December 28, 2013

Podcast Episode 4: THE HOBBIT Desolates Our Patience

"Dragonfire and ruin, that is what you'll bring upon us."
First off, apologies for my recent online absence.  Life always gets a bit more hectic around the holidays and sadly I allowed my writing to fall by the wayside a bit over the last few weeks.  As the last two months of my year draw near, I'm hoping to really kick things into high gear and bring you a lot more content, including two weeks of really crazy guest curation and a few more podcast recordings.  I've even taken steps to get the show up on iTunes.  It's like we're a real podcast!

My younger brother Tim is in town for the holidays, on break from his senior year of college in Cleveland.  He spent a few days hanging out at my place and watching movies with me, including Peter Jackson's latest sojourn into Middle Earth, The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug.  I thought it'd be fun to have Tim make a guest appearance on the podcast with me and Bart, but it turned out that Bart hadn't actually seen the first installment of The Hobbit.  So we made a plan to watch the two films back to back last Saturday, exactly the way we used to approach Jackson's Lord Of The Rings movies.  But while those past marathon viewings were always full of fun and excitement, six hours of The Hobbit felt like a prolonged chore.

I certainly wouldn't call these bad films, if only because Middle Earth is a world in which I'm always happy to spend some time.  But I would say that this new trilogy is tragically misguided, attempting to shoehorn a slight and fun story into the epic and serious mold of The Lord Of The Rings.  It's such a shame, because I so want to like these films and they're well produced enough that I can almost convince myself that they're better than they actually are.  The Hobbit was originally planned as two films instead of three and I think that would have been the stronger approach, forcing Jackson to keep the proceedings lean and nimble and leaving cool but inconsequential stuff (like the werebear and his cow ponies) on the cutting room floor.  In fairness, The Desolation Of Smaug is certainly a step up from An Unexpected Journey, if only because it features lots of Bilbo being terribly clever and solving various puzzles (a big part of why I fell in love with the Bass/Rankin cartoon from the 70's) as well as a pretty sweet dragon and a lot of actual stuff happening, as opposed to the first film's endless walking and singing.  But that doesn't excuse the fact that the film is at least 25 minutes too long, haphazardly edited and doesn't really end so much as it just stops playing.

So here's episode four of the Daley Screening podcast, which also includes some discussion of Paul Rudd entering the Marvel Universe, Joaquin Phoenix being courted for Lex Luthor, and the trailer for Transcendence.  Enjoy.

Title: The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug
Director: Peter Jackson
Starring: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage, Luke Evans, Benedict Cumberbatch, Lee Pace, Evangeline Lily, Orlando Bloom, Ken Stott
Year Of Release: 2013
Viewing Method: Theatrical - IMAX Reading

December 12, 2013

THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE Improves The Franchise On Almost Every Level

"Remember who the enemy is."
My wife recently finished a master's degree in Children's Literature, so suffice it to say that YA fiction is totally her jam these days.  She LOOOOOOOOVES her some Hunger Games, having read all three books multiple times and watched her Blu-ray of the first movie more frequently than I can count.  I haven't read any of the books (it's doubtful that I ever will, simply by virtue of the fact that I don't have time to read a lot of books these days) and I think the first movie is kind of fine, but it certainly doesn't get me all hot and bothered.  It felt like that movie wasn't really interested in exploring any of the parts of its universe that seemed the most fascinating to me.  While Jamie has been waiting for Catching Fire with baited breath (and even took a bus to NY to see it with a friend) I've just been hoping the second installment would expand the world of Panem in a way that would make me give any kind of a shit.

Mission accomplished!

I am still not entirely won over, but now I'm at least interested in this franchise.  The thing is that I feel like I'm interested in all the wrong stuff, or at least none of the stuff they want me to like.  I fell instantly and madly in love with Jena Malone's punk rock warrior Johanna Mason, a former victor who's straight up PISSED to be back in the arena and she doesn't give a shit who knows it.  She's angry and funny and sexy and injects some sorely needed energy into a story full of largely morose characters.  Johanna is my favorite of the new crop of competitors, but in truth most of them are pretty great.  The "careers," aka the Abercrombie models who don't want a rebellion to spoil their cushy lives in the Capitol, continue to be virtual non-entities, a collection of beautiful faces for our heroes to kill off in a frustratingly bloodless fashion.  But Jeffrey Wright and Amanda Plummer are delightfully odd additions and I must admit that Sam Claflin brings a surprising level of complexity to Finnick Odair.  Phillip Seymour Hoffman's gamemaster Plutarch Heavensbee is a HUGE step up from Wes Bentley's Facial Hair, and while it's fun that they keep him at arm's length to make him more enigmatic, I really wanted to see more of him.  I'm glad that he'll be sticking around for at least one more film.  (Book three is split into two parts.)  Stanley Tucci remains fabulous with his blue hair and giant teeth, and Woody Harrelson continues to entertain as the mentor who's alcoholic but in a fun way.  Above all, I am totally in awe of Elizabeth Banks, who took her ridiculous, shrill clown of a character and imbued her with emotional depth and genuine soul.  After the last film I would have been happy to see her take the first bullet in the eventual revolution, but now I'm legitimately fond of Effie, who makes an adorable mother to the ragtag (quasi-incestuous) family from District 12.

I also found myself wondering more about the greater world of this dystopian future.  I know that the fictional nation of Panem is supposed to be located in North America (my understanding is that District 12 is somewhere in the Appalachians?) but what about the rest of the planet?  Is Panem the only remaining populated continent, or are there people in Europe and Asia that simply don't give a shit about what's happening across the ocean?  And how did Panem happen in the first place?  What happened to the good old US of A?  Is this the result of a nuclear war?  Ecological disaster?  Perhaps the incredible wealth/resource gap of Panem implies there was some kind of bloody civil war.  This stuff is often the most interesting part of a story set in a future with such a dramatically different status quo than the present, so of course I'm never going to get the answers to any of these questions.  Apparently Suzanne Collins was far more interested in coming up with a list of character names that feel like a Mad Libs compilation of the mispronunciations of a four year old.

I remain utterly ambivalent about the love triangle because, while Katniss is a badass, both of her male suitors are utterly boring.  And that's coming from someone who's been a big supporter of Josh Hutcherson since he was 13 years old.  But Peeta Mellark is lame sauce, pathetically pining away for the girl who doesn't want him and also apparently incapable of holding his own in a fight.  The amount of time he spends being critically injured, rescued and carried around like a sad sack of potatoes is bordering on laughable.  (According to Jamie it's even worse in the book - dude can't even swim.)  I've been assured that Peeta gets way better in the third installment, so here's hoping.  Liam Hemsworth doesn't fare much better as Gale, a character who feels like he's only had about ten scenes over the course of both movies.  At least he gets to take some kind of heroic action this time around (although his most heroic deed takes place entirely off screen) but Gale just isn't a fully developed enough character for me to invest any kind of emotion in him.  And while I like the idea of President Evil Donald Sutherland, in reality he spends the majority of his scenes simply sitting around watching TV screens while making menacing insinuations.  This may be intended to make him look like some kind of Machiavellian manipulator, but instead it feels like Sutherland had a rider in his contract stipulating that he would stay seated through 90% of his scenes.

On the flip side, Jennifer Lawrence continues to completely own this franchise.  I think they made Katniss a bit too wishy-washy this time around, miring her in a "refusal of the call" storyline that goes on far too long.  It's ends up being intrinsic to the film's final reveal in which we discover that Katniss has been purposely left out of the loop for some extremely important stuff, but I can't help thinking she would have been far more useful if she wasn't being kept in the dark.  It feels too much like a clunky attempt to adhere to a rigid story structure, as opposed to something that's organic and character driven.  But Lawrence is so strong in the role that most of those complaints don't really hit you until the drive home.  And, if the film's final shot is any indication, this whole movie essentially serves as Katniss's last attempt to play by the rules of the Capitol before fully embracing her role as hero of the rebellion, so they've got to push her patience to the limit before she swings back around to the other side.  Katniss Everdeen is the Luke Skywalker to a whole generation of young girls and that's something that can only have awesome results for the future.  It's great to see such a strong female role model that not only anchors this franchise, but elevates it practically through sheer force of Jennifer Lawrence's will.

This is easily director Francis Lawrence's best film, and I quite liked Constantine and the first two thirds of I Am Legend.  He brings some much needed scope to the world of Panem and directs the action with far greater confidence (and far less shaky cam) than previous director Gary Ross.  It surely helps that Lionsgate significantly pumped up the budget this time around and it absolutely shows on screen, as opposed to the Twilight movies that always looked like they were being shot in the producer's backyard even after they were killing it at the box office.  I was hoping that we'd get a bit more brutality in the arena this time around, especially considering how traumatic the games are to everyone who manages to survive.  (Haymitch is a drunk and Katniss definitely has PTSD.)  But the violence remains sadly restrained, as if they're afraid to alienate their target audience with the central plot device of the franchise.  Hopefully the next films won't continue to pull their punches when the story (hopefully) turns to all out war.

I'm now realizing that this piece comes off pretty negative, but I really did enjoy Catching Fire.  It's exciting purely on a surface level, but the story also managed to keep me guessing throughout; the big reveal at the end I did not see coming (except for the "shocking" part that happens off screen, which was very clearly telegraphed ten minutes into the movie) and once the games began, I was constantly trying to puzzle out the motivations of the various tributes in an effort to figure out who was trustworthy and who was not.  I've always suspected that this was a franchise I was going to enjoy more at the end than the beginning, and this is such a significant step up from the first entry that my theory feels vindicated.  

The Hunger Games is probably never going to be a franchise I get legitimately excited about, certainly not in the same way that my wife does.  But it's now officially been upgraded from "watchable" to "interesting," for whatever that's worth.

Bring on the revolution.

Title: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
Director: Francis Lawrence
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Sam Claflin, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Donald Sutherland, Elizabeth Banks, Stanley Tucci, Lenny Kravitz, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Jena Malone, Jeffrey Wright
Year Of Release: 2013
Viewing Method: Theatrical - Jordans IMAX

December 11, 2013

Podcast Episode 3: The Power Of Family Compels You In FURIOUS 6

"You don't turn your back on family."
I am firmly on record as a big fan of the Fast & Furious franchise, but it wasn't always that way.  2 Fast 2 Furious is a flat out terrible film, and while I really enjoyed Tokyo Drift, its utter lack of original cast members (not including a cameo by Vin Diesel in the closing seconds) seemed to indicate that this was a franchise destined for the direct-to-DVD rack.  But three years later Universal was able to bring both Diesel and Paul Walker back into the fold and suddenly we were off to the races once more.  And even more surprisingly, each movie was astoundingly better than the last.  Furious 6 hit theaters in May and I'm not ashamed to admit that it emerged as one of my favorite movies from a crowded and fairly disappointing summer.  Moreover, the promise that the franchise was finally going to swing back and close the bizarrely awesome time loop in its own chronology while also adding a couple of big names to the roster propelled my excitement through the roof.

The Saturday night after Thanksgiving, Jamie and I were out at a bar watching USC choke against longstanding rival UCLA.  When halftime rolled around, I took out my phone to see what else was going on in the world and discovered an avalanche of tweets indicating that Paul Walker had just died and in a car accident of all things.  I was surprised at how immediately affecting I found his sudden and abrupt passing.  Walker is hardly my favorite actor of all time and he was involved in some pretty crap films over the years, but he was also in Pleasantville and the criminally underappreciated Running Scared, so I couldn't help but be fond of the guy.  The fact that he was still in the midst of filming Fast & Furious 7 when he died only added an extra level of tragedy to an already somber affair.

Bart and I had been itching to lay down another podcast, and with Walker's death fresh in our minds and the recent video release of Furious 6 (with some proceeds going to Walker's Reach Out Worldwide charity), this felt like the right moment to finally get around to covering the film while also speculating on the potential cinematic and automotive fallout from Walker's death as well as contemplating the future for what has become one of our favorite active franchises.  We also dive into the Fast & Furious-adjacent news of Gal Gadot being cast as Wonder Woman and what's going on with the larger DC universe, as well as my particularly awkward screening of Blue Is The Warmest Color.  Plus you can hear my dog barking in the background!  This is our longest episode yet, but it's also starting to hone in on something closer to where I'd like these podcasts to end up.  At the very least I think we've definitely found our theme song, courtesy of The Visitor, but I'm still experimenting with some formatting stuff, so I'm open to suggestions.


Title: Furious 6
Director: Justin Lin
Starring: Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, Dwayne Johnson, Tyrese Gibson, Michelle Rodriguez, Jordana Brewster, Gina Carano, Ludacris, Gal Gadot, Sung Kang, Luke Evans
Year Of Release: 2013
Viewing Method: Theatrical - AMC Boston Common

December 09, 2013

Spike Lee's OLDBOY Tastes Like Warmed Over Dumplings

"Shit, you might want to think about what you're doing here."
Disclaimer: I'm going to tread really lightly here in terms of spoilers, mostly because this is one of those stories that you can never watch the same way twice.  I'll say up front that I absolutely prefer the original Korean film, but I'd be curious to see how someone reacts to this American version as their first introduction to the story. 

Park Chan-wook's Oldboy is a bugfuck crazy awesome revenge flick that you don't watch so much as experience in extremely lurid detail.  The ending of that film so intensely gut wrenching on every level that it sears itself into your memory. As soon as word spread that there was an American remake looming on the horizon, everyone's initial reaction was, "Well they're definitely gonna punt the ending."  Steven Speilberg attached himself to the project for a few years, and it was such an ill fit of director and material that I never really believed he'd end up making that film. Will Smith's name got tossed around for the lead role and I would have considered that an intriguing possibility if I thought for a single second that Smith would be willing to really go for it an risk sullying his carefully cultivated public persona, a move made increasingly unlikely after he passed on Django Unchained.  But eventually it ended up on Spike Lee's docket and he actually seemed like an exciting choice, someone who'd really bring a unique perspective to the already challenging material and make it his own.

But alas, it was not to be.  In fact, if I didn't know that it was a Spike film before walking in the door, I'd find little evidence to support the claim onscreen.  I'll admit that Joe Doucet's extended captivity is actually pretty engaging; I enjoyed the quick bit when the bellhop poster comes to life and the baby rat thing is a real heartbreaker.  But once Joe is released from his hotel prison, everything goes downhill.  It's grim and lifeless, lacking the manic energy that made Park's film so damn exciting to watch.  Only Sam Jackson seems to understand how to give the material a pulse.  Josh Brolin, who I'm generally a big fan of, is practically on autopilot for much of his time on screen, which stands in stark contrast to the breathtaking transformation that Min-sik Choi undergoes in the original film.  As much as I like Elizabeth Olsen, you can often see the wheels turning as she tries really hard to "act" opposite Brolin, exacerbated by the fact that they have next to no chemistry together.  And then there's Sharlto Copley as the film's villain, a performance that's so extremely mannered and peculiar that it feels like he was spliced in not just from a different movie, but from a entirely different plane of existence.

The only person who comes out of this thing relatively unscathed is screenwriter Mark Protosevich, whose script maintains the teeth of the original film while also making some alterations that sharpen those teeth in places.  I'm glad that he kept the original dumplings instead switching it to something more western friendly like chicken wings.  Characters are constantly showing Brolin how to look stuff up on his smartphone, and while I appreciate the real-world practicality of it, by the time they're Shazaming his ringtone to identify the prep school anthem the film almost starts to feel like an extended commercial for mobile apps.  I think there's a little too much energy spent at the top of the film proving that Joe Doucet is an irredeemable shitheel, as opposed to Oh Dae-su who was simply an irresponsible fool.  It makes a big impact on the respective films' finales - Doucet deserves everything he has coming to him, whereas you kind of pity Dae-su.  I certainly missed the original's memorable moments of deranged brilliance like the squid and the tongue, but I kind of love the change to the villain's backstory, a simple tweak that not only makes Copley's character infinitely creepier, but also makes the final reveal and turnabout on Brolin all the more devastating.  Granted that reveal is pretty awful on the face of it, so we're really only talking about a matter of degrees, but I'm impressed that Protosevich found a way to make his riff on a very memorable ending even more affecting on some level.

Remakes are always a tricky business, especially when you're tackling something as singular as Oldboy.  I think that all too often the inclination is to try and "improve" the original source material in some way, despite the fact that such attempts often end up erasing the thing that everyone likes about the property in the first place.  And as the number of remakes and reboots continues to increase at a seemingly exponential rate, I find myself caring less about whether or not the new version is better or worse than its predecessor, and caring more about whether the remake can bring some new element to the table in order to justify its existence.  There has to be some specific, concrete reason to watch the new version instead of the original.  Simply employing better special effects usually isn't enough, as proven by the recent Carrie remake.  Oldboy proves that simply swapping in English-speaking white folks doesn't get the job done either.  If nothing else, it sticks to the structure of Park's film so closely that I can't bring myself to call it a bad movie - the story is still so weird and fucked up that still connects on a base level.  (However, it should be noted that there's a big red herring in this version that really helps to sell the shock value unless you already know how the film ends, in which case it feels like a boring distraction that perhaps hits the nail a little too much on the head.)

Spike Lee's Oldboy is fine I guess, but it simply doesn't play at nearly the same level as Park Chan-wook's original masterpiece.

Then again, very few films do.

Title: Oldboy
Director: Spike Lee
Starring: Josh Brolin, Elizabeth Olsen, Sharlto Copley, Michael Imperioli, Samuel L. Jackson, Lance Reddick, Rami Malek
Year Of Release: 2013
Viewing Method: Theatrical - Showcase Revere

December 04, 2013

I'll Follow Bruce Dern and Will Forte To NEBRASKA Any Day

"Doesn't look finished to me."
I don't have any really crippling fears.  Spiders, snakes, heights, crowds...I'm sort of fine with all this stuff.  The one thing that truly freaks me out is the gradual decay of both my body and my mind as I grow older.  The physical part I can deal with, annoying as it may be, but the mental element is the stuff of my nightmares.  The idea that some day my faculties may whither to the point where I'm struggling to grasp even the simplest parts of the world around me and that there's simply nothing I can do about it absolutely terrifies me.  Granted, at 30 years old I've got plenty of time before I'm battling off the demons of outright senility, but I can already feel myself slipping a bit.  Sometimes I have trouble coming up with exactly the right word I want to use or remembering the name of that actor who was in that one movie.  (Seriously, a few weeks ago I spent a half hour trying to remember Jeremy Renner's name.  In fact, it happened again just now while writing that sentence.)  Maybe I should start playing some of those goofy memory games that are designed to keep your mind sharp.  One of my grandmothers is currently grappling with effects of Alzheimer's, and sometimes it feels as if the disease is hanging over my head like the goddamn sword of Damocles.  I fully expect that when I see her on Christmas Eve, I'll end up having at least one conversation with her twice over the course of the night.  It's no fun for me to see her straining to remember my wife's name, but I have to imagine it's exponentially worse for her.  Then again, maybe she has no idea what she's missing.

Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) isn't quite there yet, but he's well on his way.  A cranky old shit who drinks too much and seemingly has little interest in either his wife (June Squibb) or his two sons (Will Forte and Bob Odenkirk), Woody has become obsessed with a piece of bullshit marketing mail claiming that he's won a million dollar prize.  He's determined to get himself to the company's offices in Nebraska in order to claim his winnings despite the fact that he no longer has a license.  After attempting the journey twice on foot, his less successful son David (Forte) decides to take his old man on the road for a few days in order to get all this nonsense out of his system.  They end up detouring through Woody's hometown for a few days and spending time with some of the old coot's family and former friends, all of whom become enamored with the idea that Woody's about to become a millionaire.

It's a deceptively simple story and the pace of the thing is pretty deliberate, but like any good road trip movie, Nebraska revels in the journey, not the destination.  We all know that Woody's not going to end up with a pile of cash at the end (made stunningly clear when they arrive at the hilariously nondescript offices of the sweepstakes company) but the real joy comes from watching Woody making his way in the big wide world that's forgotten him while David slowly gains a better understanding of his gruff father by exploring the places and people that were so important in his younger days.  Alexander Payne manages a delicate dance of tone here, balancing the seriously morose with the refreshingly lighthearted.  Visually, we're presented with the dilapidated wasteland of the midwest, full of abandoned farms and crumbling ghost towns.  Much like Paper Moon, these are the authentic dregs of Americana, made all the more bleak by the stark black and white photography.  And yet, this movie is funny.  Like, really funny.

Will Forte is the film's not-so-secret weapon; put a dramatic actor in that role and the whole film becomes mired in the awful degradation of Woody Grant's psyche.  But instead we've got a comedian, and while he's certainly not playing things super broadly, Forte just can't help but find the humor in any given situation, bringing a light touch to the proceedings.  (The same goes for Odenkirk.)  Forte is quite good, proving that he brings a lot more to the table than the insane caricatures that made him so famous on SNL.  I'd love to see him tackle another dramatic role like this.  But more importantly, Forte frees up Bruce Dern and allows him really sink his teeth into the role of Woody, taking some great risks onscreen.  In a way, so much of Woody can be summed up simply by Dern's choice of posture, bent over almost at a ninety-degree angle and waddling back and forth down the sidewalk like a penguin with scoliosis.  It's inherently funny at first, but the more you watch him trudging around, the sadder it becomes.  This is a guy who's spent his whole life chewing out those closest to him and who has in no way softened with age, but he can also see the end coming and he's desperate for some kind of victory before he goes.  Bruce Dern gives a career performance and I'll be pretty sad when he inevitably gets snubbed come awards season.

Nebraska is a film filled with incredible talent.  Devin Ratray and Tim Driscoll score some great laughs as David's hulking, dimwitted cousins who want to get their hands on Woody's mythical fortune, while Stacy Keach is unsurprisingly awesome as Woody's former friend and business partner who feels that he's owed something, despite the fact that he almost certainly stole Woody's much ballyhooed air compressor.  Keach is a barrel of charming menace, and you haven't lived until you've seen his karaoke rendition of "In The Ghetto."  They even managed to find a way to squeeze in Rance Howard as Woody's brother!  But it's June Squibb who frequently steals the show as Woody's long suffering wife Kate, a sharp-tongued dame who's long since outgrown the need for polite decorum.  Old ladies swearing is always funny, and Squibb is game for anything, be it cussing out family members or doing terribly inappropriate things in a cemetery.

But along with all these familiar faces are a lot of Nebraska locals, most of whom had never acted before.  And they kill.  There's a scene with a bunch of guys sitting around watching football and talking about cars they used to own.  There are about six lines of dialogue in the whole thing and it's probably about 90% silence, but right in front is this unknown guy carrying half the scene with absolutely perfect timing.  There's a later scene between Forte and an older woman who runs the local newspaper and used to have a thing for Woody when they were kids.  It's a really lovely scene and she gets this beautiful little coda at the very end of the film that just absolutely knocked me sideways.  Using first-time actors is always a gamble, but it's one that has frequently paid off for Alexander Payne thanks in large part to his casting director John Jackson.  I actually spent quite a bit of time on the phone with Jackson while I was working at an agency in L.A. and he was casting The Descendants.  Most casting agents are constantly hopping from one movie to the next and working with a wide variety of directors and producers, but Jackson works exclusively with Alexander Payne, which means he not only knows exactly what kind of performer the filmmaker is looking for in any given role and but also exactly what kind of people Payne will be able to work with.  Jackson is incredibly specific in his criteria and he and Payne are always able to assemble a sharply talented collection of both veteran and rookie performers that more than rise to the occasion.

Nebraska received a pretty limited release outside of L.A. and New York, (it's just hitting Boston this weekend) so hopefully people are able to discover it on VOD and Blu.  Personally I can't wait to own this one, as I suspect it's only going to get funnier and more poignant with age.  If I'm lucky, my grandkids will say the same thing about me.

Title: Nebraska
Director: Alexander Payne
Starring: Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb, Bob Odenkirk, Stacy Keach, Mary Louise Wilson, Rance Howard,
Year Of Release: 2013
Viewing Method: Theatrical - AMC Boston Common

December 03, 2013

I Got Totally Bogdanoviched By Will Forte With PAPER MOON and WHAT'S UP DOC?

"You still owe me $200."
I had the good fortune to attend a preview screening of Alexander Payne's latest film Nebraska with star Will Forte in attendance.  He was a really good sport through a typically annoying Q&A full of people who alternatingly knew far too much and far too little about filmmaking.  (The only thing more frustrating than hearing someone ask an actor something dumb like, "Where did you get the idea for the story?" is hearing some film major asking asinine technical questions like, "What did you shoot on?")  But after it was all over I made my way to the front of the auditorium and, after taking approximately half a dozen pictures of Forte posing with other people, I asked him for a few recommendations.  Forte insisted that I watch some Peter Bogdanovich movies and suggested What's Up Doc? and Paper Moon.

The only thing I knew about Paper Moon in advance was that it starred Ryan O'Neal and his daughter Tatum and that she had won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her work, making the ten year old the youngest to ever do so.  I'd heard that some L.A. press screenings of Nebraska had actually been paired with Paper Moon, which I'm assuming is at least partially why Forte recommended it.  I'd love to watch the two films together, as they have a kind of a ying and yang quality.  Both are black and white films following a sort of broken father/child pair on respective road trips through the dilapidated American midwest and each involve moneymaking scams.  But while Bruce Dern and Will Forte are the victims (sort of), the O'Neals get to play the grifters, blowing from town to town posing as Bible salesmen, bootleggers and whatever else might grab them a quick buck.

I love me a good con man and Ryan O'Neal makes a fabulous one, bringing just the right mix of charm and smarm. He's not exactly what you'd call fast-talking, but he just instantly puts people at ease and wins their trust in a matter of seconds.  It reminds me of my friend Warren, who clearly missed his calling as a scam artist.  Tatum is great as his firebrand maybe-daughter, the perfect example of an old soul trapped in a child's body.  Of course they have great chemistry together and I'm a big fan of actors working with their real life children; Jaden Smith brings out the best in his father in The Pursuit Of Happyness and I suspect that the same would have been true of After Earth if they had actually been together on screen for more than the first 20 minutes. Alvin Sargent's script is equal parts clever and heartfelt, stringing you along from one entertaining ruse to the next and then taking your knees out with a few well timed moments of touching honesty. But it's Bogdanovich's beautiful visuals of Depression-era small towns and lonely roads that really elevate the film into something all the more substantial. The visual influence on Payne's Nebraska is impossible to miss. 

"There's nothing to see really.  We're inside a Chinese dragon."
I was a little wary of What's Up Doc? when I saw Barbra Streisand on the cover, as I've always found her to be a little grating.  Turns out I needn't have worried, as she makes for a great smooth talking sexpot (I know, I was surprised too.) who bullshits her way into the life of Howard Bannister (Ryan O'Neal), a nerdy and socially inept musicologist who's vying for a sizable grant to fund his study of prehistoric music in rocks.  It's basically a mistaken identity/switcheroo comedy; the conflict arises from the changing hands of four identical suitcases that contain, among other things, a set of top secret government documents and a collection of priceless jewels as well as Howard's musical stones, along with the added wrinkle of Streisand posing as an infinitely more charming version of Howard's fiance Eunice, played with gusto by an incredible Madeline Kahn in her big screen debut.  Streisand strays pretty far from her musically-driven persona here, even if there is a random song thrown in halfway through, but it was Ryan O'Neal who really impressed me.  Howard is a stilted and awkward character, easily flustered and so absentminded that he can't even keep track of what he's holding in his hands at any given moment.  It's not the kind of role I would've associated with O'Neal, certainly not after seeing him in Paper Moon.  I'm much more familiar with his later work from within my lifetime, where he's usually riffing on the kind of sleazy/shady businessman he assayed so well in that black and white affair.  But Doc actually came two years earlier, following the success of Love Story which O'Neal directly skewers with the film's last line.  (It's cheeky and cute and probably plays a lot better now than in 1972.). The whole thing is brimming with a completely bonkers energy that's downright infectious and it's obvious that everyone in the cast is really going for it, willing to leap off a cliff for a laugh and trusting that Bogdanovich will be there to catch them.

It seemed silly to me that I'd never seen a Bogdanovich movie before, so I checked his filmography and discovered that he was actually responsible for the film adaptation of Noises Off, one of my absolute favorite plays and one that I was lucky enough to be involved with in high school.  That show, about the backstage/onstage shenanigans of a theater company putting on a British farce, utilizes a lot of physical comedy involving the opening and closing of doors and several revolving plates of sardines.  While I was watching Doc, there was an old school comedy vibe to the thing that I couldn't quite place and as soon as I saw that old favorite listed on IMDb, I immediately understood why I'd loved this 70's romp.  Call it old fashioned if you like, but What's Up Doc? exemplifies a marvelous style of humor that you simply don't see anymore.  I can't tell you why, but somehow it seems that physical comedy has devolved into little more than guys getting hit in the balls and while I like a well timed nutshot, there's so much more that's fallen by the wayside over the years.  I do not approve.

I now officially owe one to Will Forte for foisting Bogdanovich on me.  Besides, you've gotta love any filmmaker who insists on continually casting Higgins from Magnum P.I.  I'm running out of time before my year is out, but at the very least I need to get around to The Last Picture Show.

Now, about Nebraska...

Title: Paper Moon
Director: Peter Bogdanovich
Starring: Ryan O'Neal, Tatum O'Neal, Madeline Kahn, John Hillerman, Noble Willingham, Randy Quaid
Year Of Release: 1973
Viewing Method: Netflix DVD

Title: What's Up Doc?
Director: Peter Bogdanovich
Starring: Barbra Streisand, Ryan O'Neal, Madeline Kahn, Austin Pendleton, Michael Murphy, John Hillerman, Randy Quaid
Year Of Release: 1972
Viewing Method: Netflix DVD

December 01, 2013

Going DUTCH On Thanksgiving

"You're like a great big demented child."
Traditionally, Thanksgiving has always been my least favorite holiday, due mostly to the fact that turkey is one of the few kinds of meat I just plain don't like eating.  I'm all about the starches and the carbs - mashed potatoes, cornbread, mac & cheese HELLS YES - but disliking the centerpiece of the meal on a holiday that's based largely around eating makes for a pretty miserable time for a kid with a picky palate.  My mother likes to tell a story (which I maintain is apocryphal) about the time that my grandmother served me hot dogs on a silver platter, but for the most part Thanksgiving has always been a bit of a letdown for me.

That is, until I eventually moved 3000 miles away from the majority of my family and couldn't fly home for both Thanksgiving and Christmas.  It's a predicament that's widely shared by the majority of Los Angeles residents, and while late December sees the city largely vacated, late November sees a lot of people unable to share a holiday meal with their families.  Hosting duties typically fell to us since our apartment was the biggest and it was at that point when I realized that, as the man in the kitchen, I could cook whatever the hell I wanted.  Thus was born my signature Thanksgiving ham and the beginning of my new favorite holiday.  And while the ham and the carbo-loading are all well and good, really it's the gathering of friends that makes the day such a delight.  One year we had upwards of 30 people in my home and got the cops called on us.  That was a good year.  Christmas is all about family, but for me Thanksgiving has become a celebration of friendship.

Since we moved back to Boston I was a little worried that I'd lose some of that Thanksgiving mojo, mostly because a lot of my local friends grew up around here and spend the day with their real families.  But the last few years we've managed to put together a solid gathering of friends from out of town as well as a spread of tasty eats.  This year was no exception; along with my specially glazed ham (I added Jameson this year at the urging of my guests, which was an excellent decision) Jamie cooked a massive turkey as well as some kickass mac & cheese and mashed potatoes, while others brought cornbread casserole, squid (thanks Chinatown!) and a plethora of pies.  There was food, there was booze and there were epic party games to close out the night.  All in all it was a fabulous day.

I'd intended to knock out a movie early in the day but our various cleaning and food preparations precluded that effort.  I really wanted to find a Thanksgiving appropriate movie, but I found myself with surprisingly few titles that I hadn't already seen.  I found a horror movie called Thankskilling about the murderous rampage of a vengeful turkey, but after about 90 seconds it looked just this side of artless softcore porn so I shut it off and opted for the only other alternative that was readily available: Dutch.

Obviously I'm a big fan of John Hughes, but the guy's writing career pretty much peaked with Home Alone.  Dutch definitely marked the beginning of the end for Hughes and since I never watched Married With Children growing up, the Al Bundy of it all never really held any appeal for me.  Dutch is a minor effort, like a rough draft of any other Hughes' film featuring a precocious, big-for-his-britches adolescent who eventually learns a touching lesson about the value of family.  The only thing that sets this one apart is that it happens to be a road movie.  So it's basically Home Alone meets Planes, Trains & Automobiles, but lacking the wit of either of those films.  On the other hand, it does feature a very young, karate proficient Ethan Embry (credited as Ethan Randall) who's almost unrecognizable solely by virtue of having his hair parted down the middle.  Also, Shooter McGavin in a double breasted suit and a child molester mustache.

Dutch is vaguely entertaining, even if the story is a bit of a mess.  It's exactly the kind of movie that's perfect to throw on in the background during the holidays.  Honestly, that's probably the only situation in which I'll ever watch it again.

Title: Dutch
Director: Peter Faiman
Starring: Ed O'Neil, Ethan Embry, JoBeth Williams, Christopher McDonald, Ari Myers, Elizabeth Daily, L. Scott Caldwell
Year Of Release: 1991
Viewing Method: Netflix Instant (TV)