Thursday, July 3, 2008

Stranger than Paradise

Stranger than Paradise
Jim Jarmusch’s 1984 film, Stranger than Paradise, is most definitely my favorite film viewed in this class. The film has been regarded as unconventional or belonging to a personal taste which I can easily see. Not much happens in the plot, in the camera movement, nor in the score. There is no exciting car chase, no sex, no twists.
Yet, the film has the minimalist cinematography, intriguing characters, and ‘main man’ Screamin' Jay Hawkins. The cinematography works like postcards. Each scene is separated by black titles making the movie feel like a collection of postcards sent from a friend. Nothing much happens, but they feel honest. I wouldn’t believe that Willy or Eddie would have lived an exciting life and they certainly don’t.
The characters are searching for something just like the crews from Kerouac’s On the Road. Each place they arrive, they don’t find the paradise they were looking for. Instead they find dull, ugly, looking places with bad weather. Still, Willy does not stop and makes the bold decision to keep searching. Whatever that is.
Willy. Eddie. Eva. These three characters help us do the search in subtlety. Stranger than Paradise came out at a time when people were fascinated with effects and blockbuster films. Today, mainstream films continue to do so in a much bigger scale. Perhaps movies do not have to overload our brains constantly to bring a reaction. These three characters brought a reaction from me, and their lives were sorta boring.

The Apartment

Without a doubt. The Apartment isn't just my favorite movie we watched in class, it's one of my absolute favorite films ever made, hands down. It's the definitive statement on the nice guy winning over the girl who usually goes for all the jerks, and C.C. Baxter is the ultimate nice guy. I watched it again for the first time in years recently, and once again I was just absorbed. Certainly it's because I've been in Baxter's place before (not so much with the letting the guys use my house for various trysts, but the nice guy stuff), and I'm a romantic at heart, as unpopular or unrealistic as that may be.

What makes the film for me are the weird little things, like how Baxter relentlessly finds ways to distract Miss Kubelik from her troubles with a game of cards or dinner, and somehow makes it a selfless act. Or how the doctor gives Baxter advice on an area of his life that is only an illusion, but ends up being the key to his growth as a person. In screenwriting class, we learned that a character in every film has to grow, and so on and so forth. While I don't agree with that statement (there are lots of great films made over the years in which the character doesn't grow at all), I've never seen it done as effortlessly as in The Apartment.

And Miss Kubelik...Roger Ebert and Kim Morgan have written two of the finest dissertations of her character.

Roger first...

What is particularly good about [Shirley MacLaine's] Miss Kubelik is the way she doesn't make her a ditzy dame who falls for a smooth talker, but suggests a young woman who has been lied to before, who has a good heart but finite patience, who is prepared to make the necessary compromises to be the next Mrs. Sheldrake.

Then Kim Morgan...

What's intriguing about this depiction is how darkly but ultimately non-judgmentally Fran's character is drawn. She makes some bad choices (as do many ladies working for him), but clearly it's tough for the lower-rung working girl, especially if she actually finds herself in love.

Ultimately, MacLaine's performance often comes off a tad flat, but she is supposed to play defeated quite a bit, and there is a noticeable light in her eyes around Baxter that we never see around Sheldrake, the married man she runs around with - just a quiet resignation that she's stuck in love with him. Brilliant undertones for a film to have.


Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Sex, sex, sex.

I like Woody Allen just as much as the next person. I love Sleeper, I love Zelig, and Annie Hall and Manhattan are brilliant. As for his later work, I feel as though he fails in attempts to be too serious. (Match Point was unwatchable, in my opinion. Lots of bad acting. His casting choices often make no sense to me at all.) Woody suffers from having become somewhat of a cliché, and since he makes a movie almost every year, we know more or less what to expect from a Woody Allen flick, and it’s rare that he surprises us anymore. This is how I’ve felt about him for a little while now, until I saw Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex…

Woody is a comedian. He’s a brilliant comedic writer, and we forget this about him when he attempts to be a “serious filmmaker,” but satire is what he is good at, and in my opinion, he should stick to it, because he doesn’t get much funnier than in this film. He takes a subject everyone is familiar with, a subject that he loves – sex – and looks at it from a variety of extremely absurd angles, whether it be the life of a sperm, a love affair with a sheep, or a giant tit bouncing through a field. His point? We all may be different, but we can all relate to the awkwardness of sex. Sex is funny and bizarre, and we forget that sometimes. (At least that's what I took from it.) Woody also craftfully displays his familiarity with many different genres and styles of film and television, from Italian art cinema to the TV game show.

This was without a doubt one of the films that helped establish Allen as one of the definitive filmmakers of the '70s - he adapted it loosely from a popular book at the time and cast a large number of popular actors of the time (several of them unexpected - Burt Reynolds and Lynn Redgrave, for example - not to mention Regis Philbin). The public ate it up - with a $2 million budget, the film grossed over $18 million on the U.S. alone. There is no doubt it did so well likely because it was released at the height of the sexual revolution. I think I enjoyed this film so much because it seems to be so definitive of an era in film I wish I could have experienced at the time - absurdity was more widely accepted as comedy, and people (like myself) weren't sick of Woody Allen yet - they were anxious to see what else he could do. After all, this was the last film he made before he standardized the opening credits for all of his subsequent films.

And of course, Gene Wilder, a man who can do no wrong in my opinion.

Some Like it Hot

After finishing up the semester in American Film Comedy, I am honestly embaressed to say I hadn't seen this film prior to the course.

Even though for its time it was cutting edge, and breaking a lot of boundaries, I really just look at it in a much simpler way and I think it is just a really funny movie. Jack Lemmon is probably the funniest human being in the world, and does not change at all through his later films. I watched Grumpy Old Men soon after I saw this just because his comedic facial expressions and physical comedy are so strikingly similar in both films.
The absurd scenarios in this film are really genuis and proved that just because a movie is "silly" does not mean that it can't be a great film. Tony Curtis and Lemmon's banter is so witty and well done, I thought they worked amazing together.
And of course, Marilyn Monroe is... Marilyn Monroe as... Marilyn Monroe. She doesn't even need to say anything, just to be on screen for it to help the film. Although she is pretty funny, I think unintentionally at times, but nevertheless good for some laughs. Overall a great feel good movie and I really enjoyed it and will certainly own a copy of the DVD soon.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

"An excercise in poor taste"

I’m shocked people didn’t post several times on this movie because everyone’s reaction was the same—grossed out, horrified, shocked, nauseated, and a hundred other synonyms for the word barf-o-rama. Although I consider this one of the worst films we’ve watched in class, I’m not here to talk about how much I hated it (though I’m not sure if I’ll hold back entirely) but to figure out why it’s considered to be the cult classic. So it’s time to play devil’s advocate.

According to IMDB and Wikipedia it is considered a crime comedy, but I’m not too positive how comedy comes into this except maybe because of its repulsiveness—that is to say it’s so repulsive that its hilarious. At first glance I’m sure many would dismiss this as filthy garbage, and although it might be, isn’t that the point? John Waters, a very interesting person with a wild imagination to say the least, knew exactly what he was doing and how people would react but who really knows what his intentions were. Luckily I found out. When the 25th Anniversary re-release came out, John Waters was asked about the creation of the film and he said, “I just wanted to make a movie that would make me and my friends laugh I certainly never thought that I would be talking about it 25 years later. But I'm very proud and I think it holds up. I've seen it with all kinds of audiences, and three generations later it still has the power to make people nervous. It's a little terrorist bomb, which is how I always wanted this movie to be.” What a funny inside joke this turned out to be.

The movie is beyond explanation and criticism and obviously isn’t your conventional film, but it’s a film only John Waters could do. No matter how much you can hate this movie, you have to give the man credit for being able to create something like this. Especially when this movie was made over 30 years ago and still has the same nauseating effect now as it did decades ago, is a feat in and of it self. It’s a movie where you can remember exactly where you were and when you first saw it. Unfortunately, certain scenes, or most scenes, are not easily forgettable. But beyond what is seen on the surface, a piece of shock cinema, it can be considered a satire of society’s obsession with fame and the lengths one goes to achieve it. If you watch reality TV shows (watch from 3:15), the things people do for money or just their 5 minutes of fame is incredible, so how is this any different?

From the same interview from before Waters says, "I was trying to make a movie for my audience at the time - the midnight movie audience, which I knew would be fairly eccentric. I wanted to prove to them there was something left that could still surprise them and make them laugh, because they all thought they had seen everything." Boy, did they think wrong.

One reviewer describes the movie as either wonderfully atrocious, or atrociously wonderful, depending on how you look at it. So before you crap on this movie (for Divine to eat up) read some of the comments people wrote about this film and appreciate it on a different level not based solely on aesthetics alone because you’ll probably get dizzy and queasy. It also came in 29 on the list of 50 Films to See Before You Die on some show that aired in the UK.

"The only word for this is transplendent... it's transplendent!"

In part because it is a tremendous film and in part because I have an atrocious memory and can’t remember what most of the other movies we watched in class were, I am choosing “Annie Hall” as my favorite flick viewed in class.

Woody Allen has a unique way of capturing personalities and personality traits that are so familiar but just emphasized enough so that we have to laugh at them. He is truly a master of mannerisms in the way he depicts each character, embracing the most fundamental and obscure quirks alike that are so universally understood. Essentially, what Allen strives to illuminate through films like “Annie Hall” is the humor of the human.

All this aside, I do have one bone to pick with Woody Allen, and that is that he always plays the same character. As perfect as that character might be, and despite the fact that it really never gets old, I feel like Woody Allen has a very limited scope of what he can successfully execute in terms of comedy. Therefore, Woody Allen is like Chipotle: both offer exactly one item, and that one item is absolutely perfect, but you always know when you go to see one of his films that you are going to get the exact same burrito every time.

I like to sing in the rain too!

One of my favorite films of the semester has to be Singing in the Rain. It was between this film and Some Like It Hot, but seeing as there are two other posts already about the latter, I chose to embrace my love to sing (and dance, of course) in the rain.

Singing In The Rain is considered by many to be a true classic of American cinema. In fact, Time Magazine listed it as one of the top 100 films of all time. The Freed Unit at MGM created many great films, however I believe that this film is their most remarkable. It combined all the important elements of a successful film musical: incredible songs, amazing choreography, and a hilarious story line. Before I had seen the film, I always wondered how silent film stars were able to acclimate to talking pictures. Silent acting is entirely different, based of exaggerated facial expressions and body movements. On the contrary, acting in talking pictures involves much more true to life character representation in both physical form and dialogue. As we see in Singing in the Rain, actors and actresses may not have ideal voices for talking pictures. In this sense, the film is a funny commentary on the industry's adaptation of talking picture technology.

Along with great song and dance, the cast is phenomenal. Gene Kelly, in particular, was a truly remarkable performer. I was shocked to read on that he was not originally chosen for the part. The role of Don Lockwood was intended for Howard Keel. As the script continued to develop, Don Lockwood's character became less Western, and more Vaudeville, so Howard Keel was replaced with Gene Kelly. It is odd to think of Keel playing the role of Don Lockwood; it certainly would not have had the same style.

Debbie Reynolds had no prior dance experience before starring in the film. She did, however, have a background as a gymnast which I am sure gave her a bit of an advantage. It is hard to think of the seemingly charming Gene Kelly as being a bully, but apparently he insulted Debbie for her lack of experience and made her cry.

Donald O'Connor is an integral component of the triumphant trio. He is sort of the comic relief in the film, and he is very effective in this role. The routine of "Make 'Em Laugh" is particularly memorable and contains a lot of elements of slapstick humor.

All the elements of the film - the elaborate sets, the witty dialogue, the costumes, Lina Lamont's voice, the songs, the dances - work together to form one of the greatest American film musicals.

Believe it or not, but I am not the only one who feels this way. In 1998, the American Film Institute rated Singing in the Rain as the number 10 top film of all time in their production "100 Years, 100 Movies." Check out the whole list here. It was also added to the Library of Congress film archive in 1989 for being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant."

Test your knowledge of the film by taking this quiz.

And now, for your enjoyment, the infamous scene!

this was an easy decision...

So If my presentation on The Great Dictator didn't show it off enough, I get a little starry-eyed when it comes to Chaplin. I just love him and I think his movies are both hilarious and moving. Oddly enough I had never seen THE KID before we watched it in class.
The verdict- I thought it was completely incredible, I was totally blown away.
I was in Newbury Comics like two days later with my buddy and the dvd was on sale. I took it the discount to mean that it was fate that I should own the film. I've since watched it about twelve times. I also made my roomate watch it with me and he loved it (which is incredible in itself because he used to fall asleep if we watched anything made before 1973)

Anyway, THE KID was Chaplin's first feature length film and it allowed him to showcase what some critics called "Chaplin's pathos". But there are tons of articles that talk about Chaplin's skilled and innovative mesh of comedy and pathos. This one discusses that and also has an interesting mention of what THE KID does to show off the richness of the tramp character and Chaplin's acting. It's actually pretty interesting.

I think one of the reasons I liked THE KID so much is in the relationship between the kid and the tramp. There are other movies where we see the tramp make sacrifices to take care of others (the blind woman in CITY LIGHTS comes to mind) but the tramp's unwavering devotion to the kid in this film is so much more powerful because these two people mean everything to each other. The father/son dynamic here is totally unusual because of the way that both characters care for each other and depend on each other. There's that moment where they are separated by the city officials - the tramp is heartbroken and the kid is wailing in the back of the orphanage truck - the level of emotion displayed is stunning to watch.

Many of the films that we watched this semester are already on my dvd shelf and some of them are already what I would call my favorites, but THE KID basically just blew me out of the water. I totally fell in love with this movie and I think it's knocked a couple things down the list to become not only my favorite Chaplin movie, but one of my new all-time favorites.

Even this guy who doesn't really like Chaplin liked the film. That's gotta help my cause, right?

Also, here is what I feel to be a necessary side note; while I was looking around and reading up on this movie I realized that Jackie Coogan the kid who played... well, the kid, grew up and became Jack Coogan- the guy who played fester on the Addams Family show. How totally weird is that? I used to watch that show all the time growing up and it took me about five minutes to get my head wrapped around that.
(this is a similar reaction to one i experienced several years ago when I realized that uncle phil from fresh prince did the voice of shredder on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles- I know you're probably shocked, but next time your watching fresh prince listen to uncle phil and picture him saying "turtle soup" you'll freak out like i did.)

Duck Suck or Suck Soup?

With a flawed 21st century viewpoint in mind, dulled by sitcoms, improv comedies, and retroscripting, I find it hard to be objective about the films of the past. I consider myself more of a borrowed Emerson student than a real one---I don't know everything about everything about everything. There are comedies that I've seen that I've liked, jokes and gags that I've laughed at, and cinematic precedents that I took to be original, even if that wasn't historically the case. With that in mind, I'm gonna say that I hated The Marx Brothers 'Duck Soup'.

I understand that the use of one-lines, and comic gags was influential on many contemporaries, including Woody Allen, but I have to say...they did it much better. Mostly, I think it's a problem of flow. Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton invigorated their silent medium with sight gags and one-liners, all the while keeping up a narrative strong enough to hold us stimulated in 'comic suspense.' Woody Allen produces his movies, especially the pseudo-documentaries like 'Zelig' or 'Take the Money and Run', in a consistent rule-of-three format---joke, gag, one-liner, all in a way that complements and propels the narrative. (In his case, the protagonist serves as both the proponent and the ass of the jokes, and therefore us self-deprecating audiences give him a pass.)

It's with Groucho Marx and 'Duck Soup' that styles don't either blend or break. Groucho will continually step out of the narrative to whisper his 'cutting wit' to us and then magically jump back in. And this while, the other characters in the scene freeze and act none the wiser. At least when Woody does it, his compatriots either laugh or deride him. Groucho derides his entire cast, scott-free from revenge, retribution, or any form of structure, logical or otherwise. No big problem, but cutting the fourth wall in this way kills all potential for comic suspense. There's nothing to look forward to. You don't really know if the narrative matters, and it's not straight on character-driven comedy either. Instead you have a comedian telling us how great he is instead of showing us.

But maybe I'm way off base here. gives 'Duck Soup' a 94% and we all know how it's rated as one of the best comedies of all time. I stumbled around for a little while, and short of all the uncredible whiny 8th grade ranters, this NY Times Review was really the only bad one I could find:

Those mad clowns, the Marx brothers, are now holding forth on the Rivoli screen in their latest concoction, "Duck Soup," a production in which the bludgeon is employed more often than the gimlet. The result is that this production is, for the most part, extremely noisy without being nearly as mirthful as their other films. There are, however, one or two ideas in this sea of puns that are welcome, and Groucho, Chico, Harpo and Zeppo reveal their customary zeal in striving to get as much as possible out of these incidents.

And it's not even that bad. So while The Marx Brothers may be inscrutable for their innovations and contributions towards future comedy---such as the verisimilitude presented by all their puns and literally through the mime and mirror scene---I'm still unconvinced. After all, in the 30s, there were better ways to put a film together---give me 'All Quiet on the Western Front', 'City Lights', or 'The Wizard of Oz' any day. And let's not forget 'Bringing Up Baby'.

Funny Ladies

(I looked and saw that my 3rd post wasn't on here - I guess it didn't work when I tried to post it. Anyway, here it is.)

I thought I’d take a look at a few more prominent comediennes and comedic actresses of the 1970s, because there are quite a few, and they are all unbelievably talented. The 1970s were a time that saw lots more comedic roles for women – however, there was still progress to be made concerning women in comedy. Like Katharine Hepburn in “Bringing Up Baby” and Marilyn Monroe in “Some Like it Hot,” Diane Keaton is funny in “Sleeper” because she’s ditzy, a little bit crazy, and not very bright. The brilliant Madeline Kahn also played stereotypical female roles in the comedies of Mel Brooks, and although she had more screen time than any other women in these films, she was only onscreen for less than a handful of scenes. Also, not too surprisingly to me, a Google search of "women in comedy 1970s" proved to be far less than fruitful. However, these talented women paved the way for more three-dimensional, complex female comedic roles in the decades to come.

The 1960s TV variety show “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In” introduced who would become two of the most talented female comics of the ‘70s: Lily Tomlin and Goldie Hawn. When Hawn won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role in the 1969 farce “Cactus Flower,” Time Magazine called her “a natural reactress; her timing is so canny that even her tears run amusingly.” Hawn later made a memorable appearance alongside Warren Beatty and Julie Christie in the 1975 Hal Ashby satire “Shampoo.” Tomlin had memorable roles in the farce "Nine to Five" (1980), "All of Me" with Steve Martin (1984), and two more recent David O. Russell films - "Flirting With Disaster" and "I Heart Huckabees." Watch Russell and Tomlin at each other's throats on set here.

Some other notable 1970s comediennes who came from television were Carol Burnett and Gilda Radner. Lucille Ball was Carol Burnett’s mentor. “The Carol Burnett Show,” a variety program featuring Burnett in countless hilarious and memorable roles, ran from 1967-78 and was a huge hit. Burnett later appeared as the mean Miss Hannigan in the film version of the musical "Annie" (1982). Gilda Radner, one of the original female cast members of “Saturday Night Live,” gave us Roseanna Roseannadanna and Baba Wawa. She met husband Gene Wilder on the set of the 1982 romantic comedy “Hanky Panky,” directed by Sidney Poitier. Another of the many talented female comedic actresses who worked with Gene Wilder was Teri Garr, who appeared in Mel Brooks’ “Young Frankenstein” (1974), “Oh, God!” (1977), and “Tootsie” (1982), for which she was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress.

Luckily, we are once again experiencing a period ripe with successful women in comedy – Tina Fey (if you don’t watch “30 Rock,” you should – it’s one of the funniest, smartest shows on television right now), Amy Poehler, Sarah Silverman, Kristen Wigg, Amy Sedaris, and Leslie Mann, to name a few - in both television and film. These women have been hailed for being not just funny, but smart and sexy as well. In Vanity Fair magazine in January 2007, Christopher Hitchens wrote an article called "Why Women Aren't Funny." Obviously, the article caused quite a backlash, and Vanity Fair published a response article by Alessandra Stanley entitled "Who Says Women Aren't Funny?" The cover featured Silverman, Fey, and Poehler copping a feel. However, I agree that the argument of the second article was weak, basically saying "There are a lot of funny women! But in order to be accepted as funny, they have to be hot too." Male comedians don't have to be sexy, but women do, otherwise they are classified by people like Christopher Hitchens as butch, dykes, and Jews. Here is Hitchens' rebuttal to the response to his article: Why Women Still Aren't Funny.

Unfortunately, despite all of these female talents, sexism is still ripe in the comedy genre. Judd Apatow's "Knocked Up" (2007) was hailed for giving comedic actresses, like the very funny Leslie Mann, a chance to shine in larger roles in comedies that weren't considered "chick flicks," but there was still a large response - including that from the star, Katherine Heigl - saying that these roles were sexist. Women in comedy have come a long way since the '50s with the help of many talents, especially those in the '70s, but how long will it be before women can be widely accepted as funny people, not just as funny women?

Hell with Mel

As a child, I was not allowed to say words like “fart,” “booger, ” and my personal favorite, “butt”.  So the forbidden magical fruit was all the sweeter when I did hear it on tv or in movies.  However, Blazing Saddles just doesn’t do it for me.  I had never seen any Mel Brooks movies until this class but I had heard good things.  So my expectations were probably too high.  

Maybe Mel Brooks is innovative for bringing the fart onto the silver screen, but in my opinion, he took advantage of a simple, easy laugh and misused it.  He opened up the floodgates for everyone else to go above and beyond with the fart jokes.  And I’m not sure if I’m thankful for that.  This movie is just too much.  Every character has contrived witless dialogue and each line is dumber than the last.  And I know that’s the point but the film drags because of it.  It’s bogged down in silliness.  It can be funny when you beat a joke to death and when you go over the top with gags.  But if done too little or too much it kills the joke.  You have to give the audience time to breathe between jokes.  Mel Brooks tries to suffocate you with them. 

The film relies heavily on shock value and pushing the comedic envelope.  But not having seen this movie until after every other movie made until right now, I’m sick of things being edgy.  It was poor timing on my part.  I can see why people think its funny and I laughed at some of it, but it was definitely my least favorite movie so far in the class.  Gene Wilder was funny in it, though.  I'll give it that.

The film does anything for a laugh. Similarly, a whore will do anything for a few bucks.  While that dedication can be respectable, for me, the dirty jokes in Blazing Saddles are just too easy.

Some Like It Mildly Warm

As much as I hate to repeat post, Some Like It Hot is probably the one film we watched that is deserving (at least more then Pink Flamingos...).  The film is consistently rated as one of the top films every made (not just comedy) and uniquely benefits from repeat viewings.  Even mired in all the Marilyn Monroe controversy, Billy Wilder and the rest of the cast and crew pulled off a great film.
Perhaps the greatest achievement of the film and Billy Wilder's entire body of work is that English was not his first language.  He usually wrote with a writing partner, in this case with I.A.L Diamond, but he still managed to write English language dialog that is so quick and witty American audiences have a hard time keeping up.  Diamond and Wilder working together was a structure and style match made in heaven.  Wilder always praised Diamond because he "knew how the pipes [fit] together".  The film is funny but never loses its heart and that can be directly contributed to Wilder and Diamond's script.
Some of the funniest moments in American film comedy occurs between Osgood and Daphne.  Much of the comedy comes from Wilder playing with social acceptability and really pushing what he could get away with.  He made the audience uncomfortable and roll with laughter at the same time, and that is the genius of Billy Wilder... that and making Marilyn Monroe do this...