Friday, June 11, 2010
The A-Team: Let's make it clear--"The A-Team" was never good, ever. It was a lousy television show that gained a brief bit of pop culture relevance, primarily because Mr. T had a mohawk and said goofy/tough things. But hey, the quality of the original product doesn't enter into the remake equation--if there's brand recognition, full speed ahead! Hey, who'd like a nice addition to their house? Liam Neeson, we're sending a truck full of money over. Hey Bradley Cooper, you're become immensely likable and carrying some marquee heft--how's about whoring out for a surefire piece of shit? Jessica Biel, we all know you can't act, so be on set Monday morning and look hot. Let's make some movie magic, people!
Thursday, June 10, 2010
Early in Ricki Stern and Anne Sundeberg’s extraordinary documentary portrait Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, the legendary comic’s manager offers up an assessment of the general perception of his client. “Right now,” he says flatly, “they see her as a plastic surgery freak who’s past due.” Full disclosure: I was one of those people. My primary impressions of Rivers were of a, yes, plastic surgery freak, braying on a red carpet on E! (their exclamation point, not mine). I knew her as the woman who quit the gig guest-hosting Carson for a Fox competitor that flopped miserably; I knew her as one of the C-grade schlubs on “Celebrity” Apprentice (my quotes, not theirs). What I didn’t know her as was funny, or fascinating. In Stern and Sundberg’s excellent documentary, she is both.The film, subtitled “a year in the life of a legend,” begins with startlingly tight close-ups of Rivers’ (badly) sculpted face as she is made up. The proximity is shocking, but appropriate preparation for the picture to follow; they may be the only time we see her out of her make-up, but it is not the last time she lets her guard down. Rivers will turn 75 years old in the course of the film, but she isn’t slowing down. She is, in her manager’s words, “a chronic workaholic.” Early on, we see her and her assistant Jocelyn going over her “books”—the schedules of her various appearances and engagements. They’re looking too empty to Joan. She looks through an old book and sees busier days. “That’s a good page,” she says wistfully. “That’s happiness.” Stern and Sundeberg rotate between verité--style home and work footage, interviews, and Rivers’ biography. There are fantastic vintage clips of her on Jack Paar, Mike Douglas, and Carson, clippings, photos, memories. She’s surprisingly candid—she talks about her surgeries, talks about her marriage, her difficulties balancing work and family. “She referred to her career as ‘The Career,’” her daughter Melissa remembers. “And it occurred to me one day that I had a sibling.” And she remembers the rough years—the ugly break-up with Carson, the failure of the Fox show, the suicide of her husband Edgar (which, oddly enough, she and Melissa reenacted for a TV movie, a move she claims was rehabilitative but still seems mighty weird). The dynamic with Melissa is quite interesting—nobody sees through Joan quite like her daughter, and when they do Celebrity Apprentice together, we get a peek inside their relationship (Melissa seeking affirmation, or chastising her mother for turning her insecurities into criticism of their co-stars). Rivers’ involvement in that reality show might make one question the authenticity of her portrait here; is it an honest impression, or a calculated performance for the camera? I’m honestly inclined to think the latter—or at least, that it’s as honest a portrait as we’re going to get. Rivers has been performing so long, it could be said that she is always “on,” that the clear boundaries between person and persona evaporated decades ago. Whatever the case, the primary takeaway from Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work is how vulnerable she is. She pours her heart into an autobiographical monologue/biographical play called “Joan Rivers: A Work in Progress by a Life in Progress”; it kills at the Edinburgh festival, but when West End reviews are just so-so, she shuts it down instead of taking it to Broadway (her previously stated goal). Why? Because she was so badly hurt by the Broadway critics when she last appeared there—in 1972. “No one will ever take me seriously as an actress,” she says, and you can see the pain in her eyes. She fronts that she’s a tough broad, but the barbs hurt. As a protective measure, she’s her own worst critic; when she appears at the Kennedy Center tribute to George Carlin, she says of her fellow presenters, “they’re all gonna be so much funnier than I am.” But the toughest hits come when she subjects herself to the indignities of a Comedy Central roast because she’ll make some badly-needed money. “They keep telling you it’s an honor,” she muses. “If I had invested wisely, I wouldn’t be doing this.” Clips of the roast are seen, and the cracks are predictably vile; the filmmakers slow down the tape and hold on Rivers as she tries to keep her brave face on. Moments like that might stack the deck a tad too much in the icon’s favor, but who cares? Our goodwill toward Joan Rivers is strong enough even without those moments; she’s a survivor, she’s a hard worker, and most of all, she’s hilarious. Clips are interspersed throughout the film of her working new material in a small Manhattan cabaret, and she is explosively funny (and filthy as hell). She shows, in her office, a card catalog—30 years of jokes, alphabetized by subject, typed up on 3 x 5s. We see her out on the road, working the showroom of a Wisconsin casino (looking over her accommodations, she advises an assistant to get the check before the show), and she slays them—and when a heckler interrupts to protest the offensiveness of a joke, threatening to stop the show cold, she burns the guy right down to the ground. It’s an amazing piece of footage, but it’s reflex for her. This is what she does. “This is where I belong,” she confesses. “The only time I’m truly, truly happy is when I’m on a stage.” After seeing Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, we’re inclined to agree."Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work" opens Friday, June 11th in limited release.
Wednesday, June 9, 2010
Early in his concert film Stark Raving Black, Lewis Black makes good sport of people who approach him and ask, “Now that George W. Bush is out of office, what’re you gonna dooooo?” (fans will recognize that high-pitched, sing-songy crescendo at the end of the question, which he frequently uses for comic effect). While granting that W “certainly did make my life easy,” he dismisses the question out of hand. But the fact of the matter is, he’s been a little off the last couple of years; during the Bush administration, Black was (for my money) the most potent political stand-up we had, his frequent albums and stand-up specials providing a keen, intelligent, and uproariously funny commentary on the increasingly ridiculous state of the nation. (Don’t believe me? Track down his 2004 special Black on Broadway or his 2006 show Red, White and Screwed.) But that razor-sharp focus has faded over the last couple of years; there have been distractions (good books and bad TV shows), but even his stand-up, his bread and butter, has been more personal and less political. That’s not to say he stopped being funny; he just loses some of his edge, which is his best comic weapon.Stark Raving Black, which was shot in Detroit in the fall of 2009 and saw a brief theatrical distribution before airings on Epix and Comedy Central, begins in much the same mold; after briefly touching on things we learned from the Bush years and some general political material (“Our two-party system is a bowl of shit looking in the mirror at itself”), he goes inward, telling a long, funny story about following Vince Gill and Amy Grant at a benefit (he enjoys the dichotomy of the cheerful Christian couple being followed by “the miserable aging Jewish prick”). There’s some funny material about passing the milestone of the 60th birthday, some jabs at Dr. Phil, an enjoyable story or two about his parents.
We’re reminded, at that point, that what makes Black such a great (I would say brilliant) social commentator is that it’s not just an act. His material comes from a place of genuine, seething anger—and he lets that rage fuel the comedy. There’s a fire in his delivery, an unhinged fury crossed with an absolute bewilderment that recalls the best of Bill Hicks and late-period George Carlin. It’s there in the way he uses “fuck” as an adjective, spitting out lines like “more drugs than you can ever fuck imagine” in such a way that we feel he’s dropping the “-ing” because it’s slowing him down. It’s there in the skill of his vocal control—the specific moments when he chooses to use soft tones of barely contained impatience (as when he explains capitalism), and when he chooses to escalate that volume to a mad-dog frenzy.
Those bits in the second half, when he rails on the development of American greed, muses on the failure to develop alternative energy in the age of the iPhone (“I’m holding a computer in my hands. This is Star Trek time, fuckers… Don’t tell me we can’t have alternative energy!”), and ridicules the navel-gazing of Twitter (“If you’re describing what you’re doing… then you’re not doing it”) are Black at his absolute best. And, at the film’s close, he not only gets skillfully serious, but punctuates that solemnity effectively and wittily.
As a stand-up set, Stark Raving Black ends stronger than it starts. I admire Black’s desire to try new kinds of material and tap into more personal narratives, but he’s at his best doing what he made his name on: fiercely intelligent, sharply pointed topical comedy.
"Stark Raving Black" hits DVD on Tuesday, June 15th. For full A/V and bonus feature details, read this review on DVD Talk.
Tuesday, June 8, 2010
Curb Your Enthusiasm- The Complete Seventh Season: It's the Seinfeld reunion season, but the latest year of Larry David's brilliant HBO show also continues the comic gold mine of Larry on the dating scene from season six. Curb is a show that is continuing to take big chances and unusual risks deep into its run, while maintaining the acid tongue, clever construction, and wry point of view that has made it such a terrific comic series.
Caddyshack (Blu-ray): Thirty years after its initial release, Harold Ramis's slobs-vs-snobs comedy remains fresh, funky, and deliriously funny, thanks to the inventiveness of the free-for-all screenplay and the comic energy and ingenuity of its stars, each of them playing as though they're successfully stealing the picture. It's a bit of a mess, sure, but its looseness contributes to its considerable, spunky charm; there may be more disciplined comedies out there, but there aren't many that are funnier than this one.
From Paris With Love: Aka, That Movie with the "Pulp Fiction" Shout-Out in the Trailer Which Serves as a Depressing Reminder of How Far John Travolta Has Fallen.
Welcome to “Back-Filling,” a (semi) regular feature in which I see movies that, by any reasonable measure, I totally should have seen by now.
Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice is a film with a reputation that doesn’t even begin to match the quality of the picture. Which is not to say it’s not a well-remembered film—quite the contrary. But these days it’s mostly regarded as a giggly cultural artifact, a nudging satire of the sexual revolution. It’s a better movie than that—smarter, deeper, trickier—and its real themes (honesty, monogamy, and the dangers of fancying ourselves more sophisticated than we are) are timeless.
Director Paul Mazursky (who wrote the script with Larry Tucker) uses his opening section to set up, and then push past, the easy punchlines of touchy-feely encounter culture. The lazy, pat move would have been to merely point and laugh, but he takes the experience of Bob (Robert Culp) and Carol (Natalie Wood) at that weekend retreat and understands what it meant to them—and then goes for the laugh. Mazursky and Tucker (and their deft cast) get that the joke isn’t in the culture (which is taken seriously), but in the reactions of everyone else when the buzzwords and attitudes of that culture are taken out of that cocoon. When Ted (Elliot Gould) tells them that he thinks it’s all bullshit, Bob smiles, with a twinkle in his eye, and says, “That’s gorgeous, man, the truth is really beautiful.”
Culp isn’t winking at us; he plays the line straight. And he and Wood give his biggest scene, when he confesses a recent infidelity, the respect of honest playing—which makes the verbal gymnastics they wrap themselves up in exponentially funnier. Our protagonists’ newly reupholstered views on fidelity must be honored, so the scene is stood on its head; Carol not only lets him off the hook, but is elated. “I feel that you’re sharing something very personal!” she tells him, wide-eyed. “I feel very moved that you trust me!” And so Bob finds himself frustrated that she won’t share the guilt that he’s obligated to feel.
There’s similar multi-leveled intelligence happening in Alice (Dyan Cannon) and Ted’s reaction to Bob and Carol’s new “open” marriage; most movies (particularly these days) would find one response and hammer it, but the extended dialogue scene between this very different duo quickly becomes a brilliant (and painfully truthful) realization of the twists, turns, and double-backs of a marital argument, in which every question is loaded and every answer leads to another question.
It all leads to the film’s most famous sequence, in which the quartet finds themselves in Vegas, and the drinks start to flow, and Ted makes a startling confession, and suddenly Alice is game for, as she proclaims, “Orgy! Orgy! Orgy!” This is a delicate sequence—one sniggering gesture, one easy laugh, and the whole damn thing falls apart. And that’s why the skill with which Mazursky, Tucker, and their cast achieve this balancing act is so goddamned thrilling. Every word is just right, perfectly chosen yet seemingly spontaneous, and the laugh lines (“First we’ll have an orgy, then we’ll go see Tony Bennett”) are off-the-cuff enough to keep the scene’s reality intact. And it’s thrilling because Mazursky seems to back himself into a corner—how can they go through with this, but how can the filmmakers get away with it—and then breezes right out of the movie. Brilliant, truthful, and piercingly funny, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice is exactly of its moment, yet decades ahead of its time.
Monday, June 7, 2010
What struck me with the greatest force in this viewing was the film’s blunt, bold eroticism—and it’s right there in those opening shots of Faye Dunaway (has she ever been sexier? Has anyone on film?), naked as a jaybird, coiled like a snake in her West Texas bedroom, peering through the jail-like bars of her headboard (above), waiting, waiting, waiting. Poor Clyde doesn’t know what he’s walking into when he tries to lift her mama’s car. And in the scenes that follow, Penn (and screenwriters David Newman and Robert Benton) are clearly enjoying the giddy, dirty thrill of their phallic symbolism—the way Bonnie all but fellates that Coke bottle, how he responds by showing her his gun, the loaded way she touches it (“You wouldn’t have the gumption to use it”). There’s all kinds of interesting subtext in Bonnie and Clyde—that’s why it’s such a rich, textured film—but it is fascinating to note how much of the film is fueled by her character’s sultry restlessness, and Clyde’s need to keep her satisfied and excited in the ways that he cannot in their bed.
Shutter Island does not top that film, and doesn't seem to want to. It's Scorsese having a go at genre filmmaking, adapting Dennis Lahane's novel into a jittery suspense flick with some grimy Freudian twists. The time is 1954, and Leonard DiCaprio (making his fourth consecutive appearance in a Scorsese picture) plays Teddy Daniels, a U.S. marshal sent to the titular isle, which houses a chillingly atmospheric hospital for the criminally insane. As the ferry floats in, they're told that the dock is "the only way on... or off," and you can almost hear Scorsese cackling off-screen. Some filmmakers wait their whole careers for an excuse to use a line like that.
Teddy is joined by a new partner, Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo); they're on the island to investigate the mysterious disappearance of a female patient (Emily Mortimer), who seems to have improbably vanished into thin air. Compounding the befuddling circumstances of her escape is the institution's refusal to provide much of anything in the way of assistance or information, and the institution's guru, Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley) is particularly obstructive. But he's not the only one hiding things--we slowly realize that our hero is more than a little troubled, and that he may not have landed on the island altogether accidentally. On their way in to the facility, Teddy grimaces at the rules and regulations and jokes, "You act like insanity is catching." Boy, is it ever.
More than that I will not say; one of the pleasures of Laeta Kalogridis' screenplay is how slowly it peels away the considerable information within, but keeps us off our footing anyway. Kingsley's Dr. Cawley says so much, but reveals tantalizingly little, and the script functions in much the same fashion, looking us straight in the eye while tossing disturbing visual motifs into our peripheral vision. It's one of Scorsese's best-looking films, full of vivid, arresting dream imagery and tightly coiled, blood-splashed compositions, lit hot from the top by the great Robert Richardson and assembled with snappy zeal by his brilliant editor Thelma Schoonmaker. The filmmaker does some of his most purely visual storytelling here, particularly in the cutaways and head trips that propel the story forward and push it into quiet surrealism.
The ads are pushing the horror elements, and that's probably wise promotion but not the most accurate representation of the finished product--it's a talkier film than you might think, and there's not a lot in the way of big scares. But it does have a nice, dread-soaked feel, and one long sequence (Teddy working his way through a box of matches as he slips through the creepy "Ward C") that crawls around under your skin for a while.
DiCaprio does the weathered, trouble hero well here, while Ruffalo is a reliable sidekick and Kingsley and Max von Sydow are ominously appropriate villains. Patricia Clarkson and Ted Levine contribute fine character turns, but Shutter Island really is the director's show, and while he's clearly having a good time (his roving camera has as many spins and twists as the story), it isn't quite as sharp as you walk in hoping it will be. In the Scorsese canon, it operates at about Cape Fear level, and that's still pretty damn good--sometimes his films transcend their B-movie roots (resulting in something more than a gangster film, more than a cop movie, more than a boxing picture), and sometimes they don't, but hey, there's still some terrific moments and grin-worthy shout-outs to Shock Corridor and Val Lewton. Yes, there are scenes he doesn't bring off and beats he lets run on for too long. But it's all so compelling and exquisitely told, and Scorsese, more than any other filmmaker working today, knows how to put an audience right into the palm of his hand. And that third act is pure dynamite.
"Shutter Island" hits DVD and Blu-ray on Tuesday, June 8th.
The focus is on two girls, both lacrosse players at a suburban D.C. high school. Tosha (Sonequa Martin) is the black girl from the poor neighborhood, working hard on the field and in the classroom in hopes of getting into Princeton. Rich, white Jesse (Louisa Krause) is the new girl, but her bad-girl reputation arrives almost as quickly as she does. The girls make friends at first, hanging out and sharing lacrosse training montages, but the relationship goes sour in several predictable ways.
There are flashes of inspiration, and scenes here and there (like Tosha hanging out at home) with a nice, lived-in reality. But it's all so familiar; these familial conflicts and "opposite sides of the tracks" contrasts and teens behaving badly scenarios have been done to death in other, better pictures. Abt's screenplay (she wrote, produced, and directed) seems designed primarily to throw in a new subplot every ten minutes, which is presumably why we've got the business with the Muslim boyfriend or Jesse's lesbian stalker or the racist message on Tosha's locker or Jesse's bad case of the clap, and when all else fails, Abt shuts the picture down for a few minutes so we can watch some people we don't know dancing at a club.
The leads aren't half bad. Martin conveys Tosha's intelligence and stubbornness skillfully, giving the character dimensions that we suspect may not have been on the page. Krause (who appeared in The Babystiters a couple of years back) is even better, handling several difficult scenes and wild character swings gracefully. But try as they might, they can't make the picture work.
Toe to Toe has a made-for-TV-movie feel--the simplistic storytelling, the vanilla style, the on-the-nose dialogue, the unfortunate supporting performances--and by the time the story is taken over by the girls' rivalry for the same boy, it's operating at the level of an Afterschool Special (particularly in its puritanical notions of female sexuality). The final moments suggest what Abt was going for, and they're good, but the picture hasn't earned them. For most of its 104 interminable minutes (trust me, it feels longer), Toe to Toe is soapy bullshit.
"Toe to Toe" arrives on DVD this Tuesday, June 8th. For full bonus feature details, read this review on DVD Talk.
Sunday, June 6, 2010
The film was co-written and directed by Harold Ramis, of whom The New Yorker wrote, “What Elvis did for rock and Eminem did for rap, Harold Ramis did for attitude: he mass-marketed the sixties to the seventies and eighties. He took his generation’s anger and curiosity and laziness and woolly idealism and gave it a hyper-articulate voice.” There was something in the comedic air in the late 1970s and early 1980s, an anarchic spirit, a laid-back smarm, floating through the pages of National Lampoon and the airwaves of Saturday Night Live, and in his screenplays and directorial efforts, Ramis distilled it into a distinctive comic voice. Caddyshack marked his directorial debut, an opportunity he was given following the phenomenal success of his screenplay for Animal House, which he wrote with Chris Miller and Caddyshack’s co-writer and producer, Douglas Kenney. Joining Ramis and Kenney for this script was writer/actor Brian Doyle Murray, who drew inspiration from his years working as a caddy (often with his brothers, including co-star Bill) at an upscale Illinois country club.
Doyle-Murray’s surrogate in the film is Danny Noonan (Michael O’Keefe), an easygoing kid whose only real motivation is going to college so he doesn’t have to work at his dad’s lumberyard. He works as a caddy at snooty Bushwood Country Club, which is ruled with an iron fist by Judge Smails (Knight); Danny most frequently caddies for Ty Webb (Chase), a Zen millionaire who doesn’t keep score. Danny tries to get on the Judge’s good side so that he can land the “caddy scholarship,” though even he can’t help but succumb to the temptations of the Judge’s sexy niece, Lacey Underall (Cindy Mortan), or enjoy the antics of Al Czervik (Dangerfield), the vulgarian condo millionaire who quickly becomes Smails’s nemesis.
And then there’s Carl Spackler (Murray), the foul, mumble-mouthed assistant greenskeeper, whose battle with a resilient gopher gives the picture the closest thing it can muster to a “structure.” The story goes that the gopher stuff was imposed late in the process, when the improvisational additions of the star comics in the cast cut the original through-line (Danny’s coming of age) down to the bone. That’s clearly the right call—O’Keefe is likable enough, but his subplot with Sarah Holcomb (and her inexplicable accent) is a real clanger, and most of the caddy characters who surround them (particularly Scott Colomby’s chain-smoking, silk-shirt wearing Italian stereotype) are either forgettable or intolerable. (Those scenes are ultimately about as memorable as the Zeppo/Allan Jones interludes in the Marx comedies—and do about as little damage to the picture overall.)
Some of Ramis’s staging has a novice clunkiness to it, like the all-lined-up-in-a-row blocking of the Knight/Dangerfield/Chase clubhouse scene, though he does occasionally liven up the frame with a clever background gag (like Spaulding hacking away and cursing behind Danny and the Judge). And there is a bit of desperation to the big game/big explosions climax, where we basically see a film that’s spit in the face of structure thrashing about for an ending (when your story’s not going anywhere in particular, it feels awfully silly when you get there).
But let’s be honest, it’s not like any of that matters. A thirty-year-old comedy doesn’t survive this long and become this beloved because it’s so structurally sound; it perseveres because it is funny, wicked funny, laugh-out-loud funny, quote-it-with-your-friends funny. “Oh, this is the worst-looking hat I ever saw. When you buy a hat like this I bet you get a free bowl of soup!... Oh, it looks good on you though.” “Cinderella story, outta nowhere...” “Don't sell yourself short Judge, you're a tremendous slouch.” “I hear this place is restricted, Wang, so don't tell 'em you're Jewish, okay?” “So I got that goin' for me, which is nice.” “I've sentenced boys younger than you to the gas chamber. Didn't want to do it. I felt I owed it to them.” “Your uncle molests collies.” “Oh, this your wife, huh? A lovely lady. Hey baby, you must've been something before electricity.” And so on. The throwaway gags and goofy one-liners have aged better than the big comic set pieces (like the barf in the car or the candy bar in the pool), but that’s part of the blackout-revue quality of the picture—if this bit doesn’t work for you, another one will come along directly. That’s the beauty of Caddyshack; the jokes come too fast for you to spend much time lamenting the ones that don’t land.
The music and fashions may be a little dated (okay, a lot dated), but thirty years after its initial release, Caddyshack remains fresh, funky, and deliriously funny, thanks to the inventiveness of the free-for-all screenplay and the comic energy and ingenuity of its stars, each of them playing as though they’re successfully stealing the picture. It’s a bit of a mess, sure, but its looseness contributes to its considerable, spunky charm; there may be more disciplined comedies out there, but there aren’t many that are funnier than this one.
"Caddyshack" debuts on Blu-ray this Tuesday, June 8th. For full A/V and bonus feature details, read this review on DVD Talk.