Kingpin may not always bowl strikes but it is at least good enough to share a lane with the other best bowling movie ever, The Big Lebowski.
Back in the disco days of the late ‘70s, a young Iowan man, Roy Munson (Harrelson), looked like he was on his way to becoming a bowling god, until he hooked up with a conniving pro-bowler named Ernie McCracken (Murray) for a little hustling. The naive Roy didn’t realize that the sleazy Ernie, who drinks Tanqueray & Tab, was threatened by the younger bowler’s talent and leading him astray. A bad con with the wrong guys leads to Roy getting his hand cut off and the end to his promising bowling future. CUT TO: 17 years later. Roy now sports a prosthetic hand (over a hook) and a bad comb over haircut. He’s down and out, a drunk and bad conman forced to sleep with his hideously haggish landlady (Lin Shaye, brilliant) to cover his rent. Roy has hit the bottom until he happens upon a naive young Amish bowler, Ishmael Boorg (Quaid, the 40-something actor seems to be playing about 20). After much coercing and posing as an Amish cousin Roy finally convinces Ishmael to hit the bowling road with him to learn the con and eventually play for the big-time, where Ishmael can earn money to save the family farm.
2011 was something of a banner year for movies about at least superficially complicated women who happen to be hilarious. Whether in Bridesmaids, the obvious winner here, or in Bad Teacher (at least they tried) there was something refreshing about female characters who managed to stand out from the shrew/slut/"manic pixie dream girl" trifecta of acceptable female archetypes. The best of these and my favorite film of the year incidentally, is Jason Reitman's Young Adult. It's a dark comedy that explores the realities of life for people who have run out of identity options not based around their high school years.
Charlize Theron creates a fantastically entertaining mess of a character to follow in Mavis, a woman whom everyone can see is losing it except her. Mavis ghost writes young adult fiction and lives in a sad apartment in a Minneapolis high rise where she is alternately drunk or hungover, ignoring her beleaguered pooch, and staring expressionless at her TV which is tuned exclusively to the E Network. She is a woman of no discernible trace of self awareness. She is empty and she doesn’t have the slightest understanding of how to fix her life. Her insane lack of regard for anyone who isn't her compels her to head back to her home town, Mercury, and stalk an ex-boyfriend from high school that has recently had a kid with his wife. She’s going to win him back and they’ll live happily ever after, wife and kid be damned. Along the way she meets Matt, a guy from her high school infamous around town for having been subjected to a brutal “gay bashing” while in high school though he isn’t gay, just an outsider, pretty much the total opposite of whatever it is Mavis represents. But both are pretty bitter people and they find a weird solace in each other’s company.
Even though it has a noticeably horrible Dave Grusin music score behind it (and even worse are the songs, giving it an icky, saccharin, early ‘80s vibe) Tootsie still manages to break conventions and has proved to be one of the best comedies of all time as well as the best film about the desperation of actors since Rosemary’s Baby. What at first can look like a gimmick, “Dustin Hoffman dresses up like a woman,” actually proves to be much more sophisticated; this isn’t a Some Like It Hot updating. With a screenplay by Murray Schisgal and Larry Gelbart (creator of M*A*S*H, the TV show and part of that group of young writers including Neil Simon, Carl Reiner, Woody Allen, and Mel Brooks who honed their skills on Your Show of Shows in the 1950s) Tootsie, like a Preston Sturges or Howard Hawks classic, is both a laugh-out-loud comedy and an insightful social examination. It may be clichéd but Hoffman’s character comes to understand being a man more from his life as an undercover woman. Fresh from the Women’s Lib era, Tootsie has a lot to say about gender roles and makes its statement cleanly.
Struggling actor slash waiter, Michael Dorsey (Hoffman), teaches acting and coaches his friends’ auditions, but his exasperated agent (played wonderfully by director Sidney Pollack) lets him know, no one will hire him because he’s too much trouble (much like Hoffman’s own difficult reputation). After helping his needy actress friend Sandy (Teri Garr) prepare for a soap opera role, he ends up going up for it in drag and booking it, under his new stage name, Dorothy Michaels. With the help of his droll playwright roommate (an uncredited Bill Murray), keeping up his ruse as a woman becomes a fulltime job. He accidentally sleeps with Sandy, but falls in love with his soap costar Julie (Jessica Lange); she’s involved with the show’s chauvinist director (Dabney Coleman). On a weekend getaway Julie’s widower father (Charles Durning) falls for Dorothy as does her old cad costar John Van Horn (George Gaynes). Meanwhile on the set of the show Dorothy proves to be an actress who plays by her own rules, rewriting lines and following her instincts which make her an instant celebrity (I suppose once upon a time, soap operas had the ability to make their casts into names). Michael wants to put down his mask and reveal to everyone who he really is but besides ruining his now thriving career, it will complicate the relationships that he has made as Dorothy. He also begins to grasp how hard it is to be a woman in the 1980s.
Some movies merit a second viewing to get a better sense of what’s going on. There aren’t a lot of films I’d lump into this category but Noah Baumbach’s Greenberg is one of them. When I saw it during its original theatrical release I thought it fell flat. I was expecting a sharp-as-a-blade deconstruction of the kind of guy who, in Baumbach’s own words, seems to perpetually get in his own way. Ben Stiller’s character, Roger Greenberg, is a hyper-critical, excruciatingly self-centered guy aimless and adrift in a Los Angeles completely familiar to anyone who lives here—a place that seems to always have the lonely haze of a Sunday afternoon. Greenberg is a quintessential 21st century miserablist. None of his problems should chart on a list of the biggest issues facing society but in his own way he epitomizes the neurotic, existential crisis surrounding a particular stratum of our white western culture of insane privilege. Greenberg is paralyzed by how his actions make him seem to the outside world. He is obsessed with what people say about him. He is so busy avoiding the things he doesn’t want to do that he ends up not really doing anything with his life. He takes out his anger on justifiable targets—Starbucks, rude drivers—but lacks the self-awareness to see where all this self-obsessive behavior has gotten him. If this sounds unpleasant I assure you it’s actually pretty hilarious but the subtlety of Stiller’s performance caught me off guard the first time.
Roger Greenberg is a New Yorker in his 40s who has just gotten over some kind of vaguely alluded to nervous breakdown. He is offered his brother Phillip’s palatial house in L.A. to recuperate in while Phillip and his family are off in Vietnam on a work-related trip. Greenberg (as Stiller’s character is known) shows up after they leave and meets their personal assistant, Florence (Greta Gerwig), who agrees to get a drink with him. Their banter is suitably awkward. Greenberg often wears the expression of a trapped animal; his eyes dart around and he doesn’t so much engage in conversation as let you in on what one assumes is his constant, torturous inner monologue: a litany of complaints and contrarian opinions on every subject conceivable. Somehow this charms Florence or at least piques her curiosity. She’s a girl just out of college who is sleepwalking through young adulthood, a nice kid who doesn’t have her shit together and for whatever reason likes Greenberg. Greenberg, though, has a habit of letting people who care about him down. Whether it’s Florence or his former band mate, Ivan (Rhys Ifans), he can’t seem to move beyond his own baggage and he inevitably hurts the people closest to him. Misery, after all, loves company.