REVIEWS OF RENTED DVDs I GET IN THE MAIL

Archive for the ‘Comedy’ Category

FANTASTIC MR. FOX (2009)

In Adventure, Animation, Comedy, F, Family on August 8, 2010 at 8:37 pm

Bookmark and Share

STUDIO – 20th Century Fox

CASTGeorge Clooney, Meryl Streep, Jason Schwartzman, Eric Chase Anderson, Bill Murray, Willem Dafoe, Owen Wilson

DIRECTORWes Anderson

MPAA Rating: PG

When the nominees for the 81st Academy Awards were announced in January 2010, one of the Best Animated Feature picks was a movie I had not heard of. Directed by Wes Anderson, Fantastic Mr. Fox, released in November 2009, only managed to recoup about half of its reported $40 million budget in six months. Undaunted, I put it in my Queue, and waited for its arrival.

Based on the book by Roald Dahl (author of  “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”), Fantastic Mr. Fox is the story of (naturally) a fox (voice of George Clooney) known for his reputation as a notorious bird thief. One day, he and his newlywed bride, Felicity (voice of Meryl Streep), get caught while stealing squab. At that moment, she tells him she’s pregnant, and she makes him promise that if they get out of this alive, he will find a new job. Fast-forward 12 (fox) years later, and Mr. Fox, Felicity, and their son Ash (voice of Jason Schwartzman) live in a nice, yet humble, hole in the ground. Mr. Fox, now a newspaper columnist, spots a tree for sale in the morning paper. Later that day, while viewing the property, he sees three farms in the distance. He consults his attorney, Mr. Badger (Bill Murray), who advises against the purchase because the owners of those farms are very dangerous men. Feeling the urge to steal again, he buys the tree anyway, moves his family in, and plots one last job: steal from the three farms.

A typical morning in the Fox household

Visually, Fantastic Mr. Fox is fun and stimulating. Director Wes Anderson doesn’t try to do any new tricks. Rather, he employs the old ones with cleverness and flare. There is one sequence, for example, in which Ash’s cousin, Kristofferson (voice of Eric Chase Anderson – Wes Anderson’s brother) is introduced to whack-bat, a sport which somewhat resembles cricket. According to the coach (voice of Owen Wilson):

“Basically, there’s three grabbers, three taggers, five twig runners, and a player at whack-bat. Center tagger lights a pine cone and chucks it over the basket and the whack-batter tries to hit the cedar stick off the cross rock. Then the twig runners dash back and forth until the pine cone burns out and the umpire calls hotbox. Finally, you count up however many score-downs it adds up to and divide that by nine.”

Kinda makes cricket look easier to understand, huh?

Another clever device in this movie  is the insertion of the word “cuss” in place of profanities. Adults will, for the most part, get the true meaning behind the “cussing” (for lack of a better term), while still making this movie safe for kids’ ears. There is some violence in this movie, including a few (off-screen) bird kills, some gunplay by the farmers, and more than a few pine cone grenades.

There is a subplot involving Ash and Kristofferson, to which many kids should easily relate. Kristofferson is Ash’s cousin from out-of-town, and though Kristofferson is younger than Ash, he is also taller, more athletic, more mature, and more sociable than Ash. At first, Kristofferson’s presence make Ash envious, particularly when Fox becomes very impressed with him. As the movie progresses, Ash learns how embrace his differences, while both finding his own identity and gaining his father’s acceptance.

There are a lot of good things to say about Fantastic Mr. Fox, but it is not without its flaws. I have said this before, and I will say again: for the most part, the voice talent sounds like they’re phoning it in. What projects of this nature need is personalities, not stars. If someone is both, like Bill Murray, great! Bring ’em on. But, through most of the movie, Clooney and Streep lacked the energy to hold my attention to the dialogue. I said the same thing when I wrote about Coraline (another stop-motion Best Animated Feature nominee). And when you have big-name stars who (for lack of a better term) don’t have any “spark” when they speak in person, then how could they work as voice actors in an animated movie? True, Fox is a bad-boy type, and Clooney suits him well. But to me, George Clooney’s voice is about as interesting as the sound of noodles boiling in water.

Overall, it is refreshing to see animation making strides like this, and without the Disney, Pixar, or Dreamworks names hanging above them. Nothing against the work of those companies, but the more choices, the better the competition. Fantastic Mr. Fox is a good family film, suitable for children age 8 and up. It is visually inventive, and it includes an eclectic soundtrack which features (among others) Burl Ives, The Beach Boys, The Bobby Fuller Four, and The Rolling Stones. There are even two songs originally found in the Disney archives: “The Ballad of Davy Crockett”, and “Love”, which was first used in Disney’s animated Robin Hood (By the way, in that film, Robin was – you guessed it – a fox). It may lack some necessary energy, but Fantastic Mr. Fox both tells a good story and teaches a valuable lesson about embracing our differences.

THE ODD COUPLE (1968)

In Classic, Comedy, Motion Pictures, O on July 21, 2010 at 11:34 pm

Bookmark and Share

STUDIO – Paramount

CASTJack Lemmon, Walter Matthau, John Fiedler, Herb Edelman, Monica Evans, Carole Shelley

DIRECTOR – Gene Saks

MPAA Rating: G

I have a question: When you hear the term “great movie pairs”, who comes to mind? There are several possibilities. Astaire and Rogers. Martin and Lewis. Abbott and Costello. Laurel and Hardy. Hepburn and Tracy. Bogart and Bacall. The list goes on, but no list would be complete without Lemmon and Matthau. They made ten movies together, plus one more (Chaplin) in which they appeared in archive footage, but the pinnacle (and arguably the most famous) of this cinematic pairing took place in 1968, with The Odd Couple.

Walter Matthau stars as Oscar Madison,  a New York sports writer who can be best described in his own words: “divorced, broke, and sloppy”. His wife and kids moved to California months before, and his apartment is strewn with garbage, smells, and a very apparent lack of air conditioning. More, his proclivities to gambling and eating out have led to his alimony being late. Then, during his weekly poker game, he gets shocking news: His friend and colleague, news writer Felix Ungar (Jack Lemmon), and his wife have broken up. Felix is an obsessive-compulsive, anal-retentive, hypochondriac neat freak who has suddenly turned suicidal because his wife had kicked him out. When he finally shows up at Oscar’s apartment for the poker game, Oscar invites Felix to move in with him.

Oscar (Walter Matthau) comforts Felix (Jack Lemmon) after his wife kicked him out

Needless to say, you can already see the conflict in this one. These two men are polar opposites of each other, and the resulting living conditions within Oscar’s apartment are both vastly improved and desperately maddening at the same time! This comedy, crafted from the wily mind of one Neil Simon, has been a personal favorite of mine ever since I discovered it in the mid-1970s. This (along with MASH) was one of those cases of me liking a TV show, then discovering “They made a movie about it, too?” I remember watching it on TV for the first time, thinking “Wait a minute. This isn’t Jack Klugman and Tony Randall!” Then I learned the movie was older than the TV show, and that it was a play before that. Soon, it didn’t matter that the actors were different, because the two guys who were in the movie were really funny together! To this day, The Odd Couple remains on my so-called “short list” of favorite movies.

When I received my rented copy in the mail, I was shocked to learn this movie was (and still is) Rated G. I’m guessing that, because the then newly-formed MPAA was still trying to find itself, and that since there was no violence, excessive language, or nudity, it was deemed suitable for all audiences. Looking at The Odd Couple today, with its adult-related themes of gambling, divorce, and dating, I would be more inclined to modify this to a PG. And, with tobacco use becoming the latest subject of attack against the MPAA (something I personally don’t agree with), some may even go so far as PG-13. I do agree that smoking shouldn’t be in a G-rated film, and at least half the characters smoke in this movie. Mind you, I am not speaking out against tobacco use; if you smoke, that’s you’re prerogative. Just remember, attitudes have changed drastically since 1968, and I am sure they will change again over the next 42 years. But, I’m digressing, so let’s move on…

It was widely reported that Walter Matthau (who had played Oscar on Broadway) wanted to be Felix in the movie, because he wanted an acting challenge. Neil Simon’s reaction: Act somewhere else, be Oscar here. Personally, and this is nothing against his talent, but I cannot for the life of me imagine anyone else but Walter Matthau as Oscar. And the pairing with Jack Lemmon was nothing short of genius. Yes, they’d worked together previously in The Fortune Cookie, but this was the movie that sealed the deal in establishing Lemmon and Matthau as a team, which would also include The Front Page, the Grumpy Old Men movies, and even a sequel to this film, among others

The centerpiece of this movie is the scene following the would-be double-date between Oscar and Felix and their in-building neighbors, the Pigeon sisters (Monica Evans and Carole Shelley). Due to circumstances which will not be spoiled here, Felix bails out on the double-date, which upsets Oscar to the point that, the next day, they are not on speaking terms. What transpires is nearly two minutes of comic genius, without a single word spoken. Gutsy, yes, but even now, after seeing it for probably the 138th time (Sorry, in-joke), it still makes me laugh!

On the downside, the material is somewhat dated. Among the now-outmoded items mentioned in this movie include telegrams, milk bottles, and the AutoMat. There is even one scene which takes place at Shea Stadium, which was torn down after the New York Mets moved to Citi Field following the 2008 season. A dream of mine is to rewrite this movie to update it, but keep the story basically intact. Of course, to do that, I would need to a) write a screenplay of my own, b) get Neil Simon’s blessing, and c) get a studio to okay it. Until that day comes (or when the planets all align on the same side of the sun), I will be perfectly happy with the movie as it is.

The Odd Couple is far and away my favorite of Neil Simon’s work. Sharply written, perfectly cast, and funny from start to finish, this comedy classic takes a look at divorce in a such a way that few other movies have even glimpsed. This is a must-add to your Queue!

NOTE: There is a Special Features disk with this movie which is currently unavailable from Netflix. As soon as it does become available, I will rent it and write a follow-up here as soon as I can.

4 (out of 5)


YOU CAN’T TAKE IT WITH YOU (1938)

In Best Picture Winners, Classic, Comedy, Family, Motion Pictures, Romance, Y on July 11, 2010 at 10:53 pm

Bookmark and Share

STUDIO – Columbia

CASTJean Arthur, Lionel Barrymore, James Stewart, Edward Arnold, Ann Miller, Spring Byington, Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, Samuel S. Hinds

DIRECTORFrank Capra

NOT RATED
(MPAA Equivalent: G)

Many moons ago, I was an eighth-grader going to what would later be my high school to attend a production of “You Can’t Take It With You“, the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman. To be honest, I don’t remember much, except that it was required for my Drama class, and that I did laugh during the show. Then, more than a few moons later, I learned that not only did Frank Capra direct a movie based on the play, but that it also was the Best Picture of 1938. I have now seen it a few times, and I am happy to report that You Can’t Take It With You still makes me laugh!

Lionel Barrymore stars as Martin Vanderhof, patriarch of a household of eccentric people. Please pay attention, for there will be a pop quiz later in the article. Vanderhof’s daughter, Penny Sycamore (Spring Byington), took up writing plays because a typewriter was accidentally delivered to their home. Her husband, Paul (Samuel S. Hinds), makes fireworks in the basement with Mr. DePinna (Halliwell Hobbes), a long-time guest in the house. Paul and Penny have two daughters, Essie Carmichael (Ann Miller), who constantly dances and makes candy which her husband Ed (Dub Taylor) sells on the street, and Alice Sycamore, a stenographer for the vice-president of a major bank. As you can see, Alice seems to be the least eccentric of the bunch! Ah, but there’s more!

A.P. Kirby (Edward Arnold) and Martin Vanderhof (Lionel Barrymore) in jail

In the opposite corner is Anthony P. Kirby (Edward Arnold), banker and Wall Street mogul. His drive and ambition drove him to his position, thanks in part to his high-society wife (Mary Forbes). His latest project the development of 12 blocks currently occupied by homes, apartments, and small businesses into a munitions factory intended to be the dominant contractor of the U.S. War Department. And one of those homes is owned by one Martin Vanderhof, and he refuses to sell. By the way, A.P. Kirby had just promoted his son Tony (James Stewart) to vice-president of the corporation. But, despite his parents’ protests, Tony seems to be more interested in his stenographer than his job. Yes, you read that right: Alice works for (and is in love with) Tony! What a tangled web, indeed!

Considering it took two paragraphs to set up the story, I will not even begin to tell you how it unfolds (or unravels, depending upon your point of view), but I will say that You Can’t Take It With You is a timeless comedy sure to make you stop and ponder your life, and make you smile doing it. Lionel Barrymore is so easygoing as Vanderhof, that, before long, you forget he has crutches (by the time filming started, Lionel Barrymore had severe arthritis and a recent hip injury, so they wrote in an ankle injury for Vanderhof). Edward Arnold’s take on Kirby was somewhat cliché in the Capra style, but his performance proved to be a strong counterpoint to Barrymore’s.

The central core of the story is the star-crossed romance between Alice and Tony. This subplot plays out like a sort of comedic “Romeo and Juliet”: He is the son of a powerful banker, and she comes from a middle-class family who just happens to live in the house the banker is trying to buy. The twist occurs when Alice suggests to Tony that he bring his parents over to meet her family, and he does… one day early! Needless to say, the already awkward situation suddenly becomes downright messy!

Finally, You Can’t Take It With You is the story of A.P. Kirby’s journey to gaining that property, and what he did with it once he had it. Along the way, he learns an important lesson: True happiness isn’t measured in fortune, but in kindness and generosity. People should be entitled to do what they want to do, and not what others expect of them. For example, Tony has no ambitions of working in the family business, but he feels obligated because Kirbys have been bankers for “9000 years”. What he wants to do is figure out how to make the “green in the grass” into an energy source.  You have to admit that this idea was way ahead of its time; biochemical engineering was unheard of in the late-1930s!

On a personal level, this brings back my previous idea to reenter my intended career field, which I first mentioned in my write-up of Up in the Air. For too long, I have been trying to do what others want or expect me to do, and, for whatever reason, I kept running into roadblocks, setbacks, and an overall plain ol’ lack of direction. Again, I am not quite prepared to relay any details, but I have hatched an idea which I’m sure will give me a chance to freshen my skills and put my foot in the door. But enough about me; I promise to tell all when the time comes.

You Can’t Take It With You is nostalgic, irreverent, touching, poignant, and most important, fun. It has a great story, a wonderful cast, and running gags aplenty. The quality of the film itself is not the best (there are occasional black frames, for example), but don’t let that distract you; this is the true definition of a “feel-good” movie, guaranteed to make you cry tears of joy!

THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW (1975)

In Comedy, Horror, Motion Pictures, Musical, R, Sci-Fi/Fantasy on June 25, 2010 at 12:45 am

Bookmark and Share


STUDIO – 20th Century Fox

CASTSusan Sarandon, Barry Bostwick, Tim Curry, Richard O’Brien, Patricia Quinn, “Little Nell” Campbell, Meat Loaf, Charles Gray, Peter Hinwood

DIRECTOR – Jim Sharman

MPAA Rating: R
(UK Version Not Rated)

A funny thing happened on September 26, 1975. A movie based on the musical “The Rocky Horror Show” opened in theatres nationwide. It tanked. But an even funnier thing happened a few months later. Those same movie theatres, who were obligated to keep prints of this musical disaster for a certain amount of time, relegated it to screenings at Midnight on the weekends. Over the next 15 years or so, The Rocky Horror Picture Show evolved into a cult phenomenon unlike anything else in cinematic history. In its heyday, millions of people the world over dressed in costumes, performed the movie in front of the screen in real time, talked back to characters, and threw items at the screen on cue. In essence, this was interactive cinema in its truest form, and (to my knowledge) the first known wide-spread case of it. I went to exactly one screening with a roommate in 1985; it was the singularly most bizarre experience of my life, and one of the most fun as well. On this occasion, with the movie’s 35th Anniversary upon us, I have decided to try to watch The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

Normally, this is where I set up the plot for the movies that I see, but the plot to Rocky Horror is so incomprehensible, I can only try, so here goes: Love birds Brad Majors and Janet Weiss (Barry Bostwick, Susan Sarandon) have just left a friend’s wedding. On their way out of town, they get caught in a storm and find they have taken the wrong road. But when they try to turn around, the car gets a flat tire and (wouldn’t you know it?) the spare is no good. So, our intrepid vagabonds walk back up the road  to a castle they’d seen earlier, so they could borrow their phone. When they get there, they are greeted by a strange-looking handyman named Riff-Raff (Richard O’Brien) and his master, one Dr. Frank-N-Furter (Tim Curry). From there, it gets… weird. The plot (such as it is) moves forward, courtesy of a Criminologist, aka “No-Neck” (Charles Gray), who tells the audience of Brad and Janet’s ordeal at Frank-N-Furter Castle as the movie plays out.

Brad and Janet (Barry Bostwick, Susan Sarandon) meet Dr. Frank-N-Furter (Tim Curry)

This is one of those movies that, by itself, is confusing and convoluted. Riddled with so much camp and cheesiness, it is amazing to note that this movie was the launchpad for the careers Susan Sarandon, Brian Bostwick, Tim Curry, and Meat Loaf. Full of overt pansexual imagery, Rocky Horror is not for the uninitiated. It may not be Mary Poppins, but what makes this movie special is the audience participation. The DVD has two versions of the movie, US and UK (The UK version has one extra song). I strongly recommend that if you decide to screen this movie, you do so during a party, because the overall experience will play out better if the crowd is into it.

The special features of the DVD have the customary audio commentary, but there is also an audio track (which plays in the rear surround speakers) of an audience shouting out at the movie. It’s a bit chaotic, but entertaining nonetheless. Another feature that got my attention is the Multi-view feature; when activated, a set of lips will appear on screen, prompting you to see theatre audience members perform that scene live. Finally, there is the “Audience Participation” feature, which cues the audience to do something during the movie. For this, I recommend you lay down a sheet of plastic, or at least have a non-carpeted surface, for easy clean-up. Here are the items you’ll need to take part (Just be careful not to damage the video equipment):

  • Rice
  • Water pistols
  • Newspapers
  • Candles/Cigarette lighters
  • Party hats
  • Noise makers
  • Household cleaning gloves
  • Confetti
  • Toilet paper
  • Toast
  • Frankfurters

The Rocky Horror Picture Show essentially posits the question “What if Dr. Frankenstein was an alien drag queen who was trying to create a boy-toy of his own?” Oh, there are a few hints of “Frankenstein” here, including the requisite castle and thunderstorm, the fact that Rocky Horror, aka The Creation (Peter Hinwood), is afraid of fire, Riff-Raff has Igor’s hunched back, and Magenta (Patricia Quinn) appears in a Bride-of-Frankenstein wig in one scene. But where it is different from the Mary Shelley classic is… well, everywhere else! So, the next time you invite 20 of your closest friends to your home (At least that many, or it just won’t work), break this ol’ chestnut out and make it a real party!

3-1/2 (out of 5)

(Group Screening)

(Alone)

DAZED AND CONFUSED (1993)

In Comedy, D, Independent, Motion Pictures on June 17, 2010 at 1:53 am

Bookmark and Share

STUDIO – Universal/Gramercy 

CAST – Joey Lauren Adams, Ben Affleck, Shawn Andrews, Michelle Burke, Rory Cochrane, Adam Goldberg, Cole Hauser, Christin Hinojosa, Sasha Jenson, Milla Jovovich, Jason London, Matthew McConaughey, Parker Posey, Anthony Rapp, Marisa Ribisi, Wiley Wiggins 

DIRECTOR – Richard Linklater 

MPAA Rating: R 

Every so often, a movie comes along and takes a nostalgic look at the innocent days of youth from years long past. Arguably, the greatest example of this is George Lucas’ American Graffiti. In 1993, writer/director Richard Linklater tweaked the Graffiti formula, relocated it to Austin, Texas, set it in 1976, added lots of beer and grass, and gave us Dazed and Confused

The movie takes place over the course of 24 hours, starting on May 28, 1976. But this isn’t just any day picked at random; it is the last day of school for students in Austin, Texas. At Lee High School, the outgoing juniors are preparing to wreak havoc on the new crop of freshmen. For the girls, it’s a series of humiliating, yet relatively harmless, stunts, including being covered in ketchup, mustard, and oatmeal. then cleaning off at a car wash. But for the boys, it’s being hunted down like prey by gangs of upper-classmen and getting swatted with custom-made paddles. One of the new seniors, star quarterback Randall “Pink” Floyd (Jason London) seems less interested in the hazing than he is in the so-called “team pledge” he feels he is forced to sign so he can play football next season. Meanwhile, one of the freshmen, Mitch Kramer (Wiley Wiggins), starts to blend in with the upper-classmen after getting “busted” earlier in the day. But everyone is geared up for the event of the year: an end-of-school-year blowout at Kevin Pickford’s (Shawn Andrews) house. But the beer arrived early, his parents cancelled their trip, and the party got nixed before it even started. Bummer! Enter David Wooderson (Matthew McConaughey), an old-school party animal who quickly rustles up the gang for an impromptu gathering at the Moon Tower. Before long, everyone is drinking beer, smoking pot, and making out at the party. 

Dawson, Wooderson, Pink, and Mitch (Sasha Jenson, Matthew McConaughey, Jason London, Wiley Wiggins) hang out at the Emporium

 It goes without saying that Dazed and Confused is a very loose movie. Basically, the plot has at least five different story lines. First, “Pink” Floyd doesn’t want to sign a written pledge made out by his coach to stay off drugs, though his teammates want him to. Next is a small group of freshmen trying to evade getting “busted” by the seniors (with mixed results). Then there are the three intellectuals (Adam Goldberg, Anthony Rapp, Sabrina Ribisi), who try to fit in, even though they can’t stand anyone else but each other. There is the two-time senior – and major jerk – Fred O’Bannion (Ben Affleck) who gets his comeuppance, masterminded by freshman Mitch Kramer. And, of course, there is the aforementioned party that got busted and relocated. 

As you can see, there’s a lot going on in this move, so much that it took two screenings to get it all. I had seen this movie before several years ago, and quite frankly, I didn’t get it. After watching again, there are some things I now understand, and others that make me think “My God, were things really that anarchistic in the ’70s?” Behaviors exhibited in this movie clearly demonstrated how lax things were back then. Public hazing, pot smoking, underage beer consumption, and an apparent lack of curfew were among the many things that were not only not enforced, but in some cases even encouraged (as evidenced by one junior-high teacher who smiled when the seniors came over to announce their intentions). I wonder how today’s kids would view this movie. Would they inspired into some kind of radical behavior, or would they look at their parents (and even grandparents!) in awe at imagining them doing even some of the things seen here? Given that the school year is wrapping up here in Southern California, and that my car got egged while I was working this evening, I’m more inclined toward the latter. Egging a car? Not very original… 

Upon viewing this movie, I started drawing comparisons to my own high school experiences. No one got paddled my freshman year. The preferred method of hazing was called “trash-canning” (I got it twice; the second time, they tied my laces together). Drugs were pretty pervasive my first two years in high school; there was a spot near the girls’ locker room known as “the field”, where hundreds of students would get stoned during recess. The seniors in my freshman year were quite rowdy, too; the Senior Class President was actually forced to resign when he was busted for shellacking Playboy centerfolds onto the school’s lunch tables! Mind you, this was the late-70s and early-80s, not 1976, but there are some similarties, nonetheless. 

Dazed and Confused is Richard Linklater’s personal American Graffiti. Some would argue the movie is semi-autobiographical. Several residents in Austin, Texas, tried to file a defamation lawsuit against Linklater and Universal Studios because some of the characters had names similar to theirs, but the statute of limitations had passed. Still, Dazed and Confused launched the careers of some of today’s more popular Hollywood stars (Ben Affleck, Parker Posey, Milla Jovovich, and Matthew McConaughey), and it is an amusing and nostalgic look back to a time when our whole lives were ahead of us, even if momentary terror made it appear otherwise. 

8½ (1963)

In #, Classic, Comedy, Foreign, Independent, Motion Pictures, Sci-Fi/Fantasy on June 9, 2010 at 1:15 am

Bookmark and Share


STUDIO – Embassy Pictures

CASTMarcello Mastroianni, Claudia Cardinale, Anouk Aimée, Sandra Milo, Rosella Falk, Barbara Steele, Madeleine Lebeau, Caterina Boratto, Eddra Gale, Guido Alberti, Mario Conocchia

DIRECTORFederico Fellini

NOT RATED (MPAA Equivalent: PG-13)

For many years, I have heard about , the acclaimed film by Italian director Federico Fellini. But because I generally have an aversion to non-English-speaking movies (I confess, a rather unhealthy centrist conceit), I avoided this movie for fear that I would not understand it. I had seen only a couple of European movies before (specifically, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and the 1949 French movie Gigi, which would later be remade into the Best Picture of 1958). It takes a certain kind of talent to read subtitles and still be able to follow the movie; recall that I had a little difficulty with Inglourious Basterds a few months ago. So, sitting through a film like would appear to pose a unique challenge, and rather than stay safely in my American hole, I took a chance and expanded my horizons.

This movie opens at a health spa at a remote location somewhere in Italy, where film director Guido Anselmi (Marcello Mastroianni) is trying to escape the rigors of his everyday life and prepare for his next movie at the same time. Reporters, gossip columnists, producers, diva actresses, his wife, his mistress, and even a Cardinal all play their parts in both running interference and contributing to the movie’s creation. At the same time, Guido’s dreams of escapism and sexually-charged recalled memories from childhood step in to influence his decision-making process. To make things even more twisted, Guido starts incorporating these dreams and fantasies into his movie, causing everyone to wonder just what Guido’s movie is all about.

Guido and his wife Luisa (Marcello Mastroianni, Anouk Aimée) at the café

Confused yet? To blur the lines between art and reality even further, is a movie about the making of… . Now, you’re all mixed up, aren’t you? Well, considering that the working title of this movie was La Bella Confusione (“The Beautiful Confusion”), it is easy to spot that Fellini himself wasn’t sure which direction this movie was going, either. Officially, this is Fellini’s ninth movie, but because it’s a left-turn from his usual fare, and because it is somewhat autobiographical, the title is based on his notion that it’s “movie 8½” to him, nestled between La Dolce Vita (1960) and Giulietta Degli Spiriti (1965). As a result, is about as “meta” a movie can become, with disjointed imagery that actually forms a cohesive whole. For example, early in the movie, Guido and his mistress, Carla (Sandra Milo), are engaging in a little sexual role play. At one point, he takes her eyeliner and draws garish eyebrows onto her forehead. This is a deliberate reference to a beach-dwelling prostitute he’d known when he was a child; she was called “La Saraghina” (Eddra Gale), who is later introduced during a flashback.

Fellini’s use of imagery, from the claustrophobic dream of the traffic jam at the beginning of the movie, to the Dante’s Inferno-esque descent into the spa’s steam room all carry significance; of course, some are more obvious than others. In a fantasy, we first see the lovely Claudia (Claudia Cardinale) as wholesome and pure, dressed in white; when we finally meet her in person, she is glamorous and sexy, dressed flamboyantly in black. It is also no coincidence that Fellini peppered with quick glimpses of a mysterious woman, one of which bearing her likeness on a Virgin Mary. This woman was Caterina Boratto, a renowned Italian actress and Fellini’s “dream girl” from his own childhood.

Now, I’m not about to try to examine this movie. There are college courses in Italian cinema because of , and numerous students have dissected this movie in their Masters theses for over 40 years. But watching this movie was indeed an eye-opening experience, filled to the brim with unconventional cuts, shots, dialogue, and editing, all of which seem to give a life of its own. I screened it twice, first by watching the movie itself, then by listening to the essay commentary which provided some of the tidbits of information I have learned. The commentary examines the reasons why old women were cast as Catholic priests in one scene, and in another the Cardinal (Tito Masini) is shown as nothing more than a naked old man. And then there’s the elephant in the room: the giant scaffolding which is to become a launchpad for a rocket in Guido’s movie. I hope I’m not giving too much away when I say that I knew something was up when a producer shows a two-foot tall matte painting of a rocket to be superimposed onto the full-scale launchpad shown under construction. According to the commentary, Fellini had ordered the scaffolding to be built as high as the workers could get it, but even he had no idea what he was going to do with it.

The two-disk set comes packed with features, including interviews with co-star Sandra Milo, who recounts her 17-year love affair with Fellini (even after she had married someone else), assistant director Lina Wertmüller, who went on to have a distinguished career of her own, and three-time Academy Award-winning cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, who shared his thoughts on how Fellini achieved his vision on-screen. There is also a 1969 pseudo-documentary by Fellini which aired on NBC; in it, he traces the creative process in the casting of his next project. It plays off as a mini-, complete with reporters, actors, and producers all vying for an audience with Fellini.

But what fascinated me was a German documentary about composer Nino Rota, a reclusive musical savant best known for two things. First was his famous collaboration with Fellini, which rivals that of Spielberg and Williams, or Burton and Elfman. A typical meeting between Fellini and Rota would have the two at a piano, trying to hammer out a composition for a given movie, only to give up hours later, exasperated. Then, as Fellini would leave the room, Rota would improvise a piece (probably just to relax after a hard day), and Fellini would exclaim “That’s it! That’s the music I want!” But Nino Rota was also notorious for recycling his music. Did you know that his Oscar nomination for Best Musical Score for The Godfather was withdrawn because it was based on his score for Fortunella (1958)? Listen for yourself, and you will recognize it!

So, I have long last come to the conclusion of another long review. But, as is often the case, there was plenty of ground to cover. Fellini’s is a movie different from any other. Elements and inspirations from Citizen Kane, “Pinocchio”, Dante’s Inferno and even the Keystone Cops, as well as Fellini’s unique ability to draw from memory to feed his imagination, make a standout among classic cinema. You may need to watch it more than once to get it, but this one is worth the effort.

MISTER ROBERTS (1955)

In Classic, Comedy, Drama, M, Motion Pictures, War on June 4, 2010 at 12:44 pm

Bookmark and Share

STUDIO – Warner Bros.

CASTHenry Fonda, Jack Lemmon, William Powell, James Cagney, Betsy Palmer, Ward Bond

DIRECTORSJohn Ford, Mervyn LeRoy

NOT RATED (MPAA Equivalent: PG)

In 1948, Henry Fonda left Hollywood for Broadway to star in a play about Navy lieutenant on a cargo ship who wanted nothing more than get in some combat duty in the final days of World War II. Six years, four Tony Awards, and over 1,100 performances later, Fonda returned to Hollywood to bring this acclaimed play to the big screen, in 1955’s Mister Roberts.

In Mister Roberts, Lt. (JG) Doug Roberts (Fonda) is executive officer and cargo officer on the USS Reluctant. It is April 1945, and he can sense that the war will be ending soon. For over two years, he had been stuck on “The Bucket”, serving under his tyrannical commanding officer, Capt. Morton (James Cagney). His roommate is a lazy, yet resourceful Lothario, Ensign Frank Pulver (Best Supporting Actor Jack Lemmon), and his confidant is the ship’s doctor, known simply as “Doc” (William Powell, in his last film appearance). He’s a favorite among the crew, who regard Roberts as one of the guys, and they’re willing to back him up over the skipper any day. The centerpiece – and bane of existence – of the Reluctant is a palm tree, a “symbol of our cargo record” awarded by Admiral Finchley to the crew, and the only thing on the ship to which the captain gives any affection.

Doc (William Powell) and Lt. Roberts (Henry Fonda) make a bottle of "Red Label" for Ensign Pulver

Legendary director John Ford worked his magic to bring as much authenticity to this production by filming exteriors on board an actual World War II-era cargo ship in Hawaii and Midway Island (Being a Navy veteran himself didn’t hurt). But, as the story goes, shortly after returning to Hollywood for the interiors, Ford was forced to step down for health reasons, and Mervyn LeRoy took the reins to finish out the movie. Some sources say there was fighting on the set (An IMDb blurb even states that Ford once sucker-punched Henry Fonda), while others say the health issues were real (emergency gall bladder surgery). Still, the end result is one of the greatest World War II movies ever made, and in this one, no guns are fired, there aren’t any battles, and no one is seriously injured. John Ford had a tendency to stick with the same people in his movies. He frequently worked with John Wayne, and there is a connection to The Duke in this movie. Bookser, the young, innocent, wide-eyed sailor who nearly missed the boat after shore leave, was played John Wayne’s son, Patrick.

My father was in the Navy in the late-1950s, so he had a soft spot for this movie. During my formative years, this was one of those movies that, if it was on TV, I would run out to the garage and tell him. He would then immediately drop what he was doing, clean up (if necessary), crack open a beer and spend the rest of that Sunday afternoon on the couch. And I would sit there with him and watch the TV, amazed at how even humdrum life on a cargo ship could be interesting!

A few years later, I discovered that my mother had a book with scripts from great American plays, and “Mister Roberts” was among them. I read it over and over. I reenacted scenes and monologues from it in my Drama class (looking back, maybe not such a great idea to concentrate on one play, huh?). I compared the dialogue between the play and the movie (Some changes had to be made because of The Code). I absorbed as much as I could from it.

It was also during this time, I became a fan of the Hollywood Everyman, beginning with Jack Lemmon and Henry Fonda. These weren’t dashing, sexy stars, like Gable, Flynn, or Connery. These were regular guys who looked and acted like regular guys. They came from regular places (Fonda was from Grand Island, Nebraska, Lemmon from outside Boston). And their roles were by and large unglamorous (Both played the pivotal Juror #8 in their respective productions of 12 Angry Men). I was able to easily relate to their characters almost every time, and even today they still resonate within me.

The DVD has a couple of cool features, including clips from Ed Sullivan’s “Toast of the Town”, featuring Fonda, Lemmon and Cagney recreating scenes from the movie on live television. There is also a commentary track from Jack Lemmon, in which he recounts some stories about working with Ford, Fonda, Powell, and Cagney, and how much he’d learned on the set from these men (One caveat about the commentary: Lemmon himself says that if you get tired of his stories, just go ahead and turn it off!). There is also a clip from a video from Jane Fonda, in which she recalls her father’s Kennedy Center Honors induction.

Mister Roberts is funny, dramatic, moving, and classic. Those of you who know Jack Lemmon from movies like Grumpy Old Men, The China Syndrome, or Glengarry Glen Ross should see the raw talent that broke loose in this movie. Cagney, an expert at chewing scenery, leaves plenty of teeth marks here. Powell, who came out of retirement to play Doc, is ever the bearer of wit and sagacity (“What’ll it be, alcohol and orange juice, or orange juice and alcohol?”). And Henry Fonda, for whom Doug Roberts was created, is forever immortalized as the poor lieutenant desperate to get off “The Bucket”.

“Good night, Mr. Roberts.”

IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT (1934)

In Best Picture Winners, Classic, Comedy, I, Motion Pictures, Romance on June 1, 2010 at 12:49 am

Bookmark and Share

STUDIO – Columbia

CAST – Clark Gable, Claudette Colbert, Walter Connolly, Roscoe Karns, Jameson Thomas, Alan Hale

DIRECTORFrank Capra

NOT RATED (MPAA Equivalent: PG)

When you hear the name “Clark Gable”, you most likely would recall the dashing and cocky Rhett Butler, from Gone With the Wind. The name “Frank Capra” tends to conjure memories of Jimmy Stewart, thanks to movies like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, It’s a Wonderful Life, and You Can’t Take It With You. And the mention of Claudette Colbert’s name may recall the original Imitation of Life, or perhaps Cleopatra, both from 1934. But this was the movie that made them all famous.

It Happened One Night is the story of an impetuous heiress named Ellen Andrews (Colbert) who’d eloped with a smooth operator named King Westley (Jameson Thomas). Her Wall Street tycoon father (Walter Connolly) opposed the marriage and Westley, so he took her to Miami to get her to clear her head. Seizing an oppourtinity, she (literally) jumps ship and takes a bus back to New York to reunite with her husband. On the bus, she meets Peter Warne (Gable), a hard-nosed, hard-drinking newspaper reporter who’s down on his luck. Right away, they don’t get along. At a stopover in Jacksonville, he learns who she really is and, seizing an opportunity of his own, offers to help her to New York in exchange for an exclusive story.

Ellie Andrews (Claudette Colbert) employs her special hitchhiking method as Peter Warne (Clark Gable) looks on

Every romantic comedy made since 1934, from Sleepless In Seattle to The Seven-Year Itch, owes its existence to this movie. It Happened One Night may not be the first-ever romantic comedy, but it was the first to perfect the formula: Two strong-willed leads wind up in a situation where they can’t get away from each other, only to fall in love with each other in the end. It sounds simple enough, but without good chemistry between the leads or a good script, it’s just two people bickering for an hour-and-a-half. And there may be plenty of bickering here, but there are also plenty of laughs!

This movie, made on a tight budget ($350,000, or around $5.5 million in today’s money) and an even tighter schedule (multiple location shoots in four weeks), spans from Miami to New York, as Gable and Colbert’s characters try to assert their respective ways on the other. Even today, with transportation and logistics down to a science, it would still be a major accomplishment to shoot a movie like this. And when you consider that Claudette Colbert, whose salary consisted of about 15% of the movie’s total shooting budget, hated working on this movie (she even told her friends and colleagues as much when she finished), the story becomes that much more astounding. At the time, Frank Capra was a “B-movie” director and Columbia was a “B-movie” studio, so you can imagine all the fervor when It Happened One Night became the first movie to receive Academy Award nominations for Best Actor, Actress, Director, Picture, and Screenplay. Suddenly, this little movie from a little studio became a true “dark horse” at the Oscars.

But on the screen, there was magic, and plenty of it! Gable and Colbert worked off each other brilliantly. The highlight of the movie is the scene that need only be described in two words, as quoted by Mr. Gable: “Quit bawlin’!” The hitchhiking scene, which features Alan Hale, who would later be best known as Friar Tuck to Errol Flynn’s Robin Hood (and whose son was the Skipper on that infamously fateful “three-hour tour” known as “Gilligan’s Island”), is also fun to watch, especially when Claudette Colbert shows Clark Gable the best way to stop a car is by showing off a little leg.

Upon its release, It Happened One Night became an instant sensation. Here are some cool facts about this movie. Following the movie’s initial release, T-shirt sales plummeted, thanks to Mr. Gable’s choice not to wear a T-shirt for brevity’s sake during Peter’s undressing scene. It is also widely reported that elements from this movie formed the genesis of one of the most famous cartoon characters in history, Bugs Bunny; A gentleman named Shapeley (Roscoe Karns) spoke in a nasally voice and called everyone “Doc”, Peter dropped the name “Bugs” when he confronted Shapeley, and in one scene, Peter is eating carrots.

Without a doubt, It Happened One Night is funny, romantic, and a timeless classic. Okay, maybe riding the bus isn’t as fun as it used to be, and maybe today’s motels are far less prying when it comes to the affairs of their guests. But even now, few movies in this genre have dared to come close to this. Remember those Oscar nominations? Well, in the history of the Academy, only three movies won Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, and one for the screenplay. It Happened One Night was the first (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and The Silence of the Lambs were the others). Not bad for a quickly slapped-together B-movie, huh?

YOU’VE GOT MAIL (1998)

In Comedy, Motion Pictures, Romance, Uncategorized, Y on May 16, 2010 at 7:17 pm

Bookmark and Share

STUDIO — Warner Bros.

CAST — Tom Hanks, Meg Ryan, Jean Stapleton, Dave Chappelle, Parker Posey, Greg Kinnear, Steve Zahn, Dabney Coleman

DIRECTOR — Nora Ephron

MPAA Rating: PG

Dear Friend–

So far, it has been an intriguing month of viewing and reviewing movies, including three of them with the same premise. I’m not sure how to put this, but having that sense of déjà vu while watching a movie is so unsettling, yet so entertaining at the same time. So, how should I approach this review? I’m sure I’ll figure something out…

Welcome to the conclusion of this three-part review, in which I have taken a journey spanning nearly 60 years, to look at three different movies based on the same story. I began with Jimmy Stewart’s The Shop Around the Corner, followed by the Judy Garland musical In the Good Old Summertime. Now, we have reached the end of our journey, with You’ve Got Mail, starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, only this time they aren’t co-workers; they are business rivals.

Joe Fox (Tom Hanks) tells Kathleen Kelly (Meg Ryan) what he thinks of her "inconsequential" book store

Tom Hanks plays Joe Fox, heir apparent to the monolithic Fox & Sons Books store chain. Meg Ryan is Kathleen Kelly, owner/proprietor of a children’s book store called The Shop Around the Corner (a nod to the original movie). Kathleen’s book store was started up by her mother, and it was a fixture in Manhattan for 42 years. When Fox Books moves in to open a store (literally) just around the corner, she is initially confident that her little store will continue (though we can all tell she is in denial). One day, a gentleman with two small children enter her store (the kids wanted to see the Storybook Lady) and he strikes up a conversation with Kathleen, introducing himself simply as “Joe”. Later, at a party, they bump into each either again, only this time she finds out second-hand that “Joe” is really Joe Fox of Fox Books. Let the battle begin!

Now, the funny thing is that both Joe Fox and Kathleen Kelly have significants other (Parker Posey and Greg Kinnear, respectively) whose behaviors and habits are infuriating: Joe tells his friend Kevin (Dave Chapelle) that Patricia (Posey) “makes coffee nervous”, while Kathleen thinks Frank’s (Kinnear) fascination with typewriters borders on obsession. But, they both also have been secretly exchanging e-mails with someone they met online, and they both find themselves becoming more and more fascinated with their respective anonymous friend. But there is a catch: Joe and Kathleen’s online friends are each other.

You’ve Got Mail is the second movie starring Hanks and Ryan that was directed by Nora Ephron (and their third, overall). On the up side, Hanks and Ryan work well together. Even at the peak of their conflict, you can still see the two characters ending up together. Meanwhile, the themes of large corporations squeezing out local businesses and of meeting someone online were very real concepts in the late 1990s. I used to live in a town which had numerous busy shops downtown, selling everything from CDs and TVs, to rugs and vacuums. When a “big-box” store (I won’t say which) decided to move into a new (and much larger) location in town, many of the stores downtown (and even in the local mall) were forced to close their doors because they couldn’t compete with the low prices the “big-box” store had. Meanwhile the Internet was still somewhat a novelty during this time, and chat rooms, bulletin boards, and discussion forums were popping up everywhere. Suddenly, a man in Columbus, Georgia, could strike up a conversation with a woman in Hilo, Hawaii, without the expense of travel or long-distance phone calls. At the time You’ve Got Mail was released, these were contemporary concepts.

But times change. Today, with the economic slide of the past few years, small business has been making a comeback, and large companies have been pink-slipping their collective workforce. Meanwhile, the Internet has changed, too. America Online (from whom the title of this movie was inspired) is no longer an Internet service provider; it is now an Internet portal, free to everyone. And there are other avenues available today. With text messaging, instant messaging, Internet access on phones and other portable devices, and dating sites like eHarmony and Match.com, it is now unlikely you will “meet” someone online without ever knowing what they look like until you meet them face-to-face.

You’ve Got Mail feels like The Shop Around the Corner meets Sleepless in Seattle. This isn’t necessarily bad, but it does share several elements with the Sleepless formula. It stars Hanks and Ryan, it’s directed (and co-written) by Ephron, and it’s about people fascinated with someone they’ve never met. And in both movies, Meg Ryan’s character has a boyfriend with whom she breaks up amicably (Here, Kinnear assumes the reins of Bill Pullman’s role from Sleepless).

Now, it’s time to give you a really great piece of trivia: All three of the movies in this series of reviews has a connection to The Wizard of Oz. The store owner in The Shop Around the Corner was played by Frank Morgan (The Wonderful Wizard himself), In the Good Old Summertime starred Judy Garland (duh!), and the final scene of You’ve Got Mail featured the song “Over the Rainbow”. Ah, the things you pick up while working on this ongoing project…

I saw this movie while on a date in early 1999, during its initial release. While it played a small part in what would develop into one of the better relationships I have forged in my life, I look back on it today with a fresh pair of eyes, and some of the luster seems to have worn off to me. Don’t misunderstand me. I still feel it is an entertaining movie, but just over a decade later, it already feels a bit dated. The charm of Hanks and Ryan does manage to rise above that, but I would prefer either Sleepless in Seattle or the original (The Shop Around the Corner) instead.

IN THE GOOD OLD SUMMERTIME (1949)

In Classic, Comedy, I, Motion Pictures, Musical, Romance on May 16, 2010 at 9:15 am

Bookmark and Share

STUDIO – MGM

CAST – Judy Garland, Van Johnson, S.Z. Sakall, Spring Byington, Buster Keaton, Marcia Van Dyke, Clinton Sundberg, Lillian Bronson

DIRECTOR – Robert Z. Leonard

NOT RATED (MPAA Equivalent: G)

When I recently opened my rented copy of The Shop Around the Corner, I popped it into my DVD player and discovered that You’ve Got Mail was the second remake of that movie. The first was redone as a musical set at turn of the 20th Century, and that it starred Judy Garland. So, I made a quick trip into my Netflix Queue and ordered In the Good Old Summertime and put it straight to the top of my list. Now, before I proceed any further, let me state that, with the notable exception of The Wizard of Oz and the occasional Andy Hardy serial, I had not seen any motion pictures starring Judy Garland until this point. Nothing against her; she just isn’t my cup of tea. Still, I pressed forward, bowl of popcorn in hand, and watched…

And I dare say I enjoyed this movie. In the Good Old Summertime is the same basic premise of The Shop Around the Corner, only instead of a contemporary department store in Budapest, it’s set in a music store in Chicago. Also, the names have been changed to protect the innocent. The head clerk of the store is Andrew Larkin (Van Johnson), the boss is Otto Oberkugen (S.Z. Sakall), and the romantic interest/fly in the ointment is named Veronica Fisher (Garland). Replace the musical cigarette boxes with 100 table harps, throw in some slapstick, courtesy of Buster Keaton, and some old-tyme songs, and you have yet another Technicolor musical churned out by the factory known as Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Veronica (Judy Garland) offers to "help" Albert (Van Johnson) deomonstrate a song for a customer

The basic story is the same, in some cases nearly word-for-word, but the pacing is actually better than the original. Van Johnson tries not to impersonate Jimmy Stewart, but in some scenes it’s easy to spot that “aw-shucks” quality for which Stewart was famous. Judy Garland proves that even marriage and a child haven’t rusted her pipes. In one scene, a frustrated Veronica is asked to demonstrate a Christmas song; she does so, but only going through the motions in the process. Even in that moment, it’s hard to dismiss her vocal talent.

Speaking of talent, I made discovery with this movie: Marcia Van Dyke. She is an accomplished singer and musician in her own right, and here she shows off one of those talents. Her character, Louise Parkson, lives in the same boarding house as Andrew, and she is a violinist, a damn good one. Several scenes showcase her talent, culminating in an audition for a scholarship in Leipzig, Germany (home of one of the most prestigious orchestras in the world). Van Dyke isn’t much of an actress, but where she lacks in that department, she more than makes up for it with a violin in her hand. And she was very easy on the eyes, too.

One of the things that I noticed in this movie is that many of the musical numbers, especially in the first half, were in 3/4 time (waltz tempo). Now, I’m a sucker for the waltz, but I think even Johann Strauss himself might have cried out “Okay! Okay! Enough with the waltzes! Let’s move on, shall we?” But overall, the music fit in well with the plot, with one minor exception. Okay, maybe not so minor. The bulk of the movie is set in the fall and winter, but MGM needed an excuse to use the song “In the Good Old Summer Time”, which was still a fairly popular tune nearly 50 years after its initial release. So, they bookended it with two brief scenes set in a park during the summer. I’m not sure how, but they managed to pull it off.  Oh, there is one more thing: At the very end of the movie, Veronica and Albert are strolling through the park with a little girl; that brief scene marks the (unofficial) motion picture debut of Judy Garland’s daughter, Liza Minelli.

The DVD comes with a pair of travelogue shorts about Chicago, one for day, one for night. Both are remarkable time capsules to a time that is now all but forgotten. The daytime tour features many fixtures of the skyline, including the Tribune Tower, the Wrigley Building, and the Drake Hotel, along with a parting shot of Buckingham Fountain. The nighttime featurette highlights some of the entertainment and night life aspects of the city, including a music hall frequented by the mayor, Martin H. Kennelly, as well as a dancing horse(!).

In the Good Old Summertime is a surprisingly fun movie to watch. MGM can be considered one of the few manufacturing corporations whose work was considered art, and this musical fits nicely into that fold. Remarkably, I found it at least as charming as The Shop Around the Corner. Up next, the conclusion of my three-part review. Stay tuned…

3-1/2 (out of 5)