Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Real Life (1979, Albert Brooks)

Real Life is more prescient than funny, sometimes eerily so. One of the earliest examples of a comedic fake documentary, and Harry Shearer can be seen briefly. The opening text crawl name checks Margaret Meade in her assertion that PBS' 1973 television documentary An American Family has opened up a can of worms for the exploitation of real people's lives on camera, which she praises as a new art form akin to the birth of the novel. Albert Brooks seems to have taken inspiration from the unmentioned fact the couple whom PBS focused upon filed for divorce during the filming. Playing himself, Brooks is the butt of the joke as his pretensions to artistic discovery cause chaos. He can't help inserting himself into the proceedings. Has any documentary director ever really?

Unlike a lot of reality tv spoofs in the years subsequent Real Life, Brooks satirizes the notions that pointing cameras at real people and events legitimizes them and thus emancipates them from mediocrity. Brooks' handheld quality short films on the original run of Saturday Night Live established him as something of a verite humorist, the type of which we recognize today in The Office or Curb Your Enthusiasm. Spoofing his own reputation, Brooks opens the film with an address to the city council that can't help but end in showmanship for the cameras. Brooks' misguided dreamer persona is very similar in his '85 Lost In America, which also has a light intellectual premise that calls the romantic dreams of intellectuals into question. Like Preston Sturges' John Sullivan, his fascination with the little people, or non-entertainers, is asking for trouble. Unlike him, Brooks is going to cause the trouble for others.

Charles Grodin and the rest of the family are naturalistic and always in counterpoint to Brooks' fetishizing their normality. The fame doesn't really go to their heads, even Grodin's wife Frances Lee McCain passes up the chance for an affair with Brooks at one point. Brooks contrasts himself with "real people" as the lifelong entertainer who doesn't know anything else and makes comedic asides to the camera as the subject of his film go to pieces. The lives of ordinary people don't get corrupted by the self-awareness of cameras, posterity and/or fame, they get outright destroyed by its emissaries.

Brooks' comedy is never funny on a gut level, only intellectual. As a result the irony of the story becomes more memorably chilling, like a fable for modern times and neurosis. Modern Times has stood the test of time as satire by coming true as, to paraphrase another satirist, more people than ever in real life get their 15 minutes.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Adventureland (2009, Greg Mottola)

Judd Apatow's influence can be felt even in lesser comedies as Adventureland ultimately barely holds on as a feature resembling a series of vignettes from a television series. Martin Star feels like an older version of his Freaks and Geeks persona while star Jessie Eisenberg could be the stand-in F&G's young star John Francis Daley, with all his bland affability. Vulgar Apatow comparisons are further warranted by the amount of wish fulfillment involved in Eisenberg's verbosely overeducated, naive hero's choice of losing his virginity to hot bimbo Catholic girl Margarita Levieva or neurotic Jewish girl Kristen Stewart, who's also sleeping with Ryan Reynolds. Even through F&G's rose colored sitcom glasses Reynolds would kick Eisenberg's ass at some point, yet here he does not. The cast is full of stock characters and everyone brings a touch of humanity. Bill Hader's part was featured prominently in the trailers and gave the impression of the most rollicking romp at the worst Summer job ever, yet even his wackiness is in measured doses. So even the crappy job that gives license to misbehave isn't all bad. The main fantasy is having those two girls fighting over you. Oh, and having enough unsupervised time at your job to get high every reel.

Mottola is a director with personal visions of remembered youth and his increasingly numerous contemporaries have depicted the 1980s to either incidental importance (Noah Baumbach's The Squid & The Whale, Freaks & Geeks) or hilarity through period detail, probably best exemplified by Richard Kelly's Donnie Darko's hilarious use of motivational videos, startling use of child pornography in mainstream culture from the period, and linking of the two. Only a couple times does Adventureland dip into TV Reagan cameos or hair metal karaoke for cheap laffs. The rest of the time Mottola brings our nation's collective infatuation with 80s sex to a boiling point by dressing Margarita Levieva in every spandex tablecloth-patterned outfit he could find and leaving little of her hair un-crimped. The cheese was really starting to stink at the end of that decade, but hey, some like stinky cheese. Thanks, Greg!

Saturday, April 18, 2009

American Buffalo (1996, Michael Corrente)

Being based on a play, not much happens in this movie. Nothing much happens in Mamet's Glengarry Glenn Ross either, except that the details of that desperate scenario are so well articulated that the sole plot point of importance gains mythic resonance. American Buffalo hasn't a single plot point of action, only speculation. Mamet's characteristically prickly dialogue entertains without compelling. There's an inescapable Godot quality and that feels fatal on frame rather than stage.

Hoffman appears to be playing against type as the thuggish Teach until you realize he's been playing smart guys who get tough for years and the only tweak here is that he's street-smart rather than intellectual. Mamet's intellectualism has a way of creeping into Teach once or twice to the betrayal of the audience, first as a throwaway Holocaust reference. I'd like to have believed Hoffman were capable of striking someone, yet when he does Corrente cuts away and there I was watching a movie instead of being in the room with the characters. He's adequate, which for a very good actor is both above average and uninspired.

Franz does much better having to play the straight man to Hoffman's histrionics and consoler to Sean Nelson. He makes the relationships real through his weariness and resigned attitude. Nelson is a good child actor, alternately anxious and cautious. He and Franz are the real stars and the only things keeping the affair from becoming Dustin Hoffman Performs Classic Mamet. Unfortunately neither they nor Corrente can transform the play into a film justified on it's own terms. Passable entertainment, respectably vulgar, toothless even in 1996 when Glengarry quotes hadn't yet seeped into common parlance.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

The Wild Angels (1966, Roger Corman)

Wow, this is the biggest smattering of future talent Corman ever had. Peter Fonda, Nancy Sinatra, Bruce Dern, Diane Ladd, Monte Hellman, Michael J. Pollard, and an uncredited Peter Bogdanovich pitching in on just about everything if IMDB is to be trusted. Regular Corman scribe Charles Griffith (The Little Shop of Horrors) rips loose accounts of the Hell's Angels from newspapers and turns them into a delightfully plotless romp in which Fonda's biker buddy Dern gets busted, hospitalized, busted out by Fonda and dies from lack of medical attention. Then Fonda's gang tears up the church where he's being sermonized and that's more or less the end. Between these moments there's a lot of biking and hey, like, shove off, man attitude.

Corman's exploitation of biker subculture, or at least the popular conception of the Hell's Angels, is hilariously conservative. Fonda and his creeps are never anything less than total idiots and Corman doesn't skimp on the Swastikas - when Dern is laid down at the biker pad after being sprung from the hospital, his blanket is a Nazi flag and his nightcap is some not-so-medicinal marijuana. The Wild Angels are rapists, racists, and the ideal of an open life on the open road is given lip service exactly once by Fonda while he's telling off a priest. Movies like these are the reason Dennis Hopper wanted to make Easy Rider. I'll take the former over the latter any day; vicarious crimes beat mystical navel gazing any day.

In Hunter S. Thompson's nonfiction Hell's Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs, published the same year as this film, Thompson dispels a lot of the myths which Griffith turns into setpieces. Real Hell's Angels never rode around raping and pillaging and if there were brawls, self-righteous local rednecks were usually the instigators. The real Hell's Angels probably hated this movie for perpetuating such stereotypes. The only stereotype they might have secretly envied was fashioning Nancy Sinatra the model biker "mama" when the real life equivalent more accurately resembles Andrea Dworkin.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Stepfather II: Make Room For Daddy (1989, Jeff Burr)

Inadequacies and robotic imitation aside, Stepfather II has a big dumb lovable heart and little incompetence, only a total lack of inspiration. The handlers were obviously fans. As a sequel Jeff Burr replicates the formula a lot better than his later Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III (1990). In the same film he also displays a knack for casting cult figures and future stars all at once; Leatherface's Viggo Mortgensen and Ken Foree were preceded first by child star Jonathan Brandis and the radiant heroine of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2, Caroline Williams. Meg Foster rounds out the b-level repertoire and like Burr's direction supports the proceedings without a single original thought or action.

O'Quinn isn't exactly working alone. Clu Gulagher's wife talks about giving a blowjob, for heavens' sake. Unfortunately with no suspense left over for O'Quinn, there isn't even an attempt to create new behavior or added dimension. The stubbornness of Burr's refusal opens the film by placing O'Quinn in an asylum where he merely tells his doctor what he wants to here, just like all the families prior. This is forgivable for an unnecessary sequel with at least the one key ingredient returned.

What's less fortunate is John Auerbach's oft-idiotic script gives the Stepfather wanton willingness to kill those inside the community he's trying to hide within, outside his disposable family-of-the-year. Many twists on the original film spoil the delicate credibility, such as how his sequel family never suspects a thing throughout until Meg Foster connects the yawning canyons of obvious clues sprinkled throughout within mere minutes. Other shortcuts, such as making the investigating Caroline Williams character a mailwoman in order to snoop, are casualties of a perfect thriller premise for pre-Internet days, expanded upon by a writer not up to task. The leaps in logic never quite justify the guilty pleasures offered. At least we know the upcoming PG-13 remake will be worse.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

The Stepfather (1987, Joseph Ruben)

There's exactly one shot in The Stepfather near the end when Terry O'Quinn is mugging for the trailer instead of being anything less than his character. He deserved an Academy Award for scariness years before Anthony Hopkins won for Silence of the Lambs. Hannibal Lecter isn't half as scary as "Scary Jerry" and both characters require presence and psychology rather than violence for most of their respective films. However, O'Quinn had to carry an entire movie. No wonder the man has become a popular TV actor. I can't wait untill the crappy Stepfather remake comes out so that the original gem will receive a DVD release.

How does a thriller so innocuous turn out so brilliantly? The story is partly a loose rehash of Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt, in which a clever young girl suspects a close family member but can't let on for fear of her own life. Jill Schoelen plays a girl slightly older than Teresa Wright, whose new stepfather Jerry has actually had a few stepfamilies before she and her mom. Only problem is, those families are dead now and Jerry hasn't always called himself Jerry. He hasn't always looked like "Jerry" either. His old families just couldn't live up to what he wanted, and he's been moving from one to the next.

Screenwriter and superb mystery novelist Donald Westlake, whose novels have been filmed many times over the years from Point Blank to What's The Worst That Could Happen?, takes the insurmountable challenge of making O'Quinn the center of the action while retaining credibility and pulls it off beautifully. The methodology is elaborated upon just enough to be believed. Jerry's not flawless (one of his old families' relations is already trailing him) but in pre-Internet times he does pretty well at creating and recreating various identities.

What really makes the performance so disturbingly compelling is the character's pathology requires him to pretend not to be insane. Only you, the viewer, share his secret. In a deliciously guilty pleasure you kind of want to see him succeed even though failure is inevitable. When his eye twitches or brow furrows, you'll shudder because you know what he's capable of. This role required many layers of subtlety as well as openly psychotic rage and O'Quinn grounds his psycho contrivances like no one since Anthony Perkins.

The eventual bloody confrontation with big bad dad is so incrementally formed that when the last ten minutes become an out-and-out 1980s slasher, replete with Jerry's refusal to die, the filmmakers have more than earned the guilty pleasure. Besides, how else could such a story end? Any lesser film would have let Schoelen figure out Jerry's secret halfway through, instead Westlake amazingly grants her the realization at literally the last moment possible AND as a compliment to all her intelligent character has done throughout the film to catch on.

Ruben is extremely good with actors, there isn't a bad performance anywhere from even the smaller or less well-written parts. This may be why his later family-horror evil kid entry The Good Son's cheesiness at least felt professional if not worthwhile. Stepfather's bombastic music, usually a sign of weakness, helps retain the suspense during quieter moments in a way bombastic music usually does not.

There's something inherintly funny about horror movies based on nondescript jobs or titles: The Carpenter, The Dentist, Ice Cream Man, The Granny....Unlike those guys and gal, O'Quinn doesn't have a lot of identifiable tools on hand for being a killer stepdad. Even The Granny could have a wheelchair or something. Fortunately step-parents already have a menacing rep that precedes them all the way back to Cinderella. Had The Stepfather been made ten years earlier or later, the success on video of a modestly budgeted thriller wouldn't have spawned two sequels with exponentially higher body counts and the character receiving plastic fucking surgery so he could be played by another actor in Stepfather 3: Father's Day.

Stepfather II isn't all bad though. Review forthcoming.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

The Delicate Delinquent (1957, Don McGuire)

Jerry's solo premiere without Dean Martin is mostly a straight melodrama Jerry has been insterted into, except for one important scene that asserts his producer credit. At the lowest emotional point in the story, Jerry's would-be delinquent is all alone in the studio soundstage back alley and he sings a sad song about being alone. This is the obligatory sad clown moment which would become a standard of his Paramount auteured productions. Minor, forgotten auteur Don McGuire seems to have written the screenplay before Jerry was ever involved. Despite that there are many mildly humorous situations and even a couple of broadly farcical set pieces involving a nutty professor and a sumo wrestler, the dynamic between Darren "Kolchack" McGavin's gruff-but-kindly cop and Lewis is so well scripted and McGuire is so sincere in his drama about youth reform that you often forget the film is a comedy and start actually paying attention. Teenage crime waves were a very real thing in 1957, or at least a very real hysteria.

What's even more distracting from Jerry's burgeoning leading man status (McGavin carries the real weight here, and fairly well) is that all the principal actors are like McGavin; convincing studio players usually cast in dramas. Surprisingly effective is Robert Ivers, who never broke out in the movies despite this potential breakout role, as the young hood with it out for Jerry. This is a far cry from Lewis' later troupes of comic actors for all parts. His producing here seems to have been limited to the showstopping self-pity number and the hilarity of a Japanese businessman and sumo. Fortunately for us, he continued to move in that direction with age and confidence.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Beyond Therapy (1987, Robert Altman)

Comedies about psychiatry often betray the mores of the period in which they were made. Robert Altman in the 80s existed so surreptitiously under the radar that his work sometimes betrays a boredom with his own talent, with exceptional gems like the Philip Seymour Hoffman monologue film Secret Honor (1984.) Beyond Therapy is also based on a play, one with multiple sets unlike the former. The New York aesthetic is present in the location shots and set designs of apartments and restaurants, and without any realism. Altman's view of New York is the caricaturist's, skipping from one background character tangent to another and weaving stories in and out.

The casting and their direction is typically excellent per Altman. Each of the leads is talented - Jeff Goldblum, Christopher Guest, Julie Hagerty - although Hagerty is so broad its like she's playing an improvised scene for 90 minutes while Goldblum and Guest create funny characters with depth. The supporting cast of family members and psychiatrists is totally ridiculous and almost entirely French. Lots of accents flying fast and thick, as though there was nothing strange about these American characters existing solely in some alternate Parisian universe version of New York.

There's a lot of references to homosexuality. Golblum's character is bi, yet conservatively does not get explicit with anyone, even Hagerty. She announces her hatred of gays clearly, loudly and early in the film and then the script doesn't even emphasize her later acceptance of Guest. The homosexual waiters and patrons of the restaurant at the center of the action are what Burroughs would call "simpering."

The psychiatrists and their relation to the main characters is nearly superfluous. Unlike Three On A Couch the idea of psychiatry itself isn't the joke anymore, there's more an assertion that the profession isn't effective enough to be taken seriously. Hence Goldblum's shrink being a caricature of psychobabblers and Hagerty's a sexually hung up loser who's already slept with her. When she and he stand around arguing about the importance of their affair as though this could happen in real life, there's a slightly patronizing sheen of artifice present which can only come from the self-considered urbane.

Altman can be really brilliant or he can be just fucking around. Thankfully he's talented enough that merely fucking around can be an entertaining light comedy, never laugh out loud funny but dripping a steady tap of quirkiness. Lesser hands attempt the same every week and fail, whereas I could pretty much watch Jeff Goldblum and/or Christopher Guest in anything. A lot better than its contemporaries and the modern "romantic comedy." Altman's often wandering, kaleidoscopic style is similar to Europeans, so the mood is cohesive.

As light wittiness this is hard to fault. The only annoyance is being patronized by the hyper-verbose neurosis play dialogue which appeals to intellectual narcissism. And again, Goldblum and Guest excel.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Three On A Couch (1967, Jerry Lewis)

This was Lewis' first film with Columbia after a long and auteurist run with Paramount and although he directs and produces, the four cook screenwriting team spoils almost all fun. Jerry is the straight man who plays three underwhelming characters as plotting to seduce three beautiful psychiatry patients of his psychiatrist wife Janet Leigh into happiness so that she will come with him to Paris, because he's an artist. Sure enough, Lewis' buddy James Best hatches this koo-koo scheme over highballs and cigarettes. You know the mood: "I've got it, I've got it!! It's just crazy enough to work!" The dilution of Lewis to the needs of a cloyingly old fashioned and smarmy faux-hip comedy is pretty disappointing. All his movies need is to give him a job and have him do it zanily, not prop up a overly complicated "zany" script.

Identity mixups and disguises are some of the oldest scenarios in comedy. Sometimes psychotic characters who use such manipulations star in horror movies and thrillers. In Jerry Lewis' version of a glossy gentile studio comedy, his characterizations get the short stick while being used in a plot that uses the girls on the receiving end of the farce in the worst way. All the three girls "on the couch" really need is a dreamy guy to suit their gimmicky needs, and Jerry's straight man just happens to be willing to disguise himself three times and juggle dates like he's in an episode of Three's Company.

Kathleen Freeman is a bright spot from Lewis' Paramount days and helps alleviate the goings occasionally. Buddy Lester is "The Drunk" at the big set piece party where everyone who isn't supposed to be in the room together at once is. That's the disparity of comedic resources on hand.

Lewis' screwball auteur pieces had pathos instead of romantic comedy boilerplate, and even if Frank Tashlin hiccuped by giving Jerry a romantic costar once or twice, Jerry's persona driven vignettes still carried the film. Three On A Couch has none of those qualities and all the additional studio system meddling makes the "drama" as superficially cold as any romantic comedy today. When the cover is blown, there are no consequences to the emotional welfare of anyone or twists to the resolution afterwards. All is simply forgiven and reality resets itself, as if we had only given 22 minutes of our time to this nonsense rather than 109 minutes. James Best exists solely to get the ridiculous plot going and doesn't even end up with one of the three beautiful girls Lewis has been tricking. Why not? Would that have been too unbelievable?