Friday, July 29, 2011
Mock 'n' roll
By Edward Copeland
Near the beginning of David Holzman's Diary, the filmmaker of the title speaks directly to us as he explains his idea to find himself by making a documentary of his life. He repeats Godard's famous quote, "Film is truth 24 times a second," only he omits the ending of Godard's statement which says, "and every cut is a lie." Of course, if Holzman finished the quote, he might give away the game because when director Jim McBride's film began to screen in 1967, many thought it was an actual documentary. It wasn't until the end credits appeared and viewers learned that Holzman was played by an actor, L.M. Kit Carson, and the film had a screenplay that they realized they'd been had by a deadpan satire of the cinéma vérité-style of documentary prevalent at the time. More importantly, the mockumentary was born, inventing a practical cottage industry spanning from Woody Allen's Take the Money and Run in 1969 through the current Emmy-winning sitcom Modern Family with much in between.
I'd never seen David Holzman's Diary which isn't surprising since, despite its acclaim, including being added to the National Film Registry in 1991, the film never had a real release in the United States outside of film festivals, film schools and museums. It received more attention in Europe before gaining notice in the U.S. and has never received a Region 1 DVD release, though that will soon be rectified. I only was able to see the film thanks to the good people at Fandor, who invited me to review ahead of it being the first of its new program of coordinated digital-theatrical releases. Unfortunately, at the time I was swamped with projects and my weekly Treme recaps. Fandor was kind enough to send me a screener anyway and I finally got a chance to watch it and this is the first chance I've had to write on it. Right now, the only place people in America without a region-free DVD player (or a still-working laserdisc player and the old Criterion laserdisc) can see David Holzman's Diary is on Fandor. However, Kino Lorber announced on its blog that it will release a special edition of the film on DVD and Blu-ray on Aug. 16 and it's available for pre-ordering now. Whether any other home rental services will acquire the film is another story.
Now when I began watching David Holzman's Diary, I knew it was a joke, so it's interesting to consider how the reaction differs for someone going in knowing a spoof is at hand versus someone who doesn't. (To peer inside a time capsule, check out this 1971 review from The Harvard Crimson where the writer was "moved" by the film until the credits pulled the rug out from beneath him, revealing the joke, and starting an argument with a friend over whether or not to mention that it wasn't real in the review.) This isn't the type of laugh-out-loud mockumentary we've grown accustomed to as with the best of the Christopher Guest films, This Is Spinal Tap! or Woody Allen's Zelig. Diary will bemuse you more than it strains your stomach muscles from strenuous chuckling but that's because while the film has humor within it, its real targets reside outside the movie itself. If you see or re-watch some of those real cinéma vérité documentaries, that might be where you'll have delayed reactions to some of the setups that David Holzman's Diary provides.
That doesn't mean Holzman's Diary lacks funny moments all its own. It contains plenty, such as when David interviews Pepe (Lorenzo Mans) who suggests that Holzman's life just doesn't justify a movie, saying it's not an "interesting script." There is the priceless near-monologue that Sandra (Louise Levine) delivers from her car on a Manhattan street that McBride said in an interview was mostly improvised and occurred by happenstance. Then, there are all the moments involving David and his love Penny (Eileen Dietz), who does her best to stay away from Holzman's camera, prompting her boyfriend to say that he just doesn't "get her sense of privacy," something that will send her heading for the door eventually and foretells the morphing of that documentary style he's spoofing into reality TV, such as covered in the HBO movie Cinéma Vérité earlier this year that told the story of the making of the landmark PBS series An American Family about the Loud family. In a way, it also predicts part of the outcome for the Louds as well as making the film nearly destroys David's life as An American Family did a number on the Loud family as well. Strikingly, while David Holzman's Diary might be a spoof of a very particular style of documentary filmmaking, when it's dealing with David coping with his flailing relationship with Penny, it reminded me of a real and great documentary that wouldn't come out until nearly 20 years later: Ross McElwee's Sherman's March, when McElwee's planned documentary about the path the legendary Civil War general took gets derailed by the breakup with his girlfriend.
While David Holzman's Diary isn't a real documentary, it does display its own sense of truth in terms of time and place by showing in crisp black-and-white, a view of N.Y. neighborhoods on the Upper West Side at that time. In another sequence where David films himself flipping through TV channels, you catch quick glimpses of Batman and Star Trek, which would have been in first run. The movie was filmed by Michael Wadleigh (though his name is spelled Wadley in the credits) who would go on to direct one of the great music and cultural documentaries two years later, Woodstock.
Considering that David Holzman's Diary was made 44 years ago, Jim McBride actually has a rather slim directing resume. In the seven years after Diary, McBride made three short real documentaries and two features, but then he didn't helm another film until the 1983 remake of Breathless starring Richard Gere. (What would David Holzman think of McBride daring to remake Godard's French New Wave classic?) His next two films were much better: The Big Easy and Great Balls of Fire, both starring Dennis Quaid, but most of his directing work has been on television, including several episodes of The Wonder Years. I guess you can't take McBride out of that era.
Thankfully, he gave us David Holzman's Diary and even better it has finally returned where more film enthusiasts can have access to it. With all the upheaval with formats, Net Neutrality fights in Congress that could affect streaming and a shaky economy that might someday soon make it so only people of means will be able to afford entertainment, it's good to know we have this window to see David Holzman's Diary so it doesn't vanish as I fear so many film titles will (with book titles possibly not that far behind).
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Thursday, July 28, 2011
Curiouser and Curiouser
By Damian Arlyn
Alice in Wonderland is Disney's most bizarre animated feature. In choosing to adapt the British fantasy novels Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, Disney jettisoned his usual strong narrative backbone and compelling characters for a series of absurd, drug-induced comic vignettes populated with characters of varying degrees of insanity. The resulting product is indeed lively, colorful and humorous at times but it is also dark, disturbing and ultimately emotionally un-involving. It also, in the eyes of many literary critics, distorts its beloved source material beyond all recognition. For these reasons, Alice in Wonderland was a critical and financial disappointment when it premiered in theaters on July 28, 1951. So why are we still talking about it 60 years later? Why, in spite of these shortcomings, is Alice in Wonderland considered by many to be, if not quite on the same level as Snow White or Pinocchio, a Disney classic today? My guess is because children love it and they are ultimately the audience for whom Disney made the film.
Walt had long wanted to make a feature based on the Alice stories penned by the British author, mathematician and logician Charles Dodgson (a.k.a. Lewis Carroll). He had considered it at one time as his debut animated feature and had returned to it many times over the years as a possible combo live-action/animation movie (much like what would eventually be seen in those now famous sequences from Mary Poppins and Bedknobs and Broomsticks). However, it wasn't until 1946 that work actually began on the project that would eventually become Alice in Wonderland and in the end Disney wisely decided to make it completely animated. In many respects, animation was the perfect medium for the fantastic tale of a proper British girl who falls down a rabbit hole and ends up in a land of nonsense and madness. Nowadays, of course, it is far easier to depict such a world with CGI (and indeed Tim Burton recently fashioned a lavish, whimsical and obscenely successful semi-sequel, with his friend Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter, doing just that) but in 1951, this was the closest one could get to seeing such fanciful images come to life on a screen.
It probably seems redundant to compliment a Disney film on the quality of its animation (like complimenting Muhammad Ali on his boxing ability), but the animation on display in Alice in Wonderland is indeed superb and should be acknowledged. Disney animators have always had a knack for drawing engaging, believable characters and here they have outdone themselves creating beings who were not only soft, cute and often cuddly, but also odd, grotesque and sometimes downright scary. For example, while the Queen of Hearts never comes off as more than an ill-tempered bully, that memorable feline known as the Cheshire Cat so delights in his lunacy that he has actually been compared by some to Hannibal Lecter. Furthermore, as Alice makes her way through the strange, alien world that she has (literally) stumbled upon, we are treated to some stunning visuals all around her. Perhaps because the animators and background artists were usually rendering relatively realistic environments in films such as Bambi, this time they had far more room to let their imaginations run wild.
Music has always been a strong element in Disney films and this one in particular is also very music-heavy. Some songs feature lyrics taken from Carroll's text (such as "The Walrus and the Carpenter" and "Twas Brilig") but many are original tunes written specifically for the movie. None of them are as iconic as "When You Wish Upon a Star" or even as supremely catchy as something like "Bippity Boppity-Boo" but a few are memorable enough to warrant humming afterward (including "The Un-birthday song" and "Painting the Roses Red"). The voice acting, provided by a cast of Disney regulars, is uniformly good. Ed Wynn as the Mad Hatter, Sterling Holloway as the Cheshire Cat and Verna Felton as the Queen are particular standouts.
Despite of all its technical achievements, Alice in Wonderland ultimately fails to resonate. The lack of an actual plot on which to hang the series of outrageous episodes, gives the film an aimless, meandering feeling. Also, Alice is one of the more annoying Disney protagonists (the actress voicing the character, Kathryn Beaumont, does a decent enough job but her talents were put to much better use as Wendy Darling in Disney's Peter Pan released two years later). From the beginning she seems like an arrogant, spoiled child who has no real arc nor comes to any kind of self-realization (other than that she wants to get home). Disney himself even admitted that she wasn't very likable. However, in spite of (or perhaps because of) these flaws, Alice in Wonderland still is a beloved entry in Disney's canon of animated features. I remember watching it all the time as a youngster and, though not understanding everything that was going on, enjoying it nonetheless. Though I still have affection for it, I had to grow up to realize how mediocre it is compared to Disney's usual fare. The anarchic tenor, "stream-of-consciousness" transitions between the set pieces and wacky slapstick-oriented antics are exactly the sort of things that appeal to a youngster who is no older than seven. A child won't be bothered by the lack of story, depth in character or logical coherence to the events occurring on screen. They're not going to care a fig for Carroll's satirical symbolism or his wonderful use of the English language that Disney virtually ignored. They'll simply follow Alice on her trek through this bizarre world that feels a lot like a dream (which, in fact, it turns out to be in the end) laughing at the sheer silliness of it all and then when it's over, move on to the next thing. It is, in some respects, the perfect "children's animated film" and in that regard at least, Disney succeeded in what he set out to do.
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Showing not telling
By Edward Copeland
When the Welsh documentary Sleep Furiously begins, a colorfully costumed man traverses a barren rural road bearing a walking stick, followed by two small dogs, ringing a bell. Promotional photos identify the individual as the town crier, but he's not relaying any news, not that anyone is near to hear it if he had anything to share. That's similar to the approach director Gideon Koppel takes with his unusual documentary about a small farming community in mid-Wales. The film, which played around Europe and the U.K. in 2008 and 2009, will make its U.S. theatrical release debut Friday at New York's Cinema Village while, beginning at midnight Eastern time Sleep Furiously also will be available for 24 hours online at Fandor.com along with its companion featurette A Sketchbook for the Library Van. Following that 24 hour period, Sleep Furiously will vanish from Fandor's library as it continues to play theatrically but A Sketchbook for the Library Van, a shorter film Koppel made that enabled him to make Sleep Furiously, will remain on Fandor.
Sleep Furiously is the second time a film's distributor, in this case Microcinema International, has teamed with Fandor to pioneer a new way of coordinated digital-theatrical releasing of films. Fandor's first effort came in June with the re-release of the previously unavailable classic 1967 mockumentary David Holtzman's Diary, which I will review tomorrow. For most living in America, Fandor remains the only place David Holtzman's Diary can be seen since it has never been released on a Region 1 DVD, though Kino Lorber has announced that a DVD and Blu-ray are forthcoming on Aug. 16 and are available for pre-ordering now.
In Koppel's director statement that's included in press materials, he emphasizes that when he set out to make Sleep Furiously, he sought to make a film that was "evocative" of the mid-Wales farming community of Trefeurig where his Jewish parents sought refuge rather than being "about" the area as you would find in a more typical documentary and that's exactly what he does.
The title's origin comes from a sentence composed by Noam Chomsky in 1955 that said "Colorless green ideas sleep furiously." Chomsky was making the point that a sentence could be grammatically correct while at the same time being semantically nonsensical. That serves as a useful bookend for the quote that closes the film:
With the exception of John Jones, who drives The Library Van, this isn't a documentary where you really get to know the inhabitants of Trefeurig. Instead, Koppel just turns his camera on and observes what goes on, leisurely moving from school art classes to sheep shearing, from everyday conversations to town meetings about the school's closing. You'll hear children rehearse music over images of a farmer gathering bales of hay. A downpour won't stop the judging of a dog show and the pooches, some wearing raincoats, will receive ribbons. You'll see lots of dogs, though I admit I was disappointed to only see one example of the corgi breed that my late Leland was since Wales is her breed's ancestral home. Often, you'll just gaze at the beautiful imagery such as a time-lapse sequence when we watch the clouds move across the horizon, changing the shadows being cast across a lakeshore.
Seasons change, sometimes people speak (in Welsh as well as English) and the pastoral beauty of the landscape blends beautifully with the electronic musical score of Aphex Twin. The synopsis states that Sleep Furiously shows a dying way of life in terms of an agricultural community giving way to a mechanized world, but I didn't really take that away from the film. It's more a tone poem about Trefeurig than a documentary of its demise.
The featurette by Gideon Koppel, A Sketchbook for The Library Van, works almost as the exact opposite of Sleep Furiously. Koppel filmed it in 2005 as he was seeking funding to make Sleep Furiously.
Filmed in black and white, while there are some shots of Trefeurig and The Library Van, the bulk of its running time consists of members of the community standing against a white background and sharing tales about themselves and Trefeurig. In a way, it might be more interesting to watch Sketchbook first so when some of the same people pop up in Sleep Furiously you'll have a better idea who they are.
The one detail both films have in a common is the focus on The Library Van, which is interesting, considering what a small, rural area John Jones continues to service, bringing books, in both Welsh and English, to members of the community to read. The synopsis may say the feature's emphasizes the dying of a way of life, but really both Sleep Furiously and the short may have agriculture in their hearts, but they have reading on their minds and that's always a good thing — and while some modernization inevitably occurs, at least they know nothing of a Kindle and read the way you should.
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Wednesday, July 27, 2011
Retro feel avenges previous bad Caps
The popular comic book superhero Captain America had his debut in March 1941 courtesy of Joe Simon and Jack Kirby who created him as a patriotic symbol in response to the actions of Nazi Germany leading up to the United States’ involvement in World War II. Like any enduring comic book icon, Cap has undergone all kinds of changes over the years but has had few cinematic incarnations. He first appeared on film in a 1944 serial and then in a 1990 film that was so ill-conceived that it was released direct to home video in North America. One problem with the character is that his costume did not translate well to a live-action film. It didn’t help that at the time of the 1990 version, Marvel Comics, which owned the character, had little interest in cinematic adaptations of its titles until X-Men (2000) proved to be a surprise hit.
Since then, they’ve had a spotty track record with their properties. The Blade and Iron Man series were very successful but both Daredevil (2003) and Ghost Rider (2007) were box office and critical failures respectively. Part of the problem is the talent attached to these films. Getting the right director and cast that understand the characters and the worlds they inhabit is crucial and explains why the first two X-Men films were so good. For Captain America: The First Avenger (2011), the powers that be wisely hired Joe Johnston to direct. Since it was decided to set the film during World War II, who better to recapture that old school action/adventure vibe then the man who helmed The Rocketeer (1991) and Hidalgo (2004)? For the pivotal role of Captain America, Chris Evans was cast. He already had experience with superhero films playing the Human Torch in the awful Fantastic Four films and, as a result, was understandably reluctant to take on another comic book adaptation. The question remained, how would such an earnest, idealistic character translate in our cynical times and would moviegoing audiences be able to relate to him? Judging by its opening weekend box office haul, quite well indeed.
Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is a skinny weakling who just wants to do his part for his country during wartime but he’s wracked with too many health problems to join the Army. So, he volunteers for a risky top-secret experimental program known as Project Rebirth run by Col. Chester Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones at his crusty, ornery best) and Peggy Carter (charmingly played by Hayley Atwell). Rogers may not be physically strong but he’s brave, determined and willing to sacrifice himself for the greater good. Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci) and Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper) conduct the actual procedure that transforms Rogers into the perfect physical specimen, a Super Soldier complete with superior strength and agility.
Instead of putting him on the front lines where he wants to be, Rogers dons a corny costume (that pokes fun at previous cinematic incarnations), gets dubbed Captain America and is ordered to sell war bonds to the American public in a lame dog and pony show. While entertaining American troops in Italy, he hears that his best friend Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) has been captured by Hydra, a research wing of the Nazis that is so ambitious that it split from the Germans for playing it too safe. With Peggy and Stark’s help, Rogers disobeys orders to rescue his friend and 400 prisoners of war. Meanwhile, Hydra leaders Dr. Arnim Zola (Toby Jones) and Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving) have discovered the Tesseract, a cosmic cube endowed with powerful magical energy that they harness so that it can be used to not only win the war but also take over the world. Schmidt was the first recipient of the Super Soldier formula and it transformed him into the Red Skull, a hideous-looking evil genius.
Hugo Weaving brings a suitably creepy menace to the role of the power hungry Red Skull aided in large part by the impressive and appropriately garish makeup job. Hayley Atwell is downright delightful as the brassy dame Peggy Carter who is more than capable of taking care of herself. The chemistry between her character and Rogers is nicely realized with snappy, slyly flirty dialogue reminiscent of a Howard Hawks film. The screenplay, written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, does a nice job of developing their relationship over time, keeping their romance simmering just beneath the surface for most of the film until its tragic conclusion that carries a surprising emotional resonance because we’ve become invested in them. After all kinds of supporting roles over the years, Chris Evans finally gets to prove that he has the chops to carry a big budget blockbuster. He brings a no-nonsense charisma to the role and conveys Cap’s idealism without coming across as forced or phony.
Joe Johnston brings the same old school classic Hollywood vibe he brought to The Rocketeer complete with a refreshing lack of cynicism and irony as he delivers a straight-forward action/adventure tale. And like with that previous film, he includes all sorts of nice comic book touches, such as the introduction of the Howling Commandos, a ragtag group of soldiers that fought alongside Nick Fury in the comics and fight with Cap in the film. In particular, the actors who play Dum Dum Dugan (Neal McDonough) and Gabe Jones (Derek Luke) bear an uncanny resemblance to their comic book counterparts right down to how they look and act. Unlike Zack Snyder (Watchmen), who imposes too much of his personal style, Johnston understands that the film’s style should service the story — anything else is a distraction. He even employs Snyder’s trademark “speed-ramping” technique but in a way that fits seamlessly with the action sequences, which are exciting and expertly choreographed, devoid of schizophrenic editing. You always know who is fighting whom and where. Captain America is quite simply a flat-out entertaining film.
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Tuesday, July 26, 2011
The twilight of an extraordinary life
By Edward Copeland
When Charles Nelson Reilly died in 2007, the percentage of people who knew who he was by name, unfortunately, already had fallen precipitously. Thankfully, in the final years of his life the theater actor turned game show fixture had developed and toured in a solo show about his life called Save It for the Stage. Even though Reilly had stopped touring with the show, The Life of Reilly's co-directors Frank L. Anderson and Barry Polterman talked him into performing it one more time in October 2004 so they could film it. As a result, they made this film record of Reilly's remarkable story as only he could tell it.
As title cards explain at the film's opening, the solo show evolved from a talk Reilly was asked to give in 1999. He didn't have anything planned and spoke extemporaneously for more than three hours, enjoying the hell out of it. After that experience, he worked with actor Paul Linke to pare down the show into a more compact running time and Save It for the Stage was born.
While the version of the solo show captured in The Life of Reilly runs half the time that original three-hour speech did, I imagine Reilly would hold your interest at the longer running time based on the nonstop cyclone of energy he becomes as he shares an oral autobiography, beginning with his birth on Jan. 13, 1931, in The Bronx, and the difficulties growing up with his eccentric family, particularly his bigoted mother who was prone to say things such as "I should have thrown away the baby and kept the afterbirth." (She gave the stage show its name because any time young Charles would go on about something, she'd tell him to "Save it for the stage.") He was more enamored with his father who was a commercial artist, drawing beautiful color advertisements. Young Charles struggled in school, not realizing that his problem was his eyesight, not his intelligence, but he always was imaginative from an early age. A particularly poignant portion of the film comes when he describes his mom taking him to his first movie at the Loews Paradise and how he felt "so safe and warm" sitting there in the dark, gazing at those images.
Reilly's first taste of acting came in fourth grade when his teacher offered young Charles the role of Columbus in a class play. His mother was resistant, saying he'd never learn the lines because of his difficulties (still denying that eyesight was the problem) but the teacher talked her into it and his acting career was born in P.S. 53. Around the same time young Mr. Reilly received an opportunity, the elder Mr. Reilly missed a big one.
An artist who worked in black and white fell in love with his father's color artwork and urged him to go to California with him, but Reilly's mother nixed the move because all her relatives were on the East Coast. The man's name was Walt Disney. Soon, advertising turned more to photographs than illustrations and Reilly's father was thrown out of work and into alcoholism and eventually institutionalized, forcing young Charles and his mother to move to Hanover, Conn., to live with his uncle, aunt and grandparents, Swedish immigrants who spoke no English. Eventually, his father rejoined them and his aunt, who had her own problems, agreed to try a new medical procedure: a lobotomy. Though Reilly never dwells on his homosexuality, he tells how the neighbors to that household said that he was a "little odd."
"How do you think I felt being the odd one in that family?" he asks, adding that Eugene O'Neill wouldn't come near that house and that he spent his adolescence in an Ingmar Bergman film. However, he reminds his audience what Mark Twain said about laughter being the same in every language. Reilly's ability to tell these stories, some of them horrifying, and still be able to wring laughs from theatergoers was a great gift indeed and as he set out to act for a living in 1950, his tales of theater and show business prove even more entertaining.
A particularly astounding portion is when he discusses the acting class he attended taught by Uta Hagen at HB Studio, the school she founded with her husband Herbert Berghof. The cost was $3 a week. He reads the roll of his 11 a.m. Tuesday class and it's amazing because every name would achieve success, fame and accolades. Here is the list, minus Reilly, alphabetically:
As Reilly tells it, they all had three things in common: "We wanted to be on stage, none of us had any money and we COULDN'T ACT FOR SHIT!" Reilly adds that if they saw McQueen and Holbrook act out a scene as Biff and Happy Loman from Death of a Salesman one more time, "You'd go out of your fucking mind." He does make the point that people who wanted to act back then actually studied, something not as common as it used to be. By my count, this class (to date) has earned nine Tony Awards out of 30 nominations (11 out of 32 if you toss in Uta Hagen's two wins), six Oscars out of 16 nominations and 11 Emmys out of a whopping 61 nominations. Charles Nelson Reilly himself accounts for a Tony for featured actor in a musical as Bud Frump in the original production of Frank Loesser's How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, a nomination as Cornelius in the original Hello, Dolly! and a nomination for directing the revival of The Gin Game that starred Julie Harris and Charles Durning. Reilly earned three Emmy nominations: for The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, a guest shot on The Drew Carey Show and for reprising the Jose Chung character he created on The X-Files on an episode of Millennium.
As with all struggling actors in New York since the beginning of time, Reilly needed work to pay the bills until he started landing paying parts in production. He was excited when a female friend who worked at NBC got him a meeting with the possibility of on-air work. Reilly arrived and met Vincent J. Donahue, the NBC chief at the time, who dismissively sent him away telling him, "We don't put queers on television." Reilly admits that as hateful as that comment was, it rolled off his back. Words like that didn't bother him as much as coming home to find roaches in his Minute Rice. Though he eventually became somewhat of a gay icon, none of the autobiographical show deals with the difficulties of being a gay actor except for that anecdote and there is no mention of a romantic life. Reilly considered himself an actor first — his sexual orientation was just another aspect his life, just like his bad eyesight. Both were parts of him, but neither defined him.
Reilly lived and breathed theater and that is what he wanted to share with the audiences who came to his shows — the upbringing that got him to that point and how it always was an integral part of his life, even after he became better known for kids' TV shows and Match Game. In 1954, he appeared in 22 off-Broadway shows. His Broadway debut came, ironically, as an understudy for another actor who became a gay icon and game show staple — Paul Lynde. Lynde had to be out of Bye Bye Birdie every Thursday night because of a contract to appear on The Perry Como Show, so Reilly took his place once a week. Eventually, he also got to be Dick Van Dyke's understudy in the musical.
He discusses how his close friendship with Burt Reynolds began in New York when Reynolds was a struggling actor and then decades later, when Reynolds built his theater in Jupiter, Fla., he attached an acting school and gave Reilly a beach house to live in so he would teach.
He talks about his times in Hollywood, especially how much he enjoyed being on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson where he was a guest more than 100 times. He talks about one particular time when another guest was a woman who ran a Shakespeare in the Park program in Ohio and he said something and she responded, quite snootily, "What would someone like you know about Shakespeare?" Then he showed her.
Before he taught in Florida, he would teach acting back at that old HB Studio and in a story that particularly cracked me up because it reminded me of my days of both attending and judging high school drama contests almost 25 years ago now, he says, "If I saw one more Agnes of God…" If you've experienced high school drama contests since that play was written, you know exactly what he means (and I'd toss in 'night, Mother as well).
Reilly talks and talks and talks and you're never bored. You're usually laughing, but sometimes, as when he describes being present at 13 at an infamous Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus fire that claimed many lives, including that of one of his childhood friends, you're mesmerized. The Life of Reilly truly captivates. The biggest barrier to enjoying it is finding a way to see it. It's on streaming at Netflix but not DVD, so watch it there before you cancel and go back to DVD only. Neither GreenCine nor Blockbuster carries it on DVD or On Demand. Redbox doesn't carry it. Hulu Plus doesn't stream it. Amazon Instant Video DOES have it for $2.99, though you could buy it for $9.99. Best Buy CinemaNow doesn't have it for streaming. Comcast XfinityTV ON Demand doesn't have it either.
It's a miracle that Netflix's streaming has it right now because eventually, it won't as smaller, wonderful titles such as The Life of Reilly that are a whole FOUR years old and are perceived as having too small a niche audience disappear entirely from home rental availability. It's a shame because it means the number of people who remember Charles Nelson Reilly will decline more rapidly than it is declining already.
Labels: 00s, Awards, Burt Reynolds, Carson, Disney, Documentary, Durning, Frank Loesser, Geraldine Page, Grodin, Holbrook, Ingmar Bergman, Lemmon, Musicals, O'Neill, Oscars, Robards, Shakespeare, Television, Twain
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Monday, July 25, 2011
G.D. Spradlin (1920-2011)
G.D. Spradlin, the man who began his adult life as an Oklahoma oil man before switching careers in his 40s to become an actor, has died at age 90.
Among Spradlin's most notable film roles were as the corrupt senator in Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather Part II and Reverend Lemon, the minister who helped finance an Ed Wood movie in Tim Burton's Ed Wood.
He got his start in the 1960s with guest shots on many television series, especially Westerns. Throughout his career, he often was cast on TV and in film as politicians (Rich Man, Poor Man; Houston: The Legend of Texas; Robert Kennedy & His Times; The Long Kiss Goodnight) or military men (Gomer Pyle; Tora, Tora, Tora; Judgment: The Court-Martial of William Calley; MacArthur; Apocalypse Now; The Lords of Discipline; War and Remembrance).
He even worked with Antonioni on Zabriskie Point as well as films such as Monte Walsh, North Dallas Forty and The War of the Roses. His final role was as Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee in the 1999 Watergate spoof Dick.
To read The L.A. Times obit, click here.
RIP Mr. Spradlin.
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Right back where we started
By Edward Copeland
Documentaries can breed false expectations in a viewer in much the same way a fictional feature can and, unfortunately, that is the case with the latest in HBO Documentary Films' summer series, There's Something Wrong With Aunt Diane. The film sets up a mystery at its outset about what caused a tragic two-car accident that left eight people, including four children, dead, and implies that the filmmakers uncovered new details about the incident. Instead, by the film's end, the viewer arrives where he or she began, only this time asking what the point of the journey was in the first place.
on the Taconic Parkway for almost two miles, crashing and killing eight people
— herself, her daughter, three nieces and all three people in the oncoming vehicle.
That title card appears in There's Something Wrong With Aunt Diane after we hear a flurry of 911 calls from other motorists reporting the minivan driving the wrong way on the freeway as well as concerned relatives who say that the children had called expressing concern about their aunt, saying she wasn't responding to them and was acting strangely and that she wasn't answering her cell phone.
Schuler was heading back to Long Island after a weekend camping trip to upstate New York. She drove the minivan packed with lots of belongings and the kids while her husband Daniel was in another vehicle with the dog and more equipment. A 35-minute drive ended up taking four hours and resulted in one of the worst traffic fatalities in New York state history. The only survivor was her severely injured son Bryan, 5. At first, the well-publicized tragedy led to an outpouring of sympathy for Daniel Schuler and his family, but that all changed nine days later when the toxicology report returned showing Diane had a blood-alcohol level of .19, the equivalent of 10 drinks and twice the legal limit, as well as high levels of THC, the active ingredient in marijuana.
Suddenly, the tide turned and the family was demonized, subject to harassing emails and messages. However, Daniel and his sister-in-law, Jay Hanse, refused to believe this could be the truth and set out on a public campaign to find out what really happened to Diane. Admittedly, many things don't jive with the stereotype of an intoxicated driver. Videotapes from a gas station where she stopped for gas and went inside, apparently to look for an over-the-counter painkiller, though it's not clear how they make this assumption, and nothing seems amiss in her demeanor. Also, all the witness calling 911 to report the driver speeding the wrong way on the Taconic Parkway said that she was driving perfectly straight, without any swerving at all.
Daniel and Jay engage the services of famed attorney Dominic A. Barbara, who says he took more heat for representing Diane Schuler's interests than he did representing the Buttafuocos or Jessica Hahn. Interestingly, not mentioned in the documentary and that I discovered by accident is that Barbara was suspended from the practice of law in New York in February of this year. Surely, the filmmakers had time to add that detail since one of the most interesting parts of the film is that Barbara hires investigator Tom Ruskin who retests the samples from Diane, but then keeps them and never reveals the results though when they get a hold of him, he claims he gave the results to Barbara. Then again, Ruskin doesn't have the cleanest rep either, so you have to wonder if the family was being scammed since in the end the results were the same and all it got them was more stress and huge bills. That is yet another detail absent from the film.
I can't say for certainty what happened in this tragedy, but by the end of the movie I felt more like the daughters of Michael Bastardi, 81, who was killed in the other vehicle along with his son Guy, 43, and friend Daniel Longo, 72. They say they've forgiven Diane, but they can't forgive Daniel or Jay yet because they are in such denial and won't let the matter rest and that seems to be the truth. Throughout the film, they slip. Daniel will say Diane drank like once a month, but then explains the vodka bottle in the minivan as something they kept at the campsite that must have been packed by accident. He says she never smoked pot one minute and then amends it to not that often in another.
Old high school friends that Diane lost touch with tell how she was very private. One mentions that Diane's mother left when she was young and she appears to know what happened, but won't discuss it. The most telling moment of the film to me is when Daniel and Jay, after meeting with another doctor trying to find a medical explanation, stop outside the building. Daniel moves on, but Jay lags behind and puffs on a cigarette, admitting that no one in her family knows that she smokes. In a family that guarded and private, if Jay can smoke in secret, how hard is it to make the leap that Diane might have drank more than her family knew?
The film warns that it contains graphic accident footage and toward the end they show photos of Diane's corpse that really add nothing to the film but by that point, I'd grown tired of watching Daniel and Jay live their lives of denial. It's a sad story and perhaps a larger explanation remains as to what happened to Diane Schuler that tragic day, but There's Something Wrong About Diane doesn't deliver it. The film sets up a premise that leads you to believe new answers might be found but none are. Instead, it ends up making you feel as if you just wasted your time. It's a disappointment from director Liz Garbus who, among many other documentaries, helmed an earlier entry in the HBO summer documentary series, the excellent Bobby Fischer Against the World.
There's Something Wrong With Aunt Diane premieres on HBO tonight at 9 p.m. Eastern/Pacific and 8 p.m. Central.
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Sunday, July 24, 2011
A Good Scream
By Damian Arlyn
Brian De Palma is one my favorite directors. Very few other filmmakers (with the possible exception of Dario Argento) are able to fashion products of such sinister, surreal beauty filled with such colorful, hallucinatory imagery and captured by such gracefully balletic camerawork. De Palma's films create a reality that is uniquely theirs. The environments, characters and events depicted in them might resemble our own, but there is always something missing; some subtle, intangible quality that prevents them from sharing our own existence and instead ensnares them in the realm of dreams (which often prove to be nightmares). The places — be they famously celebrated or exceedingly ordinary — seem strangely distant, the characters are more like projections of people rather than flesh-and-blood human beings and the events that transpire always seem like impeccably choreographed and flawlessly executed dance routines rather than the messy, chaotic incidents to which we are so accustomed. De Palma's stories do not take place in the real world. They take place in a world of breath and shadow, where everything appears just slightly out of reach. Many have criticized his work for these characteristics, but I revel in it. De Palma's films are pure cinema and one of his most archetypal creations (not only because it IS cinema but because it is ABOUT cinema) is the exquisite paranoid suspense-thriller Blow Out, which celebrates its 30th anniversary today.
It is far too dismissive of Blow Out to call it an homage to Antonioni's similarly-themed (and similarly-titled) Blow-Up or a tribute to that master of suspense Alfred Hitchcock (of whom De Palma is often accused not only of imitating but of blatantly ripping off). It's also too easy to attribute the film's inspiration to other paranoid-conspiracy films from that era (such as Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation or Alan J. Pakula's Parallax View) as well as various references to the JFK assassination, Watergate scandal and Chappaquiddick. Yes, those influences are clearly there but Blow Out uses these sources as a springboard from which it can launch into its own distinct, visionary manifestation of the director's own fears, passions and prejudices. A perfect example of this is the film's first five minutes. Blow Out opens with an extended hand-held shot of a psychotic killer stalking the scantily clad members of a typical horror movie sorority. As ominous heavy breathing (and quintessentially cheesy, dated "scary" music) pounds away on the soundtrack, the murderer pulls back a shower curtain to reveal a beautiful young girl who looks into the camera and screams…very badly. A sudden cut reveals John Travolta sitting in a screening room laughing as he lights a cigarette and remarks "God, that scream is terrible." Thus we discover, in a very entertaining manner, that the movie we've been watching is actually a movie within a movie. What was perceived as reality is, in fact, a lie. It is the first in a series of deceptions that the film will throw at us. Furthermore, by shooting the entire opening sequence in POV, De Palma cleverly implicates the audience in an act of voyeurism, another major subject of the film (and many of his films). Finally, Jack's first line of dialogue, in which he derisively comments on the scream in the picture he's watching, carries special significance as it will parallel his last line of dialogue in the film. The credits haven't started and already the movie has introduced several of its major themes.
It is also our initial introduction to the film's main character, the sympathetic but complex Jack Terry (played by John Travolta in one if his best performances). Jack is depicted as a very competent soundman who, because of a guilty conscience, has wasted his skills on a series of low-budget exploitation films since a mistake of his cost an undercover police officer his life several years earlier. Jack may be courageous and heroic in his attempts do good and see justice happen, but his cynical distrust of the state and his borderline obsessive desire to see truth come out causes him to make some serious errors in judgment. It was a brilliant decision on De Palma's part to make Jack a filmmaking technician because not only does it serve a storytelling purpose (namely, providing him with a plausible reason to witness and record the car accident of which he has the expertise to recognize as an assassination), but it provides De Palma an opportunity to engage in some artful meta-cinema. More than perhaps any other of De Palma's protagonists, Jack seems to embody the cinematic alter-ego of the director himself.
Joining Travolta is an impressive array of actors, many of whom would become De Palma regulars. The lovely Nancy Allen plays Sally, the call girl who was in the car with the governor when it went off the road. Despite the fact that she was married to De Palma at the time and had already acted in two of his previous films, her casting was actually a recommendation by John Travolta (who had worked with her and liked her in De Palma's Carrie). Though her character is hopelessly — almost unbelievably — naive, Allen plays her with such an endearing sweetness that her eventual fate is heartbreakingly tragic. As the film's primary villain — a ruthless, sociopathic killer named Burke — John Lithgow (Obsession, Raising Cain) is frighteningly menacing and leaves a strong, lasting impression on the viewer. In fact, Lithgow tells a funny story of how a woman from the apartment building he was living in at the time the movie came out saw him getting out of an elevator one night and immediately turned white as a sheet. Finally, Dennis Franz — who also appeared in The Fury and Dressed to Kill — has a small but amusing role as a sleazy, cowardly photographer who works with the Sally character to blackmail unfaithful husbands.
De Palma films are usually technically flawless and Blow Out is no exception, but in this particular effort the style does not, as it has a tendency to do sometimes, overshadow the content. It only elevates it. The cinematography by the great Vilmos Zsigmond is stunning. The visual flourishes that are used (360's, split-diopters, overheard shots, low-angles shots, split-screens, slow-mo, etc.) positively captivated me when I first saw it. Though I would later learn that these were common tricks employed by De Palma, to this day they never fail to excite me when I see them in a movie. Also, the score by frequent De Palma-collobrator Pino Donaggio is quite evocative. The theme Donaggio wrote for Jack and Sally's relationship is a memorably haunting, sweet and sad piece of music. In fact, Quentin Tarantino (an admitted fan of the film and De Palma in general) used it briefly in a scene in Death Proof.
When it was released in 1981 Blow Out received generally positive reviews. Some critics (including Roger Ebert and the always-supportive-of-De Palma Pauline Kael) even wrote some enthusiastic ones. However, the film failed to perform at the box office. Fortunately, over the years Blow Out has gained far more respect and appreciation. It was even recently added to the immortal Criterion Collection. Personally speaking, I love Blow Out and always have. I consider it to be Brian De Palma's most perfect film. I had never seen a De Palma movie at the time I first watched it as a teenager, so I not only found its story engaging, suspenseful and moving but I was absolutely entranced by its style. What I also didn't appreciate at the time was how the visual language of a film could not only be used to tell a story imaginatively, but actually communicate specific ideas/concepts to the audience. I remember getting a book from the library shortly thereafter on the films of Brian De Palma and reading in the chapter on Blow Out about one specific shot where the characters Jack and Sally are standing in the foreground conversing while two train station marques are positioned in the background directly over their heads. On each marquee a destination is written: "Crusader" is behind Jack and "Wall Street" is behind Sally. The book was proposing that these destinations each represented the characters' personalities and function within the story. That idea just blew my mind. It revealed a whole new realm of possibilities to me in the art of film analysis and criticism. I became far more aware of what I was actually seeing on screen whenever I watched a movie from that point on. Blow Out was a seminal work in my development as a cinephile. Along with a handful of other films (including Star Wars and Schindler's List), Blow Out opened my eyes to the incredible potential of cinema.
It also has a really good scream.
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Saturday, July 23, 2011
Tom Aldredge (1928-2011)
When I was just beginning my years of obsessive New York theatergoing, the second Broadway show I took in was the last new Stephen Sondheim musical to premiere on Broadway, Passion, in 1994. I was still an amateur as far as theatergoing went so I got to the Longacre Theatre for the 2 p.m. Saturday matinee very early. Seated on the sidewalk by the stage door in a T-shirt and jeans wearing a baseball cap creased to the point it resembled a duck bill, was the actor Tom Aldredge. Throughout my theatergoing years, which basically ran from 1994 until 1999 with a handful later before ending permanently in 2002, I saw Aldredge, not by design, in more shows than any other actor. Readers who haven't attended New York theater regularly since Aldredge made his Broadway debut in 1959 probably know him best from his television work, be it as Carmela's father Hugh DeAngelis on The Sopranos, Patty Hewes' Uncle Pete on Damages or Nucky Thompson's bitter father Ethan on Boardwalk Empire. Aldredge died Friday after a long battle with cancer. He was 83.
As I said, I saw him more on stage than any other actor (not that it took much) seeing him in four shows between 1994-97. In addition to Passion, I saw Aldredge as Rev. Jeremiah Brown in the revival of Inherit the Wind with George C. Scott and Charles Durning. I got to see him perform Solyony (the Captain) in Chekhov's The Three Sisters, replacing Jerry Stiller in the role. Finally, I saw him play Stephen Hopkins in the revival of the musical 1776 with Brent Spiner and the late Pat Hingle.
Aldredge was born Feb. 28, 1928, in Dayton, Ohio. He attended the Goodman School of Drama at DePaul University. He married his wife Theoni V. Aldredge in 1953, a union that lasted until her death in January of this year. Theoni was an acclaimed costume designer for theater and movies who won three Tonys for her work (Annie, Barnum and La Cage Aux Folles ) out of a total 14 nominations and won an Oscar for her costumes for 1974's The Great Gatsby.
The first time I recall seeing Tom Aldredge actually combined theater and television. It was when PBS aired a filmed version of Sondheim's great Broadway musical Into the Woods in 1991. Aldredge played the dual role of the narrator and the Mysterious Man. Given Aldredge's prolific output in television and movies, I'm certain I ran across him before that, but it certainly was the first time he left an impression on me. The second time came courtesy of HBO, but not on the more celebrated series he's probably most recognizable from, but from what may be the first really good made-for-HBO movie: 1993's Barbarians at the Gate. Aldredge's part wasn't huge, but I remembered him in that great Larry Gelbart-scripted account of the takeover battle for RJR Nabisco starring James Garner and Jonathan Pryce. After that, most of my Aldredge performances were seen on stage.
Tom Aldredge's New York stage career began in 1957 and he landed his first Broadway show in 1959 in the musical comedy The Nervous Set which also featured Larry Hagman in its cast. It took seven years to land another Broadway role but when he did, what a cast he got to work alongside. The original comedy UTBU was directed by Nancy Walker and had an ensemble featuring Cathryn Damon (Mary Campbell on Soap), Margaret Hamilton, Tony Randall and Thelma Ritter. Alas, it only lasted 15 previews and seven performances. Fortunately, Aldredge was back on Broadway the next month in Slapstick Tragedy, which was an evening of two new Tennessee Williams' one-act plays. Aldredge appeared in the first, The Mutilated. The second one-act was The Gnadiges Fraulein.
In the seven year interim between his Broadway debut in 1959 and his return in 1966, Aldredge was by no means idle. He made his television debut in 1961 as part of The Premise Players on a Paul Anka special called The Seasons of Youth where Anka discusses a long-lost crush and the actors perform skits about young love. In 1963, Aldredge made his film debut in The Mouse on the Moon, the sequel to The Mouse That Roared. In 1964, many of the same members of The Premise Players, which now included Buck Henry who co-wrote the script, made The Troublemaker about a New Jersey chicken farmer who moves to Greenwich Village to open a coffee shop. Aldredge had a role in 1965's Who Killed Teddy Bear?, whose plot, as described by IMDb, is "A busboy at a disco has sexual problems related to events in his childhood. He becomes obsessed with a disc jockey at the club, leading to obscene phone calls, voyeurism, trips to the porn shop and adult movie palace, and more!" The unusual cast includes Sal Mineo, Juliet Prowse, Jan Murray, Elaine Stritch and Daniel J. Travanti. Aired on TV in 1966 after Aldredge had returned to New York was a movie adaptation of Tennessee Williams' Ten Blocks on the Camino Real which Williams wrote and which starred Martin Sheen.
Back in New York, before he returned to Broadway, Aldredge took part in two of Joseph Papp's Shakespeare in the Park productions in the summer of 1965. First, he played Boyet in Love's Labors Lost. Then he played Nestor in Troilus and Cressida, whose cast included James Earl Jones, Michael Moriarty and John Vernon. Throughout his career he would return to the Delacorte and Shakespeare. He played Tybalt in Romeo and Juliet in 1968, Sir Andrew Aguecheek in Twelfth Night in 1969, the title role in Cymbeline in 1971, the 2nd Gravedigger in Hamlet in 1972, Lear's Fool in King Lear in 1973 and John of Gaunt in Richard II in 1987. Ironically, the only time Aldredge received an Emmy nomination, it was a Daytime Emmy nomination (which he won) for playing Shakespeare in a 1973 episode of The CBS Festival of Lively Arts for Young People titled "Henry Winkler Meets William Shakespeare." Aldredge appeared in many off-Broadway productions but two to take note of are his role of Emory in the original production of the landmark play The Boys in the Band and the Joseph Papp production of David Rabe's Sticks and Bones, which transferred to Broadway and earned Aldredge the first of his five Tony nominations.
His 1972 nomination for lead actor in a play for Sticks and Bones, which won best play, was Aldredge's only in the lead category. His other nominations came for the revival of the musical Where's Charley? in 1975, the revival of The Little Foxes opposite Elizabeth Taylor in 1981, in the original musical Passion in 1994 and in the revival of the play Twentieth Century in 2004.
Throughout his Broadway career, he performed the works of O'Neill (The Iceman Cometh, Strange Interlude), George Bernard Shaw (Saint Joan) and Arthur Miller (The Crucible) and created the role of Norman Thayer Jr. in the original production of On Golden Pond. His final Broadway show was a revival of Twelve Angry Men that closed in May 2005.
His many film credits include Coppola's The Rain People, a 1973 film version of his stage success Sticks and Bones directed by Robert Downey Sr., Lawn Dogs, Rounders, Intolerable Cruelty, Cold Mountain, the remake of All the King's Men, What About Bob? and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.
He appeared in lots of episodic television and some notable TV movies including the miniseries The Adams Chronicles, Great Performances' Heartbreak House, playing Justice Hugo Black in Separate But Equal and O Pioneers!
Aldredge was a talented and prolific actor who needs to be remembered for more than playing Carmela Soprano's dad, but for Sopranos trivia buffs I'll toss in that Hugh and Carmela's mother Mary (Suzanne Shepherd) didn't appear until Livia was banned from the Soprano home. Who can forget him ripping into Livia at her wake? I wish YouTube had the actual clip of "Ever After" that Aldredge starts the cast singing at the end of Act I of Into the Woods, for I feel it's a fitting close. Click here and listen anyway,
RIP Mr. Aldredge.
Labels: Arthur Miller, Boardwalk Empire, Buck Henry, Coppola, Durning, Gelbart, George C. Scott, HBO, J.E. Jones, Liz, M. Sheen, O'Neill, Obituary, Shakespeare, Sondheim, Tennessee Williams, The Sopranos, Theater, Thelma Ritter, Tony Randall
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Friday, July 22, 2011
He's yelling for society
By Edward Copeland
Having seen the first three episodes of Curb Your Enthusiasm's eighth season now, no arc has developed yet that Larry David will carry through the 10-episode season, unless this year's theme is the pursuit of laughs at any cost and pushing the envelope of good taste even further than Curb has gone before. It appears to be paying off in the ratings: Its premiere was the highest-rated episode in the show's history and the second episode got higher numbers than that. If your sphincter muscles have tightened to the point that any sense of humor you might once have had now needs life support machines to survive, Curb is not the show for you and I'll be too busy laughing frequently and loudly to hear if you voice any objections to my praising David's ballsy genius. The new season's first two episodes have been very good, but the episode that airs Sunday night may end up in the pantheon of classic Curbs.
"You know what you are — you are a social assassin," Larry's manager and best friend Jeff Greene (Jeff Garlin) tells Larry in Sunday's episode "The Palestinian Chicken." Jeff bestows this new title upon Larry after he shares the story that when he went to pay Ron (Jason Kravits), a mutual friend and member of their five-member club golf team, for accidentally backing his car into the front of Ron's Lexus, Ron asked him to pay him back in a different way. Ron's wife Ilene (Maggie Wheeler), you see, who Larry says "could be Susie's twin" in the way she constantly berates Ron to the point that he barely speaks around her, has a particularly annoying habit that whenever someone says something funny she verbally says, "LOL." It drives Ron up the wall, but he was so impressed by how Larry speaks his mind about things during a dinner party for the members of the golf team ahead of the club's championship, Ron offered to pay for his own repairs if Larry would confront Ilene on how annoying the habit is the next time she says, "LOL." That thread is just one small part of the hilarity of Sunday night's episode, the third of a season that began with a very funny premiere and has escalated in terms of laughs with each subsequent installment.
The season's premiere, "The Divorce," picks up exactly where season 7 left off where it looked as if Larry and Cheryl might be reconciling when Larry realized that Cheryl had left the cup ring on Julia Louis-Dreyfus' table that Julia had blamed Larry for ("Do you respect wood?") and Larry was calling Julia to get Cheryl to admit her culpability as Cheryl asked him not to do it. The scene continues with Cheryl telling Larry that he never listens to her and she storms out. A title card indicates that it's ONE YEAR LATER and Larry sits across from his divorce attorney Andrew Berg (Paul F. Tompkins) making the final arrangements on his divorce. Larry is going to get to keep the house and it sounds as if he's getting a pretty good deal. As he emphasizes to Berg, Larry wants to look like he's being a good guy, but he doesn't want to be a good guy. I do wonder if this episode marks Cheryl Hines' swan song on the show. In the closing credits, she's listed as also-starring as usual but in the following two episodes in which she doesn't appear, her name is absent. At the same time, Susie Essman's name remains in the credits though Susie Greene doesn't appear in the second episode. Even though Larry David plays a fictionalized version of himself, you have to think that Hines has become a victim of circumstance given David's real-life, well-publicized divorce from his wife Laurie.
That, however, merely sets up the laugh-filled, taboo-breaking hijinks to come in "The Divorce." Among the jaw-dropping "I can't believe they're doing that" moments in the episode:
Watching Larry David fumble with a tampon while reading instructions through a bathroom door to a freaked-out young teen has to be one of the show's most sustained set pieces of awkward and uncomfortable comedy. You aren't sure if you're laughing at the scene's content or its audacity. Throughout the long run of Curb Your Enthusiasm (now HBO's longest-running comedy or drama series), while the series seldom has failed to deliver the laughs, after awhile the mechanics of its formula had become a bit predictable. While so far the eighth season continues to follow the broad outline of the formula where all the various strands come together at the end, so far this season seems to be much looser, with the comedy taking precedence. As a result, it is strengthening the underlying skeleton because that's not what's being emphasized any longer.
Some other highlights from "The Divorce": A classic Susie Greene moment when Larry, the Greenes and the Funkhousers have brunch together and Jeff tells her that if they ever split up, he'd just divide everything 50-50 and give her the best of everything to which Susie replies, "What are you fuckin' kiddin' me? You think we're gonna have a nice divorce if we ever get divorced? I'm takin' you for everything you've got, mister. I'm taking your balls and I'm thumbtackin' them to the wall." Bob Einstein always has been a delight as Marty Funkhouser when he has appeared, but he's hitting it out of the park in all three episodes so far this season. In "The Divorce," he announces at the brunch that he's going on a business trip to London and Larry innocently asks why his wife Nan isn't going, only to get the dirtiest look from Marty when Larry sells Nan (Ann Ryerson) how wonderful London is this time of year. Later, Marty confronts Larry about how he's ruined his getaway because all they do is stare bored at each other or she'll talk over him. Larry asks why he doesn't get divorced. "I'm lazy," Marty admits. Later, he drops by Larry's elated as Leon (J.B. Smoove, still hanging around), Larry and Jeff are playing pool to announce that he's getting a divorce too. He asked Nan for one and she said yes. Leon suggests he tie strings of cans to his car like you do when you get married that say JUST DIVORCED. Jeff is terribly jealous — Larry and Marty are getting divorces, Leon doesn't need one and he's stuck with Susie. It's just a warmup for what Einstein gets to do in the second and third episodes.
That second episode, "The Safe House," ramps up the laughs even higher. So often, Larry ends up getting punished for his actions or his "rules" as how society should function. Too often what gets overlooked is that Larry either has good intentions or he's just right. The opening scene of "The Safe House" offers a perfect illustration of this. Larry is minding his own business, walking down the wide aisle of a grocery store to pick up a carton of a certain ice cream he wants. In front of the case holding the flavor he seeks are two women — one (Miriam Flynn) comforting the other (Tymberlee Hill) who is crying and visibly upset about something. The aisle contains no one else but the three of them and Larry tries his best to coax them to move over just so he can get his ice cream and be on his way, but the woman doing the comforting turns on him — insisting she's done her best to be polite and ask him to give them a minute. Larry appears to leave and the woman tells the bawling woman not to pay any attention to "that jerk" then we see one of the best sight gags ever as Larry's arms creeps through the freezer as the women continue to stand there. Of course, Larry was right. Why should anyone have to wait to get one item when the other two, one of them upset or not, could have easily moved elsewhere? Later in the episode, Larry arrives home in time to catch the woman (Michaela Watkins) who has been walking her dog and letting him go on his yard. Larry yells at her for not bringing a plastic bag with her. "A dog without a bag is incomplete," he tells her. She claims forgetfulness, but he counters that she forgets every time. "You didn't have to yell," she says. "I'm not just yelling for me. I'm yelling for society!" Larry shouts. Honestly, don't we all want to yell for society sometimes? It turns out that both the crying woman and the dog walker are battered women who now reside in a "safe house" a few doors down from Larry which he learns when the other woman knocks on his door and introduces herself as Margaret. She wants Larry to come to apologize to the women to give them "a positive male" image. Larry doesn't think he has anything to apologize for, but agrees to do it anyway, though he's puzzled when one of the women living in the house, Dale, turns out to be a big gal that he thinks is pulling a scam because she looks as if she could take care of herself. If she looks familiar, she's played by Jen Kober, with a different look and demeanor than her role as Melissa Leo's friend Andrea on Treme.
As has been a recurring topic throughout the run of Curb, "The Safe House" also touches on racial issues with no one wanting to leap to conclusions when a laptop Larry was supposed to be watching appears to be stolen after having asked an African American to watch it for him when Larry has to leave. More disturbingly, it gets Leon to regret how it gives his race a bad reputation as he proceeds to rattle off all the personal information he knows about Larry that he's never used but he could have to rip him off if he wanted. Suddenly, Larry begins to wonder why it is that Leon still lives with him. The purely comic thread of "The Safe House" gets launched by Funkhouser in a scene where he's a veritable one-liner machine. He informs Jeff and Larry over a meal that Richard Lewis has yet another new girlfriend and that she's a burlesque dancer with quite impressive breasts. Lewis joins them briefly, but says he has an audition that he is running late to because of a phone call. Lewis finds it annoying that Funkhouser told the others what his girlfriend did for a living and denies that her breasts were the attraction, going on to defend the tradition of burlesque, saying that without burlesque we wouldn't have Chaplin. "Chaplin was a great pole dancer," Funkhouser comments. Lewis swears that it's her inner beauty and spirituality that attracted him. After a pause, Funkhouser asks him, "Have you set a day aside when you're finally going to look at her face?" Jeff and Larry can't stop laughing and since this is an improvised show, who knows if that laughter was in character?
"The Divorce" and "The Safe House" turn out to be mere appetizers for the meal that is Sunday night's episode "The Palestinian Chicken." The episode takes its title from a restaurant run by Palestinians which Larry and Jeff have heard nothing but great things about and decide to try after finishing a practice round with Ron and Eddie (Larry Miller), two of the other three members of their five-man club golf team. For some reason, their fifth member and best golfer, Funkhouser, has been mysteriously scarce of late. This does bring up one criticism that I do have of Curb on occasion. They so frequently have actors and comedians play themselves, that it throws me off when they are supposed to be a character. They've done this before with Michael McKean and Tim Meadows, here they do it with Larry Miller. As soon as I see him, I assume he's supposed to be himself so it takes a little acclimating to realize that he's playing a completely fictional character. The food at Al-Abbas' Original Best Chicken turns out to be as great as its word-of-mouth indicated, but it's definitely not a Jew-friendly place with lots of anti-Israel posters lining the walls. Larry tells Jeff that if someone who's Jewish wanted to cheat on their spouse, this would be the place to go because they wouldn't get caught. Larry spots an attractive Palestinian woman (Anne Bedian) and suggests to Jeff that perhaps she could be the next Mrs. David, but Jeff thinks that if she's going to get over her anti-Semitism, Larry wouldn't be the man to bring her around. Larry admits that is part of the attraction. "You're always attracted to someone who doesn't want you, right?" Larry says. "Here, you have someone who not only doesn't want you, but doesn't even recognize your right to exist."
When they have the dinner party where Ron's wife annoys with the "LOL" and Larry hits the Lexus, they finally learn where Funkhouser has been hiding. He tells them that he has had a midlife crisis and rededicated his life to Judaism, meeting with this new rabbi every day and wearing his yarmulke all the time. The Greenes have puzzled everyone by bringing daughter Sammi (Ashly Holloway, the same actress who has played her since the second season classic "The Doll" in 2001). During the dinner, it comes up that Al-Abbas plans to open a second location — next to Goldblatt's Deli. Susie decides to organize a protest. Some argue that they have a right in the U.S. to open where they want to but, as they've done before, Curb has sneaked some parallels to a real controversy, in this case the whole Ground Zero mosque brouhaha, into a story, but for laughs. I'm not going to spell out in detail all the twists and turns in this week's episode just so you can enjoy it all the more, but I have to say that they do give Sammi Greene more than she has ever had to do before and, as Larry says to her, "Boy, you're really your mother's daughter, aren't you?"
There aren't many series that you see churning out episodes at this high of quality in their eighth season, but so far this season Curb Your Enthusiasm is three for three with "The Palestinian Chicken" destined for inclusion on the list of their best.
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Tuesday, July 19, 2011
Putting Harry Back on the Shelf
BLOGGER'S NOTE: If you have yet to see Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2 or have not read the books and plan to, be warned this piece is LOADED WITH SPOILERS.
By Matt Zoller Seitz
My daughter Hannah is a ninth-grader, and my favorite person to see movies with. Sometimes we'll see a film and instant message each other about it later, or tape ourselves talking and do a transcript, then post the result here as we did on Cinderella and Fantasia. This latest conversation is on the final Harry Potter film, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2. I was really looking forward to seeing this movie with Hannah, not just because it's the final installment in a franchise that's been around nearly as long as she has, but also because Hannah has read all the books and I've read exactly none, which makes her an ideal explainer.
MATT: So here's what I was thinking going into Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2. I was 8 years old when the original Star Wars came out in 1977 — the movie that your generation calls Episode IV: A New Hope. The time span between that film and the conclusion of the original Star Wars trilogy, Return of the Jedi, was six years. That carried me from fourth grade through freshman year of high school. Those movies dominated my imagination during that six-year period, and were almost as much a part of my life as any person I actually knew. Do the Harry Potter films seem like a comparably big deal to you? Has there been anything during your childhood — a movie series or a book series or a combination — that seemed like as big a deal as the Harry Potter phenomenon? To me, it looks as though everything else would be a distant second.
HANNAH: The Hunger Games, Percy Jackson…those are the only two I can think of. And they are nowhere near as big as Harry Potter. But they're both fantasy saga-type things.
MATT: Do you see these movies as movies first and foremost, or as movies based on books?
HANNAH: Movies based on books, definitely. After the first three movies, it's really hard to follow the plot unless you've read the books. Seeing the movies after reading the books is just the icing on top of the cake.
MATT: I have seen all of the Harry Potter films, but I've only read the first 40 pages of the first novel. I remember watching the first movie when it came out and not liking it because it felt too much like an illustration of a book rather than a freestanding movie, and thinking, "I should get on track with this series of books, otherwise I won't be able to judge the films as adaptations." But then the second movie came out a year later, and I didn't like that one either, and I decided that I wouldn't read the books after all, because a film has to have a life apart from the book, no matter how good or poor it is as an adaptation. In the end I feel like their track record as movies is mixed. I think a couple of the films are terrific, a couple are bad, the rest are pretty good. But I should also confess that I have trouble keeping the story straight over the entire saga. I am tempted to give the films the benefit of the doubt and say it's all my fault. But I follow much more complicated stories on long-form TV series and in movie franchises such as The Lord of the Rings, so maybe the filmmakers are at least partly to blame. I don't know. That's a tough call, honestly. There were definitely moments in this The Deathly Hallows, Part 2 where I was thinking, "Who is that guy?" and "What the heck is going on?" Not too many, but a few.
HANNAH: I agree when you say that a movie has to take a different life apart from the book. But if you really enjoyed the movies and want to truly respect the invention of the insanely imaginative world that is Harry Potter, the books should be read. I think the key thing to have when you're creating a culturally defining saga/franchise is the ability to create a world unlike our own, and create parallels to what we know in our lives, such as education, career, government, etc. Along with that, I think that it's also key to place human traits in the characters living there, so that it's easy to lose yourself in the universe. The books have all that. I think that the thousands of pages of the Harry Potter books trump the movie adaptations, since the films tend to leave out a lot of the parts that make the books interesting.
MATT: Oh, I definitely agree, and that's true for almost any film adaptation of a book. A book has a subtlety, a delicacy, that most movies can't match. Plus a book just feels more personal, because you're creating images in your mind as you read. It's as if you're the director, and you have an unlimited budget and unlimited running time. There's just no comparison. But I feel like the movies were only partly successful — for this viewer — at capturing the essence of the books. I only read The Hobbit and part of The Fellowship of the Ring, yet I was tremendously involved with, and excited by, the Lord of the Rings films. And I never read Mario Puzo's The Godfather until right before the third movie came out, yet I didn't feel I'd been cheated as an audience member. These were substantial experiences that were equal to, but different from, the books they were based on. The Harry Potter books, though…I don't know. I always felt there was something missing from the movies, that that there was something incomplete or slightly flat about them. There were only two Potter films that I thought were really terrific as cinema, the third and fifth ones. The sixth had its moments. But the rest only grabbed me in fits and starts. A scene here, an action sequence there, a bit of acting that moved me. For the most part I felt like I was seeing a transcription of something that was absolutely beloved in its original form — and that the incredible intensity of the love that people felt for the source was kind of carrying over into the movies, and sort of filling them out, or giving them an extra kick. There were definitely times when I felt my attention beginning to wander a bit during one of the movies, and then suddenly the crowd would laugh or applaud as one, because they had obviously read the books and were feeling a great rush of emotion, and I felt it, too, although the rush was secondhand, or once removed.
HANNAH: I know exactly what you mean. When it comes to adapting a 700 page book into two- or two-and-a-half hour movie, you needn't have read the book previously to know that there were parts that were off, or flat, or like something was missing. It's hard to devote yourself to a book and come to love certain scenes, characters, etc., and see them changed, altered, or cut on the big screen. The point of the movies is to bring the book to life, and it always sucks when you can't see the entire book come to life exactly as it should. For that reason I think that the people who make the movies based on great books are really lucky, because they get to share their interpretation with millions of people. I wish that I could have gotten a chance to go to a midnight showing of Harry Potter at some point in my life, but it's slipped past me.
MATT: I know! Sorry! I guess it's a pointless exercise to find anything analogous to the Harry Potter phenomenon. There is nothing else like it — no other examples of a series of books coming out just a few years ahead of a series of films, and having the books and the films be really intimately intertwined from start to finish, so that it's almost as if you are seeing two different versions of the same story unfold in two different media almost, but not quite, simultaneously. The closest thing I can think of is the James Bond series. But there, the books were fairly loose adaptations of tales of a character whose adventures were more or less self-contained. With some exceptions, you could read Bond books or watch Bond movies out-of-sequence, and not feel you were missing anything. And after a certain point — sometime in the '70s — the films based on the Bond books stopped having anything in common with the Ian Fleming novels and short stories except for the titles and the fact that they were about a guy named James Bond. They weren't at all like the Potter books, which have a richness of characterization and are also very densely plotted, with every book linking to every other.
HANNAH: Another thing that makes the Potter movies hard to follow is the constant foreshadowing. I can't think of an example off the top of my head, but there were times in a Potter movie where one character mentioned a person, place, magical object, etc, and another character said, "Gee, I met that guy/went to that place/learned about that object briefly a few years ago! Who knew that information would be helpful now?" It's easy to constantly foreshadow in books when you're the person creating the story, but when you're a filmmaker adapting that story, I can see how you would look at a script and go, "Crap, we should have mentioned this in a previous movie, because now it's a crucial to the plot!"
MATT: Well, I'm glad you mentioned that, because that phenomenon is one of the clunkiest things about the Potter films — their tendency to say, "Here is this really important character who is right at the center of the ongoing narrative and whose fate is of absolutely critical significance," yet this is the first time you've ever heard them mentioned. There was a moment like that in the final movie, actually — the appearance of Dumbledore's brother. Harry says something like — and I'm paraphrasing because this is a rare film where I took no notes, because my pen was defective! — "You're Dumbledore's brother? He never mentioned you to me." And the brother says something that's almost like a self-deprecating joke, like, "Yeah, that sounds like him." The Godfather films and the various seasons of The Sopranos did this, too, as you will eventually see when you watch them. "Hey, Tony Soprano, say hello to your beloved cousin who was like a brother to you growing up." And it's season five, and you never heard a syllable about that guy until now! At least when the movie series or TV show is completely original, the filmmakers have a bit of an excuse. They're flying by the seats of their pants, just kind of making things up and hoping it all fits and make sense with hindsight. But the Potter films were based on pre-existing books, so the clunkiness there seems strange to me.
HANNAH: Are you saying that scripts that have been written directly for the screen have an excuse to spontaneously introduce a new character that's supposedly important?
MATT: Oh, no. not in a single, stand-alone film. But in a series, yes, if the scripts are all original, and not based on pre-existing material. It's just a fact that sometimes the makers of a sequel have to figure out a way to extend a story that seemed to end in a satisfying way at the end of the original film. The public says, "What happens next?" and the filmmaker has to come up with something. That leads them to invent new characters or situations that were never mentioned in the original film. The Star Wars films are an example of that. You really have to stretch to find foreshadowing of Darth Vader being Luke's father in the original 1977 movie. I think that was because the filmmaker, George Lucas, originally wrote Star Wars as an entire series, or a very long film, then had to eliminate a lot of the more novelistic flourishes. When the 1977 film became a hit and the studio wanted sequels, he had to re-integrate a lot of the things he'd cut, and create stuff that wasn't there previously in any form. And that led to some narrative awkwardness.
HANNAH: OK, that makes sense. But I'm talking about seven books that are released about a year-and-a-half apart from each other. The makers of the first Harry Potter movie only had the first two or three books to work with, as far as foreshadowing goes. Sometimes in Harry Potter, the foreshadowing is subtle, and the time between when something is foreshadowed and when it happens is short. With the movies being three books behind, it may have gotten hard to take every move of foreshadowing into account.
MATT: Fair enough. OK, since you have read all the books and I've read only a tiny part of the first one, I want you to play expert witness and explain some things that I found confusing, OK?
HANNAH: Yes sir, fire away. I am prepared with my geeky answers.
MATT: I am confused about the ownership of the wand that Harry uses to kill Voldemort. Can you walk me through that?
HANNAH: Do you mean the Elder Wand? Because that's the one Voldemort used, not Harry.
MATT: I'm talking about the wand that Harry used to kill Voldemort, which I guess was not actually Voldemort's wand? Voldemort took it from Snape, right? What was the line of succession before that? And what are the rules, exactly, governing the possession of wands and how it affects one's ability to do magic?
HANNAH: The wands in Harry Potter are pretty complicated, and even I'm not crystal-clear on how it works. Voldemort is a part of Harry. When Harry got his wand in his first year, rather than him picking out a wand, a wand chose him. The wand had a twin that chose Voldemort when he first got a wand when he started at Hogwarts. So there were two identical wands, one possessed by Voldemort and one possessed by Harry. When Voldemort tried to kill Harry in his fourth year, it didn't work because their wands were the same. So Voldemort set off to find a new wand. Dumbledore possessed the Elder Wand. The night that Dumbledore died in the sixth year, Draco Malfoy disarmed Dumbledore and took the Elder Wand against Dumbledore's will. Shortly after, Snape killed Dumbledore. Dumbledore was buried with the Elder Wand. But, little did anyone know, Draco Malfoy was truly the owner of the Elder Wand. Whoever takes the wand from the owner against his will is the new owner. Voldemort takes the Elder Wand from Dumbledore's tomb. When the wand doesn't work for him, he assumes it's because it belongs to Snape, because Snape killed Dumbledore, the previous owner. So Voldemort kills Snape. But Voldemort still is not the master of the Elder Wand. Meanwhile, in the showdown at Malfoy Manor at the end of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part One, Harry disarms Malfoy and takes the wand Draco received when he started Hogwarts (made of Hawthorn). But since Harry took a wand from Malfoy against his will, that makes Harry the master of the Elder Wand. Harry uses Malfoy's wand for a while because his original wand broke. When Harry is fighting Voldemort, he uses Malfoy's Hawthorn wand to kill Voldemort, who is using the Elder Wand, despite the fact that Harry is the true master. Sorry, that took awhile. But I wanted to give a thorough explanation. Now my brain hurts. Harry Potter can be quite confusing. Any more questions?
MATT: That was amazing, and I'm not sure it helped. It kind of reminds me of when a friend asked me to explain the relationship between the Corleone family, the Rosato brothers, Clemenza, Hyman Roth and Frankie Five Angels in The Godfather, Part II. When I got to the end, even I was confused.
HANNAH: Maybe my explanation will make sense if you read it over 20 more times. But I wouldn't count on it.
MATT: I'm also not sure what to make of the whole Snape evolution. So he's a good guy pretending to be a bad guy pretending to be a good guy? Was he ever really working for Voldemort? Or was he always a triple agent working for the forces of good?
HANNAH: Oh, Snape. I liked how the scene in the movie where we dove into Snape's dying memories was sort of eerie and dreamlike, but the way it was set up was kind of confusing and unclear, so it was hard to get all your questions answered.
MATT: That part definitely felt rushed and confusing to this non-Potter reader.
HANNAH: Snape knew he was a wizard since he was born. He was a half-blood. His mother was a witch and his father was a muggle. He was very poor, and his parents fought a lot. He lived near Lily, Harry's future mother, and her muggle parents and her muggle sister, Petunia. He recognized that Lily was a witch and filled her in about the wizarding world when they were growing up. He fell in love with her. But when they got to Hogwarts, Lily was sorted into Gryffindor, and Snape was sorted into Slytherin. They remained friends through their earlier school years. Even in his beginning years at Hogwarts, Snape detested Harry's future father, James, because James used to bully Snape and was rather arrogant, and also because Snape knew James had a crush on Lily. Snape was worried about Lily eventually falling for James. But Snape and Lily drifted apart as Snape befriended his fellow Slytherins who were interested in the dark arts and becoming Death Eaters. When they left school, Lily got together with James and married him, and Snape went off to become a death eater. And yet Snape was still in love with Lily. When the prophecy was told, Snape knew that Voldemort (at this point, his master) would set off to kill baby Harry and anyone that got in his way, such as James and Lily, Harry's parents. Snape begged Voldemort to spare Lily, but Voldemort ignored him and killed her anyway. Dumbledore told Snape that he had been foolish instilling his trust in Voldemort, and that the best way to pledge his love for Lily would be to protect her son. Snape agreed, but begged Dumbledore not to tell. Dumbledore said "Fine. I will hide the best of you." When Harry started Hogwarts, despite the fact that Snape was protecting him, he couldn't stand to be around Harry because he was reminded so much of James, who he hated. Snape went on to be a triple agent as Voldemort rose to power. Then in the sixth year, Dumbledore was cursed by a ring that was made into a Horcrux by Voldemort. He only had a year to live. Dumbledore was aware of a plan that Voldemort had to make Draco Malfoy kill him. But Dumbledore knew Draco wouldn't be able to do it, so he told Snape that when Draco failed, Snape must kill Dumbledore. And he did, at the end of the sixth year. Then he continued to carry out the tasks that Dumbledore asked of him before his death, despite the fact that many of the good characters in the book distrusted him. That took a long time! I hope you understand now. Conclusion: Snape is the awesomest character in Harry Potter. (faints)
MATT: OK, that was truly epic. Now I really regret not having read the books. I missed a lot of the nuances. But even so, I agree with you about Snape. He's my favorite character. Nobody else can come close to his complexity. And Alan Rickman is the acting MVP of the whole series, in my opinion. It is really, really hard to play a character like that and not either give the game away early or mislead the audience in a way that seems unfair in retrospect. In degree of difficulty, that performance is at least a nine. The only thing that could've kicked it up to a 10 is if he'd given the entire performance in Spanish or French or something.
HANNAH: Did I answer your questions with as much enthusiasm and detail as you would if I asked you about a major plot point in the Star Wars movies?
MATT: Oh, absolutely. And this is as good a place as any to admit that while the Potter books and films would not exist without the Star Wars films paving the way, they are clearly superior to Lucas' saga in terms of narrative and character. Maybe the only area where Lucas has the edge is visually: the films are more daring in how they are composed and edited. But that's small consolation considering what a big steaming mess a lot of them are. And like you said, the movies aren't at the heart of the phenomenon, the novels are. And judged purely as a pop culture event, the novels are huge. There's nothing else like them. I think if we look at this in terms of a generation's relationship to a defining piece of popular culture, I think your generation definitely got the better deal.
HANNAH: Yes, I think we did.
Matt Zoller Seitz is the television critic for Salon.com and curator of the blog PressPlay at indieWIRE.
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