Monthly Archive for January, 2009

Back to School

Back to School (1/31/09) AT&T Video On Demand (1986 ***1/4) Directed by Alan Metter, starring Rodney Dangerfield. Clothing raconteur Thornton Melon wants to reconnect with his son, and so he goes… c‘mon, are you really going to make me write it? Talk about high concept comedy! I hadn’t watched this film since sometime in the early 1990’s, though I’ve noticed it playing frequently on Comedy Central recently. Back to School was made in the irreverent comedy tradition of Animal House (1978), Meatballs (1979), and Caddyshack (1980) and holds up surprisingly well. On an intellectual level — not necessarily the best level on which to appreciate this movie — it’s interesting that Dangerfield (who was well into his 60’s when he made this film) had the youth appeal he did. But there was something undeniably likable about him, and the movie wouldn’t have worked if he hadn’t. In addition to Dangerfield, the film had a strong supporting cast, including Sally Kellerman, Ned Beatty, Burt Young, Sam Kinison and a young and wacky Robert Downey Jr. The film also featured one of Danny Elfman’s first soundtracks, coming shortly after Pee Wee’s Big Adventure (1985), and he and Oingo Boingo even made a brief cameo appearance.

The Poseidon Adventure

The Poseidon Adventure (1/29/09) TV-FMC (1972 ***1/4) Directed by Ronald Neame, produced by Irwin Allen, starring Gene Hackman, Ernest Borgnine and a star-studded cast. I have really been taking a lot of walks down memory lane lately. I saw this movie when it was first released and I begged my mother to take me to it a second time. I completely identified with the little boy played by Eric Shea. As I watched it, 36 years later, I still felt occasional echoes of that feeling of connection. I’m embarrassed to admit it, but he’s still the character I identify with the most. The Irwin Allen production values reminded me of made-for-TV movies of the mid-1970’s, like a very special episode of The Love Boat. Still, there was something compelling about the film, even if the entire plot really consisted of a small group of people getting from point A to B to C to D before the rising waters caught up to them.

The Nutty Professor (1963)

The Nutty Professor (1963) (1/29/09) TV-TMC (1963 ***¼) Directed by Jerry Lewis, screenplay by Jerry Lewis and Bill Richmond, starring Jerry Lewis and Stella Stevens. I remember seeing this movie on TV several times when I was a kid. It’s very possible that the last time I watched it I might have still been in single digits, which is probably the perfect age to watch a Jerry Lewis movie. Though the movie was made up largely of physical humor set pieces (e.g. Jerry Lewis goes to Vic Tanny), I still recall being moved during Lewis’ final on-stage transformation from Buddy Love back to Professor Kelp. His speech about “liking yourself” might have been trite, but as a child it spoke to me. As an adult, not so much, but I appreciated Lewis’ attempt to turn his own brand of comedy into something heartfelt.

Gerry

Gerry (1/28/09) TV-IFC (2002 *1/2) Directed by Gus Van Sant, starring Casey Affleck and Matt Damon. What’s it like to get lost in the desert without food or water, to stumble stupidly into a life-threatening situation? In other words, what’s it like to (as the kids say) “fuck up royally?” In the movie, the act of fucking up is frequently referred to as a “Gerry,” which, by a strange coincidence, is also the name of both main characters. According to imdb.com, this 100-minute movie was composed of exactly 100 shots. I didn’t know that when I watched the film, but it explains its pace, which was sometimes almost unbearable. This movie falls soundly into the “not for everybody” category. I’d be hard-pressed to recommend it to anyone for reasons other than academic. Funny thing is, I’d wanted to watch it since I first heard of the premise; there was something in it intrigued me. Was I disappointed? Not exactly. I wanted to see it through, but I also wanted it to end.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (1/27/09) DWA Screening (2008 ****) Directed by David Fincher, screenplay by Eric Roth, starring Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett. There have been many comparisons between this film and Forrest Gump (1994), especially since Eric Roth wrote the screenplays for both. If you want to make that comparison, go ahead. As characters, Button and Gump (doesn’t that sound like a burlesque comedy duo?) had southern drawls and were oddly passive emotionally. This film was undoubtedly less commercial and slightly more mature than Forrest Gump, but that sophistication only went so far. If you want to make comparisons, I personally thought it reminded me a hell of a lot more of the novel The Time Traveler’s Wife, in that it portrayed a love between a man and a woman taking place under unique temporal circumstances. I was certainly emotionally moved (some may say manipulated) by Benjamin Button, and I left the screening room with a tear in my eye and a sniffle in my nose, thinking about my own mortality and that of my loved ones. Now for the big question: Is it Oscar-worthy? While I gave both this film and Slumdog Millionaire four stars, I still think Slumdog will take home the Oscar.

Woody Allen: A Life in Film

Woody Allen: A Life in Film (1/25/09) TV-TCM (2002 ***½) Directed by Richard Schickel. For a Woody Allen fan like me, this documentary was something of a dream come true. The premise was simplicity itself: Proceeding chronologically, Woody Allen talked about his films (not so much his life), and he did so in what appeared to be a humble, honest fashion. Very sweet. I saw him speak a few years ago before a screening of Match Point (2005), and he was similarly endearing. This documentary wasn’t quite exhaustive; a number of films were skipped over, and that was a little disappointing. Seriously, I’m a big enough fan I would have gladly watched a version three times as long. I also wished the film had been made more recently, so it could have included some of his more recent work, but I suppose that’s kind of a silly thing to wish for. Woody finished his discussion with Hollywood Ending (2002), not one of my favorite films, though according to the interview he considered it a success. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if I learned this documentary was made in connection with the publicity for that film.

Slumdog Millionaire

Slumdog Millionaire (1/25/09) Glendale Americana (2008 ****) Directed by Danny Boyle, starring Dev Patel and Freida Pinto. I was absolutely ashamed when they recently announced the five nominees for Best Film that I’d seen none of them. And here I am, some kind of fancy movie-reviewing dude. They’re going to ask me to turn in my special internet critic hat and card! Every indication is that Slumdog Millionaire is the odds-on favorite to take home the big prize on February 22nd. It’s certainly the best picture I’ve seen in a long time. What I think really makes this film work is its near-perfect mix of: (1) the familiar; (2) the exotic; and (3) the clever. Who doesn’t want a yearning for love that began in childhood to be satisfied? Who doesn’t want an underdog to succeed against all odds? This was a smart, heartfelt film, and it probably deserves to win. It wasn’t particularly deep, but in the race for Best Picture that’s always been a forgivable sin. I haven’t seen the other four nominees — yet — so I can’t say for certain, but I won’t be surprised one bit if Slumdog Millionaire wins. Yes, kids, that’s Slumdog Millionaire. Ask for it by name.

Bombshell

Bombshell (1/24/09) TV-TCM (1933 **½) Directed by Victor Fleming, starring Jean Harlow, Frank Morgan and Lee Tracy as Space Hanlon. Who ever heard of anybody named “Space,” anyhow? Bombshell‘s apparent mission was to satirize Harlow and other stars of the era who had a lot of hangers-on and deadbeat relatives. Poor them. Much of the dialogue was yelled instead of spoken, and BOY DID THAT GET GRATING! Not too long ago I had a similar problem with Libeled Lady (1936), which also featured Harlow. It must have been a trend of the times and a staple of screwball comedies. I’m not sorry I watched this movie, though I hoped it would be better. My #1 complaint story-wise, was that Harlow’s character started out smart, but late in the film (in service of the plot) took a sudden turn for the dumb.

Father Goose

Father Goose (1/21/09) TV-TCM (1964 **1/2) Directed by Ralph Nelson, screenplay by S.H. Barnett & Peter Stone, starring Cary Grant and Leslie Caron. In this light-hearted romp, Grant plays an alcoholic coerced into manning an island outpost in the South Pacific during WWII. His solitude is interrupted by a teacher (Caron) and her seven young female students. This film was released the year I was born; I don’t believe I’ve watched it all the way through since I was very young, maybe eleven or twelve. However, during the early days of cable TV (in the early 1980’s) I swear Father Goose played virtually every day on TBS. I never thought much of it — it seemed innocuous enough, sharing its comedic roots with Mister Roberts (1955), Operation Petticoat (1959) and the TV show McHale’s Navy (1962-66). Father Goose is what my wife kindly describes as “of an era.” I was surprised the film’s screenplay won the Academy Award in 1965, and it made me wonder what other films were eligible for competition that year. This was Cary Grant’s second to last film; He closed his career with Walk Don’t Run (a film I’ve never seen) in 1966.

The Hotel New Hampshire

The Hotel New Hampshire (1/21/09) Novel (1981 ****) Written by John Irving. Have you ever had a book it just took you forever to finish? I feel like I’ve been trying to finish the last 75 pages of this 450-page book since getting back from vacation two weeks ago. Oh well. What a wonderful book, written by one of my favorite authors. As I read — mostly during my recent cruise — I kept flashing back to a Christmas break many, many years ago. I was home from college, a sophomore or junior, and I spent much my reading time in my grandfather’s old room, just a couple of years after he’d died. It was a very appropriate setting for reading this book, I think. When most people think of The Hotel New Hampshire (or the subsequent movie), they usually focus on the incestuous relationship between the narrator and his sister. While that’s fair, it’s far from the emotional center of the book, which was a loving portrait of a family who lived in three different “Hotel New Hampshires.” Each member of the Berry family was a fully-realized, memorable individual — I loved that Irving hit the ground running, painting the differences between them all from the first pages. Like much of Irving’s writing (especially A Prayer for Owen Meaney and The Cider House Rules), this book was very Dickensian in tone and scope, and that is part of its charm. I find something quite comforting in the literary tradition of following rich characters as they trace the trajectory of their lives. The end result is so satisfying. In this case I read the final pages (finishing it during my lunch hour) with a tear in my eye, ending the book grateful for (and richer for) the experience.