Monday, September 28, 2009

Is Year One A Sign Of The Comedy Apocalypse?

Not long ago, my son and I sat down and watched Year One. I can't say I was too excited. I have yet to see Jack Black rise again to his High Fidelity glory and because of that I've been disappointed with movie after movie in which he stars. I will admit that over the years School of Rock has grown on me, though. As the opening credits rolled, I saw Harold Ramis' name pop up as a writer, and so I thought "well, how bad can this be? Harold Ramis is a wonderful comedy writer." And then I saw Harold Ramis' name pop up as director, and so I thought "well shit, this is going to be good. Minus a Multiplicity and a Bedazzled, Harold Ramis is a wonderful comedy director."

And so I watched. And I laughed. And I laughed some more. And for the most part, I thought Year One was a very nice surprise. Certainly worth watching again to make sure the first time wasn't a fluke. Michael Cera continues to play up his boyish charms and Jack Black was pretty good. No one played against type, but they played "type" very well.

But here's the rub. Harold Ramis has always been known for smart comedy. Let me 'splain. There has been a shift in comedy and I won't even add the phrase "as of late" because it's been going on for quite some time. And that shift in comedy is that there's funny in idiocy. There's comfort and comedy in knowing that as an audience member, you're smarter than most everyone on the screen. Dumb and Dumber of course took this to new cinematic heights. And then there was Adam Sandler. And Ben Stiller. And of course Will Ferrell. And in little doses, that's funny. Billy Madison is funny. And Ron Burgundy is funny. But when that's all that' gets served up, it gets a little unfunny. One can't help but think back to Chevy Chase in Caddyshack, or Fletch. The humor was that he was always the smartest one in the room, even if he wasn't literally the smartest one in the room. Or Otter of Animal House. Or Bill Murray in Meatballs and Stripes and Groundhog Day. Certainly not the sharpest pencils in the pack, but the comedy never came at their expense.

And when you look at that list, Harold Ramis is responsible for most of it. He wrote Meatballs, Animal House and Caddyshack (which he also directed) and Stripes and Groundhog Day (also director). But now with Year One, he has written and directed a movie about cavemen, the lowest end of the evolutionary chain.

I think it's safe to say that with Ramis' resume, he is one of the best comedy writers of our time. And he has gotten to be that way by making us laugh because the main characters made everyone else look stupid. Not the other way around.

So what am I to make of all of this? Is this Ramis giving up and giving in? Is this his commentary on the state of comedy a la Idiocracy? Or maybe, just maybe, in the land of dumb comedies, this is the one-eyed dumb comedy that could be King.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Nancy Meyers Continues To Jack Up Careers

I wish Nancy Meyers had a dedicated ensemble cast. I wish that the Actors Guild would pass an acting law and decide that Nancy Meyers could pick only three actors in the business. Could be any willing three actors. But only three actors. And she would have to work with them for the rest of her career. That way, her shitty movies would only leave their stink on a select few. Unfortunately no such law exists. And either the recession is still really bad, Nancy Meyers gives really good Christmas gifts if you've worked with her, or no one pays attention to resumes any more, but she continues to make bad movies and great actors continue to star in them. She's rubbed shit on the likes of Jack Nicholson, Diane Keaton, Frances McDormand, Kate Winslet, Jude Law and Jack Black. And now with her newest movie titled It's Complicated, it looks like she's made a really big shit sandwich and she's asked Meryl Streep, Alec Baldwin and Steve Martin to take a bite.

Or here's an idea. There should be a penalty for starring in one of her movies. Could be a physical penalty like lashings, or hobbling or something. Or could be a monetary penalty like taking every penny that actor has ever made or ever will make and burning it in front of them and hoping that they get a really bad cough from the ashes that lasts a couple of weeks.

Because seriously, why does this woman still make movies? And seriously, why isn't she treated like a leper in the industry? These are the questions that keep me up late at night.

Monday, September 14, 2009


IF you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don't deal in lies,
Or being hated, don't give way to hating,
And yet don't look too good, nor talk to wise;

If you can dream - and not make dreams your master;
If you can think - and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you've spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build 'em up with worn-out tools:

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: 'Hold on!'

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
' Or walk with Kings - nor lose the common touch,
if neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds' worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it,
And - which is more - you'll be a Man, my son!

- Rudyard Kipling

At first reading, the poem if... is a pretty tall order. It asks a lot of a boy to be considered a man. But in truth, it's not that far off. A lot is asked of children. And expected of them. But the important part of Kipling's poem is the word IF. It says that you don't need to be ready now, but when you are indeed ready, then manhood or adulthood awaits. This is not the case at an all-boys school in England in which Mick Travis (Malcolm McDowell) attends. You
have to grow up. You must grow up. Because growing up means conforming. There is no if, only when.

The film begins as we see the children returning to school. Boxes are unpacked and stories are told in an effort to settle in and catch-up. It's here that director Lindsay Anderson begins to reveal the established hierarchy within the school. A younger student asks an older one a question and he's quickly reminded that he is not to speak to the older students. Amongst all this, we are first introduced to Mick Travis as he enters the school with a scarf around his face. He's keeping a well-groomed mustache under wraps. The scarf isn't on his face long, neither is his mustache, but it's an interesting look into Mick's character. He wants to hide his manhood because ultimately it means more would be expected of him. As a grown up, he would be expected to conform. He also wants to hide his rebellion. A mustache would certainly be frowned upon (Mick and his friends are often being for their long hair) and would start his year off on the wrong side of the Whips, a group of self-appointed seniors who enforce order. Although he's not parading it around, he knows its there and his quiet dissent is enough for him. At least for now.

On the surface, the story of if... is simple enough. It follows life within the walls of a an all-boys school in England. Of course, life within the walls is not simple. Even without weapons, an all-boys school is a powder keg just waiting to go off. As my son enters his teen years, I can't imagine a worse thing than to send him away to school. These are such important years. To realize emotions. To test boundaries. To explore independence. Only all of those things run counter to the mission of a private school. As a result, you create two types of students. Those who aspire to be Whips and those who don't. Being a Whip not only represents complete conformity to the establishment, it represents a crusaders mentality. What's funny is that Mick and his friends Wallace (Richard Warwick) and Johnny (David Wood) never really act-out in the true sense of the word. They are not disrespectful in class. They are not bullies in the hallways (they're rebellion is really nothing more than sitting in a room drinking and smoking). It's their disinterest that gets them into trouble. Because they are not openly falling-in-line, they are seen as out-of-line.

What I liked most about
if... is the way that Anderson tells the story. His camera is so loose that the film comes off almost as if it is a documentary. Nothing seems staged. Or acted out. It appears as if Anderson just happens to be in the right place to catch life happening among these students. Because of this, there's a subtlety to the message that I appreciated. It's hard to watch this and not rifle through all the other movies you've seen about private schools or teen rebellion. Movies like Taps, Battle Royale, Brick, The Outsiders, The Blackboard Jungle and A Clockwork Orange to name a very few. Of course, when watching the ending of the film, one can't help but think of the Columbine massacre and Van Sant's Elephant. But what I appreciated about this film is that I didn't feel bludgeoned about the head at the end of it. In the end, Mick's rebellion against the school is no more harmful a gesture than growing his mustache. Anderson didn't feel the need to have a bloodbath to hit home his point. And what's further, he didn't feel the need to show moments of Mick and his friends boiling over to build for the climax. There were no scenes where Mick declares his inability to take it any more. Or his declaration of vengeance for one of the Whips. The pre-meditation is barely there. It's almost as if the guys said "hey, let's give this a try and see how it goes." Modern day cinema could take a page from this.

There are elements of this film that are either so noticeable, or so pivotal to the movie that they must be mentioned. The first one is the use of color and black and white in the film. It's not as alarming to someone who has sat through an Oliver Stone movie, but I can only imagine how interesting it would have been at the time. I tried to put rhyme and reason to it, but then discovered I was missing the point. To me, the use of black and white is Anderson further blurring the lines between fact and fantasy within the story. And speaking of fantasy, there's The Girl (Christine Noonan) who makes periodic appearances throughout the film. In my mind, she could be a lot of things. A muse. An animal instinct. Or she could simply be Mick's manhood. By being the curvy, voluptuous thing she is, she literally represents Mick's desire. And finally, there are the homosexual undertones that run throughout the film. Anderson treats this with the subtlety of the rest of the film. With the Whips, it's seen as another act of conformity. While in their room, they speak of their young assistants almost as lovers and Rowntree (Robert Swan) even goes as far as prodding another Whip to get a cuter assistant. And maybe one of the most interesting scenes in the movie watches a young student Bobby Phillips (Rupert Webster) gaze upon Wallace as he performs a gymnastics routine. While this is one of the scenes that feels more staged in its framing, it's still handled beautifully by Anderson because he lets the camera tell the story. When the two appear in bed later, it's not shocking because they have already shared that previous moment.

All of this builds to the climactic finale of the film. What I think is interesting is that the discipline of the school is driven by the students (the Whips), not the faculty. But the attack by Wallace and company is clearly aimed at the entire school. It's the individual that's the oppressor, and yet everyone is lumped together as one large foe. As a judgment call made by a confused and angry teenager, I understand it. But as a larger statement about tearing down walls, I find it a bit confusing. I suppose one could say that the Whips are a product of the establishment, but I'm not sure I'm sold on that. It's clear that Rowntree is behind the school's strict standards. That they are driving it, not being driven to it. There's a scene with Rowntree and the Headmaster, where it's clear that Rowntree is leading the charge. The Headmaster agrees to this, but does so reluctantly. And if the Whips are the establishment, then why not go after them individually? This story almost begs for peaceful resistance. For Mick and his friends to break down the hierarchy that exists with the students. But how do you do that by killing all of them? Of course, no one really dies, but it's almost as if Lindsay Anderson is so fed up with the whole thing, he's preaching a complete cleansing to start all over again. Mick says "war is the last possible creative act." It's a strange statement to make, but he's not talking about one Super Power taking on another. He's talking about taking on the establishment. And when you do that, in an act of creativity, all the rules must be broken.

I am not old enough to be a child of the 60s. I missed it by a couple of years, so I was not alive to experience the true significance of this film. But over 40 years later, it's message still rings true. We say our kids grow up so fast as if it's a bad thing, but the truth is we want them to. We want them to act like men, or women, so they behave. And there's no if about it. It would be nice to say that 40 years later, a lot has changed from this message, but in truth it hasn't. Out in the open, we champion individuality and creativity, but behind doors, we try to suppress it. Because creativity, by nature, challenges the rules. And conformity is so much easier a subject to teach.

So those are my thoughts. And I reserve the right to be completely wrong about all of it. What are yours?

And bonus points to the person who can tell me how many times I used the word "if."

Saturday, September 12, 2009

DePalma Blog A Thon: Phantom Of The Paradise

This is my entry for The DePalma Blog-a-Thon going on at Cinema Viewfinder which Tony posted this morning.

While it's easy to dismiss Brian DePalma's Phantom of the Paradise or at least forget about it, I might make an argument that it's one of his purest pieces of work. Or I might not make that argument at all. We'll just have to see.

Phantom of the Paradise is one raw piece of meat. It's a cobbled together piece with mostly unknowns who poorly lip-sync to catchy pop by Paul Williams. And damn if it isn't a beautiful thing. I wouldn't go as far as describing Phantom as a throw away film, but when looking at DePalma's scope of work it comes off like that. A movie that feels like it was made over a weekend with some friends on the thinnest of shoestrings. It's far from perfect, but there's a fuck-it spontaneity about it that makes me want to revisit it over and over again.

The synopsis is familiar if you're familiar with Phantom of the Opera and Faust. Talented artist falls for beautiful singer. Talented artist becomes horribly disfigured. Newly disfigured talented artist declares his love for beautiful singer by writing her a cantata to perform. Devil steals the soul of the now not so newly disfigured talented artist along with the cantata and the beautiful singer, thus making the disfigured talented artist a vengeful monster.

The DePalma usual suspects are here. A scene with the Phantom (William Finley) sabotaging a performance at the Paradise is beautifully choreographed and presented in wonderful split-screen. And of course, there's a nod to Hitchcock involving a shower scene with a plunger as the weapon of choice.

Where Phantom of the Paradise takes a well-thought-out turn is in its commentary of the music industry. To me, its message is decades ahead of its time and it's one that has yet to be topped. The Phantom's slow descent into madness has nothing to do with his talent and everything to do with his "look" or lack thereof. There's a great scene where Swan (Paul Williams) is trying to pick the next new sound and it's not unlike watching an episode of American Idol. Music today is all spectacle with a small side of substance and this message is hit home hardest in the finale where a dying Phantom makes pleas for his life to the audience and is dismissed as just an interesting part of the show. In today's bigger is better world filled with nipple slips and seventeen story screens where everything is expect and nothing is surprising, one wonders how far we are from live sacrifices. And if we saw it, would we greet it with cheers or shrieks?

It's hard to watch Phantom of the Paradise and not think "they sure don't make them like they used to." That's less a statement about quality and more of a statement about trailblazing. About putting stuff out there for people to love or hate, without overthinking if they're going to love or hate it. Phantom feels like an experiment in filmmaking. Not a complete success, nor a complete failure, but a positive step for a filmmaker on his way to a brilliant career.

Friday, September 11, 2009

I've never seen Bye Bye Birdie. And thanks to this clip which I saw on Mad Men a week ago, I don't think I ever will. Wait, let me clarify. I know I will never see it.

This really bums me out because I thought Anne Margaret could do no wrong. And yet, here we are.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

The Brian DePalma Blog-A-Thon Is On Now

Tony Dayoub over at Cinema Viewfinder is hosting a most awesome blog-a-thon for one of my favorite directors. Be sure to check it out.

Friday, September 4, 2009

It's Nice To See Tim Burton Producing Good Movies Instead Of Producing Bad Movies

Did you get that headline? Did you? See what I did is use the word Produced in two different ways. Get it? See, Tim Burton is "Producing" the upcoming movie 9 and it looks to be pretty good. And he's the "Producer" on it. On junk like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, he's just the director. But he still "Producing" work, even though he doesn't actually have the title of "Producer" on the work. Are you getting any of this? Cause it's pretty damn good and kind of heady. Honestly, I'm not sure I get the joke anymore. Wait. Hang on. Okay, I still get it and yeah, it's pretty good.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Mark Them Calendars. There's A TOERIFC Conversation Going On September 14th

Membership in The Oldest Established Really Important Film Club has its privileges. For instance, if I'm stuck in a Third World Country and have lost all my money, TOERIFC will front me some cash. The down side of that is that you have to then do "favors" for Greg at Cinema Styles and those "favors" are unspeakable.

But that's not really important right now. What's important is that I'm hosting this month's discussion about the film If... I chose it solely for the ellipses because I do love those so.

So once again, mark your calendars for September 14th and I hope to see you here.