An Oscars and I New Year’s Eve

Hello, it’s the end of 2016, and the first thing I’m thinking right now is I am even more behind than usual when it comes to preparing for the Oscars. A quick glance at the Golden Globe nominees is usually a good way to gauge how the Academy will divvy up its picks, but as is my wont, I have not seen all that many films from the current year. In fact, I’ve seen just five. Here, then, is Oscars and I’s official ranking of 2016 films, with the almost certain knowledge that none of them will pick up a nomination for Best Picture:

  1. ‘Til Madness Do Us Part, dir. Wang Bing (shot in 2013)
  2. Zootopia, dir. Byron Howard & Rich Moore
  3. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, dir. Gareth Edwards
  4. I.T., dir. John Moore
  5. Hail, Caesar!, dir. Coen Brothers

I should say: Rogue One was not a good film at all…not just because of the CGI desecration of Peter Cushing, but because it was lazily written, sloppily directed, poorly paced, and overall just felt like the filler that it is. It is only so highly ranked because a) I saw very few movies, and b) the two below it are just awful. I initially placed I.T. at the bottom, because it is almost unwatchably bad, but decided to put it ahead of Hail, Caesar!, which is bloody terrible, because it was made by the Coen Brothers, which makes it all the more disappointing.

maxresdefault.jpgThey got this shot by showing George Clooney the dailies.

So, of the five films I’ve seen from this year, three were bad-to-awful. It doesn’t bode well for this awards season, especially after the Academy awarded Spotlight the top prize last year, indicating they’ve lost their damn minds. Hell, maybe Rogue One will get a Best Picture nod…as usual, it’ll get all the technical nominations, and without a Mad Max to compete with, maybe it’ll take them (however undeservedly). And Zootopia will doubtless score Best Animated Feature.

But I wanted to dedicate this post to the New Year’s Eves of Oscars Past, and think about the Best Picture nominees down the years that have at least addressed this only-important-in-movies holiday. There have not been many.

image.aspx.gifSadly, ignored by the Academy. Really thought de Niro would pick up his third Oscar for this one.

As far as I can tell, two Best Picture winners have heavily involved New Year’s Eve in their narratives. The second, 1960’s The Apartment, is sadly one I have not yet seen…and if I continue Oscar and I’s slow pace, expect my review of it sometime in the year 2029. But I do know the basic plot, and I can say its treatment of New Year’s Eve as some magical night where all the people who forgot to obtain the Love of Their Life at Christmas are given another chance. In a way, it led us to 2011’s New Year’s Eve, which I also haven’t seen, and you can expect my review of that sometime next never.

The first, which I covered…damn, two years ago…is Cavalcade, the winner of the 6th Academy Awards for 1932/33. It opens on New Year’s Eve 1899, with a ridiculously prim and proper English couple such as only Noël Coward could imagine coming home at midnight and optimistically predicting a wondrous and peaceful 20th century. It’s supposed to be ironic, I guess, but the whole film is just so full of stiff-upper-lippedness–especially when it condenses the First World War into an almost jubilant montage that doesn’t scar its participants in any way whatsoever–that it just flops through its overlong runtime like a salmon trying to make it to a fishing hole across a frozen lake.

In my review, I mentioned I could only obtain a grainy copy of the film that looked like it had been re-recorded several times, with subtitles in Portuguese that not only could not be turned off, but oftentimes directly contradicted the dialogue in English. This is because Cavalcade is the only Best Picture winner never to be officially released on home video.

Unknown.jpegAnd if we’re accepting suggestions to add to that list…

I suppose my favorite New Year’s-themed film has to be The Poseidon Adventure, a raucous film from the early 1970s disaster boom that also gave us The Towering Inferno and Earthquake. In this one, an ocean liner gets hit by a rogue wave and flips over, and it’s up to Gene Hackman and Ernest Borgnine to save the day. It did win an Academy Award, for the almost impressively awful song “The Morning After”, and also received a nomination for its original score.

Unknown-1.jpegBecause Academy rules dictate that John Williams must receive at least one nomination per year.

And speaking of Best Original Score at the 45th Academy Awards, it was to be the only Oscar Charlie Chaplin ever received, for his film Limelight (which had actually been released 1952 but, due to a technicality, was not eligible for the Oscars until 1972). And even though it predated the Oscars, there’s also that almost unbearably touching New Year’s Eve scene in his 1925 classic The Gold Rush:

So unless ships are flipping upside down or there’s gold in them thar hills, it seems that New Year’s Eve is a pretty barren holiday when it comes to great films. That’s something someone can work to correct in 2017 and beyond…the Oscars deserve a win on this date. In any event, I’m off to see if I can eat 12 grapes in thirty seconds to portend prosperity in the coming year. And since I’m eager to go and start the obligatory drinking (since I rarely touch the stuff any other time of year…I may try this “beer” thing I keep hearing about), here’s another scene from The Gold Rush:

Happy 2017, everyone!

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Christmas at the Oscars

It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

220px-Its_A_Wonderful_Life_Movie_Poster

Sigh.

Here it is, the Ultimate Christmas Film, the one that gets trotted out every December on basic cable and in cinematic revivals–even in France–to lift the maudlin spirits of those who need a refresher course on how angels achieve winghood. Need your faith in humanity restored? The first step, so says conventional wisdom, is to watch It’s a Wonderful Life.

I must admit, when I first started on this journey a year ago, I wasn’t looking forward to this one. I first saw It’s a Wonderful Life some time ago, and it soured me to Capra for years afterward. I was annoyed by the pomposity, the triteness, the lack of believable performances, and the naïveté of its message. But then I embarked on this little project and I saw It Happened One NightMr. Deeds Goes to TownLost HorizonYou Can’t Take it With You, and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and I realized…goddamn, can Frank Capra direct a motion picture. So I approached this film with at least a little bit of optimism, imagining (in the spirit of the season) that within the context of the rest of his catalogue, perhaps It’s a Wonderful Life is not so sickeningly saccharine as it at first appears.

And lo and behold, I discovered that within the context provided by Capra’s previous efforts, it is even worse than I’d remembered.

All the subtlety, the subtext, and the restraint of those films I mentioned above are gone, and the clear technical and artistic progression I observed between 1934 and 1939 just disappeared entirely. I understand that World War II had just ended and people needed a bit of moral boosting in its wake, and not every film can be The Best Years of Our Lives…but come on. I’m pretty sure Disney showed this film to the lemmings in White Wilderness to make them throw themselves off that cliff.

Look, I’m all about optimism in motion pictures, and I’d come to expect it from Capra, but he’d grown so much as a storyteller in the 1930s, able to weave it in to plots and characters that don’t gloss over the dark path that lies ahead after the credits roll. For example, Mr. Smith took on Washington and Capra had the cajones to end it on a deeply troubling note, implying that American politics was irreparably damaged and that the effort of one righteous person ultimately doesn’t change much. Here, he actually seems to believe that to be true, and that he’d filmed a happy, uplifting ending…and so do most people who watch it, it seems.

The story, for those lucky few out there who have avoided the film until now, is about a man named George Bailey who wants nothing more than to get out of the one-horse town in which he finds himself, only to be stymied at every turn by accidents and his indefatigable sense of right. So he watches as everyone close to him goes off to lead the lives he dreams of for himself, while he never leaves Bedford Falls. Things just go from bad to worse as he marries the love of his life, successfully stands up to the machinations of the materialistic Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore, playing pretty much the exact opposite of his character in YCTIWY), and enjoys the love and respect of literally everyone in the town and beyond.

jimmy_stewart_in_its_a_wonderful_life.jpgThe fuck are you complaining about, again?

Nothing about George Bailey suggests he would do anything with his “freedom” besides travel around the world for a while as a tourist and then settle right back into Bedford Falls where he clearly belongs. Still, he’s so obtuse–and, one could argue, just as materialistic as Potter…he just buries it to feel superior–that he’s driven to the brink of suicide, only to be saved by the intervention of a slightly senile angel named Clarence (who only steps in because he wants to earn his wings…if he’d already had them, the film ends with Bailey drowning while Clarence watches and then flies away).

So he sees all the harm that befalls Bedford Falls when he’s not around, thanks to the contrivance of growing up in a town dominated by a One-Dimensional Antagonist up to whom no one will stand but him. He’s finally convinced of his worth when he is told that his wife remained single, and thus was never fulfilled by the bearing of his children. The camel’s back breaks when he sees her and discovers that, in this horrifying alternate timeline, she is a librarian who wears glasses.

images.jpeg“My god…no one should have to live through progressive myopia!”

(I’d argue that she’s doing more with her life in this reality, keeping a library operating and, it seems, relatively unscathed in a town as hedonistic and slummy as Pottersville. She’s needed here far more than in Bedford Falls, but since her role is to serve the protagonist, the film just glosses over that. Where’s her angel?)

And so George prays to get his old life back, Clarence gives it to him, and he returns to his family and friends, ostensibly a better man for his ordeal. Clarence gets his wings, George learns he’s not a complete failure, and everybody sings and laughs and cries. In the end, of course, everything is exactly the same as it was when George was standing on the bridge…actually, it’s worse. Much worse.

I mean, sure, the town and its inhabitants are better off than if he hadn’t been born, but nothing’s changed about the real world, the one in which he exists. He’s still deep in debt, managing a business with a patently unsustainable business model, and his rich friend is just advancing him $25,000, so that’s just more debt. Being in debt to friends is far worse than being in debt to enemies. Also, Potter’s still out there, and he’s not going to stop…Capra forgot the most important part of this story, the moral change that Potter must go through if anything is to get better. But his epiphany never comes, and indeed nothing implies that it will…he’s happy with who and what he is, and if he doesn’t consider himself a failure, what does it matter if Bailey and the rest of them–or we the audience, for that matter–do? What’s standing in his way besides a suicidal nudnik and a gaggle of indifferent townies?

In fact, Potter’s in a more powerful position than he’s ever been, because all the struggling townsfolk just gave their pocket money to George Bailey to save his business/etc. So now the next time Potter decides to make a move, no one will be able to stop him. The town is fucked.

In a month’s time, when the feelings have worn off, the business collapses, and George is driven to suicide again, the only thing different will be that he now knows he’s better off dead. His existence has merely delayed the inevitable. Bedford Falls becomes Pottersville all the same, only Mary can’t run the library because she’s a widow with four children to support, so all intellectual pursuits dry up and the town ends up worse than Bailey’s nightmare.

The Bishop’s Wife (1947)

The_Bishop's_Wife_clean_poster

The Bishop’s Wife is a charming comedy about how angels gotta have it, and the trouble they can cause to marriages when they look like Cary Grant.

its_a_wonderful_life_3.jpgSend this guy, and the movie’s over in five minutes.

The film tells the story of an angel (Grant) who magics his way into the lives of stodgy married couple David Niven and Loretta Young and immediately starts causing discord–or, to be fair, bringing to light the discord already bubbling under the surface–in order to “help” them or something. This help consists mostly of ruining Niven’s life while showing everyone else the time of theirs, and convincing Loretta Young that her husband is and always will be dull as dishwater.

Don’t get me wrong, the movie is hilarious and charming, and all the actors play their roles perfectly, but man does David Niven’s character get a beating, all for the crime of having a beautiful wife with whom an impish angel wants some alone time. Even a random cab driver comes out of the whole thing with an epiphany, doing triple axels with Young and Grant on a Central Park skating rink, while Niven is literally stuck to a chair in the company of the film’s main antagonist. Keep in mind, Grant didn’t glue him there so that the two could come to an understanding that advances the plot…he just wanted to skate without Niven ruining his idyllic park date with Niven’s wife.

Fortunately, though, just when he’s at the brink of despair, Niven is offered words of wisdom by 1940s Hollywood’s resident Old British Curmudgeon with a Heart of Gold, Monty Woolley. Woolley is a Egyptologist who, thanks to Grant, is now well on the way to completing his history book (again, everybody wins here but the one Grant is ostensibly there to help), and tells the forlorn Niven that he can save his marriage because he has something very important that the angel lacks.

Unknown.jpeg“Seriously, he’s like a Ken doll down there.”

Okay, that’s not it…it’s uxorial love, or something. In the end, the situation is resolved when the angel just leaves and gives them all a healthy dose of Hollywood amnesia, by which they forget he ever existed but retain all the lessons he taught them. Everyone’s happy, and no one makes mention the fact that they just blacked out for two weeks and came to with entirely different weltanshauungs (and, in Woolley’s case, a first draft of a Cleopatra biography).

As far as the “angel enters someone’s life at Christmastime and helps them realize it’s a wonderful life” genre goes, it’s better than It’s a Wonderful Life, but it’s still a damned odd and incoherent excuse for the cast to play their respective typecasts: Cary Grant, the charming rogue; Loretta Young, the naive romantic; David Niven, the stiff-upper-lip bloke who just needs to lighten up; and Monty Woolley, the aforementioned O.B.C. with an H.O.G. And even if the moral isn’t really supported by the narrative, at least it’s a better message than the other Christmas film this year…

Miracle on 34th Street (1947)

Miracle_on_34th_Street

The first of approximately four hundred adaptations of this story, Miracle on 34th Street finds Santa Claus (or maybe just a senile old man who speaks Dutch) in Manhattan for the holidays. Exactly who’s running the shop while he’s living it up in Gotham is never addressed, and if his actions in the film are any indication it would have been better for all involved if he’d just stayed home. In any event, he’s there, eager to impart on anyone who has the misfortune of meeting him the true meaning of Christmas: that children deserve all the toys and possessions they want and only bad parents don’t provide them.

This is a movie that relies entirely on schmaltz and corniness at the total expense of character development, attention to narrative detail, and even a passing resemblance to the morality it claims to espouse. Throughout the film, most changes happen off-screen and for no discernible reason, leaving the majority of characters’ motivations constantly shifting and inexplicable. It also commits the It’s a Wonderful Life sin of not giving a toss about the moral arc of the antagonist…instead, everyone just forgets he exists as soon as his function (providing an opportunity for the brilliant-because-reasons lawyer to prove Santa is real in a goddamn court of law) is complete.

imgres.jpg“And remember, Santa only cares about A-listers.”

The only people Santa helps in the film are people who are already moral, relatively stable, and sure of who they are–he has no time for anyone else who might actually benefit from someone caring about them. This is established in his first scene, when he gets Macy’s current Santa Claus fired just before the parade because the man has been drinking…not even drunk, just a little tipsy. And he drinks, one imagines, because he is a lonely man without a home who only works for a few weeks out of the year by virtue of not having enough money to buy a razor. He may have died frozen in Central Park on Christmas Eve, for all the real Santa cares, so long as he gets to give a spoiled child a goddamn house.

Oh yes, that’s the other lesson of the film: if you wish hard enough, you get everything you want. The little girl wants a house in the suburbs (which her mother, being an executive at Macy’s, should be able to afford anyway), and asks Santa for it. He demures, and later it seems like she doesn’t get this completely irrational and ridiculous gift…until, in the end, of course she does, because it’s more important to keep a child naive than to teach them that sometimes, they don’t get handed everything they want immediately and tax-free. And they should expect nothing less than that.

miracle-on-34th-street-3.jpg“I asked for a white grand piano in the conservatory, asshole.”

Amoral Santas and home wrecking angels…the year’s off to a weird start.

John Lennon

In 1970, the Beatles won the Academy Award for Best Original Song Score (a category still active, though now it’s called Best Original Musical and hasn’t been awarded since 1984) for Let It Be. So, this tribute makes perfect sense.

John Lennon did just about everything creative during his brief life, and if that whole Beatles thing hadn’t panned out (for example, if they hadn’t drawn George Martin as a producer, or Brian Epstein hadn’t taught them how to appeal to a wider audience than the basements in Hamburg dance clubs), he could have fallen back on his acting. While all of the Beatles proved they could act (particularly Ringo), only John had that wonderfully British surrealist sensibility that brought the world A Spaniard in the Works and delightful comic scenes like…


I have no evidence, but I am convinced this a word-for-word interaction he had in real life.

That scene is from the cinéma vérité tour de force A Hard Day’s Night, which was made to cash in on the Beatlemania fad (EMI expected to make more from the soundtrack than the film itself) but is today recognized as one of the greatest films of the 1960s. John’s sardonic, quirky performance is the highlight of a film full of highlights, and although Ringo is a better actor and justly provides the dramatic fulcrum of the story, I don’t think A Hard Day’s Night would be the classic of British comedy that it is were it not for John.

A consummate comic performer, John would have been right at home as a member of The Goonies or Beyond the Fringe–he appeared a couple of times on Peter Cook and Dudley Moore’s early show, Not Only…But Also–and even though he hated Help! (commenting that the Beatles were extras in their own movie), the movie was the forerunner of the kind of absurdist humor that would find its peak in Monty Python a few years down the road.


This bit required Ringo to stay at home so as not to cause a time travel paradox when his 1974 self arrived to shoot the scene.

John got sick of being a Beatle around the first time they had to be chauffeured from a concert in the back of an armored vehicle, and when tensions in the group reached such a height in 1966 that they had to take an extended break from the group, he starred in his only non-Beatles film, How I Won the War. The film, also directed by Richard Lester, is a pitch-black, absurdist anti-war film, in which Lennon plays Musketeer Gripweed, a British army soldier who constantly clashes with his superiors due to his fascist political ideology. It fared poorly at the box office, but it’s one of my favorites, full of dark satire and surrealism, and definitely worth a watch. Just don’t expect a happy ending.

73628Unless you count John coming away from it with a new sense of optical style.

It was while waiting between scenes that John wrote “Strawberry Fields Forever,” definitely in his top five Beatles-era songs, which in turn led to this beautiful music video (sorry it’s shortened, blame Apple Corp.):


Fun fact: Every shot in this video is backwards, except the one of Paul jumping into the tree.

Of course, in the late 60s John met Yoko Ono, and began a dedication to social justice and peace that lasted the rest of his life.

On this date in 1980, John Lennon was murdered outside the Dakota apartment building, where he lived, in New York City. These days, every year on this night, hundreds gather in Strawberry Fields, a section of Central Park established in 1985 as a memorial to Lennon, to sing Beatles songs and pay tribute to the man and his memory. If you get a chance, stop by the next time you find yourself in the city in December. It’s well worth the biting cold, the often poor musicianship, and the occasional drunks…standing there, head bowed, during the moments of silence, followed by a quiet rendition of “Imagine” or “Across the Universe”, is a truly moving experience.

4 “Good” Characters who are Horrible People

I have nothing against horrible people as cinematic or literary characters. Many of the great protagonists throughout film history have been bastards: Charles Foster Kane, Michael Corleone, Ferdinando Cefalù, and so on. They are profoundly interesting, challenging characters with whom I am usually far more engaged than straight-up “good guys.”

Unknown.jpegSeriously, fuck this guy.

What I want to talk about is when Hollywood pulls the wool over our eyes, presenting us with a character who is shown as the embodiment of all that is good in ourselves and our spirits, for whom we cheer when they win and weep when they lose, and who represents an ideal for which we should strive—when in reality, the person is an egotistical, selfish sociopath disregarding the rules of society for their own ends. Like I said, this kind of character is fine, if that’s what the creators were going for, but here are four times when they were not.

Ethan Hawke in Gattaca

What the Film Shows:

It’s a terrible future, wherein one’s genes are mapped before birth to create superior humans designed for greatness while rejects are cast aside to work with Ernest Borgnine. No longer is one’s station in life determined by one’s own achievements, but by sequencing that consigns one to a preordained position. If you’re told you’re not good enough to be an Olympic athlete, discover a cure for cancer, or go on some purposeless space mission, there’s no point in even trying, because science has spoken.

It’s enough to strike terror in the hearts of anyone who values individual freedom and believes in the inherent ability of anyone to do anything they want, so long as they’ve got grit (and a passing resemblance to Jude Law). Well, Ethan Hawke isn’t taking that guff, and despite the drawbacks in having been born via the old method of random gene shuffling, he’s going to go up on the next space shuttle and fulfill his childhood dream, because everyone, everywhere, has the basic human right to decide their own destiny at every second of every day. He is us in our struggle to assert our freedom!

Actually…

The reason Hawke is denied a place in the space program is that he has a life-threatening heart defect. I may be out of line here, but I wouldn’t want to send someone with that condition into space. In today’s world, he would be bounced out of the running as soon as this condition was detected. And it’s not as if they’re unfairly discriminating against him because he might have this defect: he’s shown collapsing and clutching his chest after running on a treadmill set to “Arthritic Snail” for less than three minutes. If he can’t even take a pleasant jog, what makes him think he’ll be able to handle a goddamn shuttle mission?

I don’t want to exaggerate anything, so I’ll word this very carefully: this guy is the worst person in the world. If he gave a damn about space exploration, or about anyone other than himself, he could easily have gotten an education and worked as a technician or engineer or something else on the ground, but for him, that’s not what this is about. He doesn’t give a single shit about the success of the mission—hell, he probably doesn’t even know what the purpose is—about the realities of space travel, or about the safety of himself or others—he just wants to go to space, full stop. And so, instead of accepting that it is his own body, not the mean, party-pooping, gene-altering government, that is keeping him earthbound, he decides to endanger the mission, the program, and the lives of the actual astronauts.

Unknown-2.jpegI almost wrote “his fellow astronauts,” but he’s an astronaut in the same way this guy is a doctor.

The film ends with his sublime face staring out the shuttle window as the rocket takes off, probably because if it had lasted five seconds longer we’d be treated to his sudden, feckless, violent death as his heart explodes in his chest, and the frantic attempts by Gattaca to return his faceless, blood-spattered colleagues safely to Earth through the wreckage of his shitty behavior. And the moral of the story would be “Don’t put others in mortal danger to pursue your pipe dreams,” rather than “Go ahead and scam your way to your dreams, because rules and basic human biology are for quitters.”

Ferris Bueller in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off

What the Movie Shows Us:

Who wouldn’t want to be this authority-defying, devil-may-care, roguish sweetheart? Who wouldn’t want to just cut out of that boring, beige purgatory, borrow his friend’s father’s Ferrari, and just gambol around Chicago without any sense of consequence? What a fun day, and what a great guy this Ferris Bueller is, popular enough rally support from all corners of the city and filled with so much confidence he can bring a goddamn parade to its knees with a lip-synch of “Twist and Shout.” And that ingenious dummy-in-the-bed ruse…such tomfoolery!

Actually…

This one is pretty obvious, and I’m certainly not the first to point out that Ferris Bueller is a narcissistic, self-centered prick. People have already identified Ed Rooney as the true, tragic hero of this sordid tale, a man whose ruin comes about from the sin of giving a shit about his job.

But I’ll focus on Bueller. First of all, he holds his parents, both of whom wither away at thankless jobs to give him the lifestyle he feels he’s entitled to, in open contempt: it takes a special kind of egomaniacal psychosis to think that that dummy in the bed would fool anyone with an IQ above 0, but that’s the regard he has for his parents. The fact that it works is not a testament to Ferris’ ingenuity but to the screenplay’s need to show Ferris as correct in everything he does.

Second, he constantly narrates his life to an audience he is certain is hanging on his every word, deed, and thought. There is no sense of irony in his self-righteous monologues about how great it is to drive a Ferrari; he honestly believes he is teaching us, the poor little rule-followers, how to live the dream.

Unknown-3.jpeg“If you have the means, I highly recommend picking one up.” Oh, you mean stealing it, you condescending shit-for-brains?

But what really gives us our deepest, most disturbing glimpse into Ferris’ black soul is the fact that he treats his supposed best friend like shit. Clearly he only calls Cameron up because he has designs on Cameron’s father’s vintage, incredibly valuable automobile. Don’t tell me he only demands it after Cameron’s “screw up”; Ferris goddamn Bueller doesn’t putter around Chicago on his day off in some jalopy. His end game was always the theft of the Ferrari. And even that doesn’t tell the whole story of his solipsistic douchery: remember, Cameron’s father is angry and abusive, so Cameron is almost guaranteed a beating as a result of Ferris’ need to always be the center of attention, even amongst strangers on the street.

Ferris knows this, because he’s been fucking with poor Cameron, by the latter’s estimation, since fifth grade, always pulling the “find yourself a new best friend if you don’t do my bidding” card. Ah, yes, emotional manipulation, the cornerstone of any good friendship. He has a clear understanding of how Cameron’s father will react, and he doesn’t give a shit, because Cameron is not Ferris Bueller and so is not worthy of consideration. Sure, Ferris pulls Cameron out of the pool when he thought he was drowning, but given what we know about Ferris, it’s only because an actual death would violate his blinkered, sociopathic certainty that the purpose of the world is to show him a good time.

Despite Ferris’ pseudo-sadness at the thought, the best thing that will ever happen to Cameron is when he and Ferris split up and go to different colleges, and Cameron realizes he doesn’t have to acquiesce to a friend who so flippantly disregards his emotional and physical safety. Fortunately for Ferris, he has a girlfriend who is equally selfish and immature (“I think I’ll tongue-kiss Ferris now, despite the fact that he’s pretending to be my father and the principal is watching, because how could that possibly go wrong?”), so he’ll have company when Rooney completes his investigation and he is Steve Holting his way through his fourth senior year.

Unknown-4.jpegUnless she dumps him for hitting on random sunbathers two minutes after telling her he loves her…

 

Rita in Groundhog Day

What the Movie Shows

“Gosh, you’re an upbeat lady!” exclaims about-to-be-redeemed Phil Connors, when it finally dawns on him that Rita’s inexhaustibly cheerful and optimistic Weltanschauung is his path to both salvation and her vagina. And she is such an inspiration, isn’t she? Always smiling, always with a kind word, smart, witty, well-read, ambitious, everything a person should be! And she saves Phil from his path of nihilistic self-destruction, and now they’re goin’ to the chapel and they’re gonna get married.

Actually…

Just what the hell does Rita have to be happy about, anyway? This is a question that is not asked enough in this world, and it’s a pertinent one. And the cold, hard fact is that she’s just one of those “happy for no reason” people who normal, decent citizens just want to punch in the face.

Let’s start with the obvious: her advice to Phil after he reveals to her his existential nightmare is irresponsible at best and deeply harmful at worst. Sure, we, the audience members who are experienced in the ways of Hollywood resolutions, are confident that if Phil applies himself to becoming a better person, the magic loop he’s in will suddenly break at exactly the right moment, but within the Groundhog Day universe, Rita has no reason to believe that to be the case. Essentially, she’s telling Phil that he ought to learn languages, read books, and try to find meaning in what will most likely be an endless parade of February 2nds in which it doesn’t matter whether or not he performs good, altruistic deeds or mean, selfish ones.

Unknown.jpegHe could just let this kid drop and then harvest his organs, and the outcome would be the same.

This is worse than telling someone with a terminal disease that everything is going to be all right because you “know” it will be. At least in that situation, the person will die soon and not have to think about how much you deluded them for reasons only you, the Happy Person, can understand. In Phil’s case, what if things had turned out differently, if Groundhog Day had been directed by Werner Herzog instead of Harold Ramis? He would have been trapped forever, and eventually it would have dawned on him that Rita’s (for that matter, everyone’s) philosophy becomes absurd in the face of immortality. He would have stopped learning the piano, reading her favorite novels, and sculpting creepy ice angels, because they would cease to have any meaning or satisfaction, and his disappointment would quickly turn into psychotic, passionate hatred for the person who so cruelly gave him such reckless hope.

Unknown-1.jpegAnd this will be the last thing Rita sees…every day, for eternity.

“Okay, maybe in some weird nightmare that happens, but not in the film!” you say. All right, then, we’ll concentrate purely on what is in the film as it stands. Even then, I maintain that Rita is arrogant, entitled, and annoyingly self-righteous.

All one has to do is look at a single scene to realize how horrible Rita truly is. It comes at the beginning of the sequence in which Phil begins to woo her through the romantic tactic of learning her likes and dislikes and pretending to change. He orders her favorite drink, and she asks him what they should drink to. He gamely suggests, “To the Groundhog!”, which is hardly Oscar Wilde but is nevertheless a fine, adequately funny toast that should have been enough to break the ice and lead to a relaxed conversation. Instead of responding like a normal human being, however, Rita turns away with a look of haughty disdain and, with as much pretention as she can muster, declares, “I always drink to world peace.”

maxresdefault.jpg“I’m also a vegan. Fuck you for not knowing that.”

What just happened?! First, even if that’s her preferred toast, why does she have to be so mean about it? There’s no way Phil could have known she always drinks to that. Second, if she’s so committed to toasting world peace, why does she even ask him what they should drink to? Why not just say, “To world peace!” If she had, and Phil had acted the way she does to his toast, she’d be (justly) offended and have nothing more to do with him. Instead, she is the one to get angry and blow him off, and he is the one left feeling like a twat.

There’s no reason Phil shouldn’t just leave at this point and spend infinity banging Nancy.

kissingflorence.jpgHe’s got a promise here, too.

Kevin McAllister in Home Alone 2: Lost in New York

What the Film Shows Us:

Everyone’s favorite social services case study is abandoned by his family again, only this time they lost him at the airport so he managed to get himself lost in…some city, I can’t remember. And as luck would have it, the same two endearingly incompetent burglars from last Christmas are in the same town, and since it’s a pretty small hamlet, they inevitably run into each other and hijinks ensue. Once again Kevin must set up a series of elaborate traps to subdue the criminals until his family reunites and they get to spend Christmas in a plush suite at the Plaza, complete with half the stock of a grateful department store owner. Things go so well that next year they’re going to strand Kevin in Mogadishu and wait to inherit the Saudi family fortune.

Actually…

Kevin isn’t the protagonist of Home Alone 3, and that’s probably because he was committed to a psychiatric asylum shortly after the events of Lost in New York. The Kevin we see here is not the innocent child of the first film…he’s been warped psychologically by ongoing familial neglect, and it has turned him into a manipulative, amoral, borderline psychopathic compulsive liar who delights in inflicting physical pain on others (mental pain is beyond his ken, as he does not view other humans as real and therefore is concerned only with their outward manifestations. Visible bruises are what satisfy him).

rope-on-fire.gifHe came just thinking this up.

Kevin’s actions in the first film make sense, once one accepts the curious absence of law enforcement in his clearly upscale neighborhood. like any normal American eight-year-old, he’s seen Straw Dogs a few times, and he feels that it’s his duty to defend his home against invaders—he only settles for HotWheels when he can’t find his father’s bear trap. And given Marv and Harry’s disturbing fixation on him and his house, he is right to go a bit overboard with the preparations.

Cut to a year later, though, and we witness a sociopath with nothing on his mind but torture and death. The intervening time has been spent sitting in the attic watching Cannibal Holocaust over and over, and he’s just soaking it all in and thinking how he let Marv and Harry off easy because he was just a careless kid. Just give him another shot, he thinks…and he gets it.

Finding himself in New York, he feigns shock but quickly shows just how much he’s grown up since last time by committing credit card fraud without batting an eye, and conning the entire staff of the Plaza Hotel into doing his bidding.

Unknown.jpeg“And when we’re through with this, I’ve got a clown costume for you.”

Soon he comes across Marv and Harry again, who now have a legitimate reason to obsess over Kevin (all the maiming), and here’s where a normal person would go to the police and return to his suite to watch the arrest on television. But as we’ve seen, Kevin is far from normal, and instead thinks, “I’ve got access to an empty building that is conveniently free of squatters and rats, the perfect chance to show these fools pain they’ve never dreamed could exist. Marv will be begging me for a nail in his foot by the end of the night!” Then he laughed maniacally and found a few homeless people to stab while he choreographed the carnage in his twisted mind.

In the first film, as I said, he was in his house, so it made sense that he had to get creative to keep Marv and Harry at bay. Here, he doesn’t have even that flimsy excuse to indulge his murderous improv. He straight up lures them to his chthonic playground, knowing they are fueled by vengeance and the combined IQ of a pretzel, and he has moved up from toy cars and broken glass to lead pipes, blowtorches, and bags of goddamn cement. There is not a single apparatus in that house that is not designed to kill.

Just as in the first film, it all goes flawlessly, as Marv and Harry blunder into one nightmare after another until they are probably convinced that they are still in prison and have dropped some bad acid. And just as in the first film, Kevin is eventually bailed out by the creepy person who turns out to be…still pretty goddamned creepy, but a creep who Kevin can manipulate into participating in his morbid schemes. And just as in the first film, the family bounds in after it’s all over and, all of them being oblivious morons, fail to notice the deadness in Kevin’s eyes as he looks forward to the day when he picks them all off, one by one.

Home-Alone-home-alone-30912226-2560-1740.jpg“You, mother, shall be last so as to witness my TRANSFORMATION.”

 

Gene Wilder

The Waco Kid…Skip Donahue…Dr. Frederick Frankenstein (pronounced FRONK-un-steen)…Leo Bloom…(nearly) Royal Tenenbaum…and, of course, the true Willy Wonka. The world lost a legend today with the death of Gene Wilder.

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Because my father knew the value of a good comedic education, my introduction to Mr. Wilder’s particular, inimitable blend of laughter and adorableness came with Mel Brooks’ 1974 comedy Blazing Saddles. Considering that this is a film known primarily for a minute-long flatulence sequence and enough use of the N-word to make Quentin Tarantino blush, what I remember most is Wilder as the washed-up, gin-soaked gunfighter with the fastest hands in the West (correction…in the world). He breezes into the film at the end of the first act and simply owns it from there on out…nothing, not even a man punching out an horse, can match his effortless good nature, his timing, and the contented smile that comes to your face whenever he’s onscreen.

 
Not to mention his inspirational speeches.

This was one of three corroborations with Mel Brooks, along with 1968’s The Producers (for which he was nominated for Best Supporting Actor, legitimizing this post) and 1974’s Young Frankenstein. In fact, Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein were, respectively, the first- and fourth-highest grossing films of that year.

If I had to pick a favorite Wilder film, and I would hate to have to, it would be Young Frankenstein, for which he also wrote the screenplay (which was nominated for an Academy Award, but lost to The Godfather Part II…we’ll argue the legitimacy of that when I get to the 47th Awards). The story of Victor Frankenstein’s relatively-sane grandson, desperate to forge a reputation untainted by his “accidental relationship to a famous cuckoo,” the film manages at once to be a irreverent parody of and a loving tribute to its source material, making the case that destiny can be a force for good and that embracing it can lead to wonderful things, like scientific breakthroughs and marrying Teri Garr.


And the finest charades game ever committed to film.

Beyond his work with Brooks, Gene Wilder also distinguished himself in Start the Revolution Without Me, a 1970 comedy about the French Revolution which Orson Welles is not in. He co-stars with Donald Sutherland, and if you haven’t seen this underrated gem I suggest you do so now.

Wasn’t that amazing? Even though you just watched it, I’m going to post one of several of my favorite Gene Wilder moments:


The rest of humanity wishes it could strut like this.

I suppose the role for which he will always be remembered is the one that frightened the shit out of us all as children, the unpredictable, amoral, lovable psychopath that is Willy Wonka. It’s one of those parts that would never have worked with someone else (to which the recent Tim Burton remake attests), and he plays it with a manic, childlike enthusiasm that no one else can match…it was the role he was born to play.

That introduction was his own invention…the idea was that it would instantly establish Wonka as a prankster whose motivation would never be clear and whose verisimilitude would always be questioned. Not only that, it was the first time any of the main cast had seen Wilder as Wonka…Charlie’s shocked expression is completely real.

I haven’t even touched on Stir Crazy, his wild, mostly improvised pairing with Richard Pryor; his sheep-loving doctor in Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex *But Were Afraid to Ask; or even the supremely weird The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother. All of these I saw at an early age…Gene Wilder films have been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. In short, a big part of my childhood died today, and at the young age of 83. I can’t imagine anyone else like him, or any of the films he made without him. His films will be a part of the world of comedy for as long as there are humans to watch and admire them, and his contribution to the art will never be forgotten. I, for one, will never cease to be inspired by his unquenchable optimism, his sublime, inspirational, unassuming genius.

So much time, and so little to do. Wait a minute…strike that. Reverse it.

Gene-Wilder.jpg

It’s Hammer (Films) Time

For devotees of British horror films and lovers of sonorous voices that dance on the ears like a favorite melody, this is a weekend of celebration and tribute: yesterday (May 27) was the birthday of both Christopher Lee (1922-2015) and Vincent Price (1911-1993), and the day before was that of my favorite of the trio, Peter Cushing (1913-1994). While none of them found success at the Academy Awards, making this entry a bit of an extravagance (and a digression I can ill afford, given my recent neglect of the amazing 21st Academy Awards), I feel I’d be remiss if I didn’t pay homage to this trio who–and I don’t think I’m exaggerating here–changed life on this Earth for the better in every conceivable way.

4018747705_90cff03a51_oPictured: the high watermark of the human species.

We’ve seen Vincent Price a couple times on Oscars and I…he played the Evil Atheist in The Song of Bernadette, a film so saccharine you can sweeten your coffee with it, and the hilariously-named William Gibbs McAdoo in 1944’s travesty Wilson. I was first introduced to him in Roger Corman’s delightfully campy The Pit and the Pendulum (1961), but my favorite of his films (so far…I still have roughly 600 to watch) is William Castle’s 1959 House on Haunted Hill:


I could post a clip, but do yourself a favor and watch the whole thing.

I also love his turn as The Devil in The Story of Mankind, which I only heard about and saw because it was the last film to feature the Marx Brothers (in separate scenes). My memories of the film are vague, but as I recall it, there’s a new Super Bomb available and the Devil and someone from the Other Place are debating whether humanity, up until 1957, has been a force for good or evil. Being as it was that era’s equivalent of an Ocean’s movie, you can guess the verdict. It’s not a good film by any stretch, but the collection of Golden Age talent is without equal and who other than Vincent Price could make the case for the irredeemability of the human species?

priceless“I know my mere existence suggests otherwise, but hear me out.”

This footage of Price reading Poe’s The Raven just confirms that his was the greatest speaking voice in cinema history. If I had one wish, it would be for his voice to narrate my internal monologue.

Christopher Lee, of course, needs no introduction for anyone who’s been to a movie theatre in the past 75 years. He appeared in over 200 movies and is the champion of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, able to be connected to literally anyone who has ever been in a feature film in an average of 1.2 steps. And, to justify this article a bit further, he holds the record for longest gap between appearances in Best Picture-winning films. He played a spear carrier alongside best friend Peter Cushing in Hamlet (1948), and then played Saruman in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003), an interim of 55 years (and yes, I know he only appears in the latter film in the Extended Edition).

A lot of people know that he was an avid Tolkien aficionado who read the books once a year, but my favorite bit of trivia is his involvement in the technical side of his character’s death scene in ROTK: a former SAS operative, he advised Peter Jackson on exactly the kind of noise a man will make when stabbed in the back. He is a great example of how a person can simultaneously be a lovable, grandfatherly figure and literally the most dangerous man alive.

Saruman's_death_3“No, no…when a body drops 200 feet and is impaled on a wooden spike, you get more of a starburst pattern when the blood sprays out. Amateurs.”

I suppose he’ll be remembered by many for his turn as Saruman, but he considered his best film to be the deeply creepy 1973 cult classic The Wicker Man, in which he played the mysterious leader of a pagan cult on a remote Scottish island. I’d have to agree with his assessment, even though for me it’s a close race between this and Taste the Blood of Dracula.


I consider myself a fairly incredulous person, but I’d probably join this cult if he were the leader.

Finally, Peter Cushing. who lived in Whitstable. He’s probably best known nowadays for his role as Admiral Tarkin in the original Star Wars, a film now considered a classic but which starred fewer Oscar-winning actors than Caligula (true story). His role in the film might have been minor, but it was the one that always stuck with me. I don’t know about you, but when I saw the movie I got the sense that Princess Leia’s snide comment about him and Darth Vader wasn’t just a bit of space sass. There was definitely more to their relationship than the classic commander/weird-shiny-helmet-guy dynamic.

petercushingstarwarstarkin5756Sometimes, Vader held the leash.

But anyway, Cushing got his first major role in Lawrence Olivier’s Hamlet, 1948’s Best Picture, as Osric, and the fact that he didn’t get typecast as the go-to Dandy Courtier in every period piece made in the next 45 years speaks volumes towards his versatility as an actor (even if I’d absolutely watch his entire oeuvre if it consisted only of that). The majority of his film career was spent alongside Christopher Lee in the Hammer films, often playing the scientist/policeman battling against Lee’s monsters, and he brought a quiet, avuncular dignity to every role he played.

star-wars“I can’t stay mad at you. Alderaan was a boring planet, anyway.”

He and Christopher Lee made many films together and became best friends over the years.  I love their Dracula films, with Lee as the vampire and Cushing battling him as Van Helsing, though occasionally their “roles” were reversed, as in the wonderfully silly Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors, also available in its entirety online:


The film that tried to make us believe that a disembodied, malevolent hand is some kind of threat. Seriously, man, just pick it up and throw it away…its mobility is really limited.

These three combined to make some of the greatest films of the 20th century in any number of genres, but will always be remembered for their indelible impact on the horror film genre. Watching them perform, in particular watching Cushing and Lee perform together, is to witness three actors who adored their craft, who never took themselves too seriously and who must have been amazing to know and work with.

Christopher Lee’s words after Cushing’s death might just be the best eulogy to a lost friend I have ever heard, and the last line accurately describes the legacy of Price, Cushing, and Lee: “[A]t some point of your lives, every one of you will notice that you have in your life one person, one friend whom you love and care for very much. That person is so close to you that you are able to share some things only with him. …And then when that person is gone, there will be nothing like that in your life ever again.”

hys-price-lee-cushing-thumb-630xauto-61299

Trivial Matters #30 – Oscar Siblings

If the Internet is to be believed, today is Sibling(s) Day (a.k.a. Parents’ Poor Financial Decisions Day). Coming from a family of four, this is a particularly meaningful day for me, and also for my three sisters; when I called my oldest sister and told her about this article, before hanging up she allowed me to post the photo below, albeit begrudgingly and with the caveat that I do not use her name.

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My youngest sister, R., responded with “How did you get this number?”, so at least she’s interested in hearing about my life.

So in further honor of this occasion, I thought I’d take the time to consider the achievements of brothers and sisters at the Academy Awards through the years. Lately Joel and Ethan Coen have held the spotlight in this regard, winning for producing, directing, writing Best Picture No Country for Old Men in 2007, and writing Fargo in 1996, but siblings have been vying for and winning Oscars almost since the beginning.

It only took until 1929/1930, the 3rd Academy Awards, for the first set of siblings to take home Oscars (perhaps unsurprisingly, given that there were only about 25 people in the Academy at that time). That year, Norma Shearer won Best Actress for The Divorcee, and her brother, sound pioneer Douglas Shearer, took home the inaugural award for Best Sound Recording for The Big House, the first of his fourteen Oscars.

features-02bBy 1940 he was using them to fix wobbly tables.

These two were, to my mind, the most successful sibling pair at the Oscars, with Douglas being the first person to win consecutive Oscars (for Naughty Marietta in 1935 and San Francisco in 1936), and Norma getting to play Leslie Howard‘s romantic partner three timesBut they were only the beginning.

Probably the most famous sibling rivalry at the Oscars was between Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine, intensely competitive actresses who are, to date, the only siblings to each win Oscars for acting in leading categories. Their disparate surnames neatly sum up the sisters’ troubled relationship: elder sister Olivia was the first to pursue an acting career, and when Joan tried to follow her lead, their mother Lilian wouldn’t allow her to use the family name, for fear it would detract from Olivia’s career.

abcwalter61She was used to it, though, after trying to break into professional Go after her father.

Between the two of them, they won three Best Actress statuettes in the 1940s–the first was Fontaine for Suspicion (1941), with de Havilland also nominated for her role in the hard-to-find melodrama Hold Back the Dawn. According to legend, de Havilland refused to congratulate Fontaine, and their mother’s manipulation was so extreme that Fontaine actually felt guilty for winning over her sister. De Havilland, of course, went on to win two Oscars herself, for To Each His Own (1946) and The Heiress (1949), but their relationship continued to deteriorate and they allegedly did not speak to one another from 1975 until Fontaine’s death in late 2013.

Aside from them, the only sister duo to be nominated for Best Actress in the same year are Vanessa and Lynn Redgrave (in 1966, both lost to Elizabeth Taylor for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?).

As far as brother-sister teams go, the only other acting duo were Ethel and Lionel Barrymore, who respectively won Best Supporting Actress for None but the Lonely Heart (1944) and Best Actor for A Free Soul (1931). Years later, Shirley MacLaine won Best Actress in 1983 for Terms of Endearment, two years after her younger brother Warren Beatty was named Best Director for Reds (1981), for which he was also nominated for Best Actor.

Other, less well known sibling winners include:

  • Twins Julius and Philip Epstein, who won for their screenplay for Casablanca (1943).
  • James Goldman won Best Adapted Screenplay for The Lion in Winter (1968); the next year, younger brother William Goldman took Best Original Screenplay for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (and would later win Adapted Screenplay himself for All the President’s Men [1976]).
  • Joseph L. Mankiewicz got his own back for elder brother Herman J.’s Best Original Screenplay win for Citizen Kane (1941) by winning Best Screenplay and Best Director two years in a row (A Letter to Three Wives [1949] and All About Eve [1950]).
  • Composers Alfred Newman and Lionel Newman between them received 56 nominations and 10 Oscars for their film music (though I’m sure Alfred, who won 9 of them from 45 nominations, always qualified that statement at parties).

Finally, the Coppolas, one of only two families with three generations of Oscar winners, have two sets of Oscar-winning/nominated siblings:

  • Francis Ford Coppola (multiple wins, including three for Best Screenplay) and sister Talia Shire (nominated for Best Supporting Actress for The Godfather Part II [1974] and Best Actress for Rocky [1976]).
  • Francis’ children Sofia Coppola (winner of Best Original Screenplay for Lost in Translation [2003]) and Roman Coppola (nominated for Best Original Screenplay for Moonrise Kingdom [2012]).