Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Hailing Caesar on the Bridge of Spies

When was the last time you watched a double-feature? It used to be that when you bought your ticket at a neighborhood movie house, you’d get two movies, and maybe a newsreel and a cartoon for good measure. Nowadays, of course, you pay for a single movie, and are hustled out when it’s over. (No sticking around to see something you might have missed because you came in late.)

Super Bowl weekend is a time for out-of-the ordinary behavior. Some people stay home and gorge on bean dip. Others, like my spouse and me, live dangerously at the multiplex. We went to see Bridge of Spies, a worthy Cold War thriller that poses interesting questions about the way we live now. When the lights came on, we realized that we had plenty of time (if we were willing to pay a separate admission fee) to catch the Coen brothers’ latest, an all-star goof called Hail, Caesar!.

Ironically enough, the classy Bridge of Spies can also be considered part of the Coens’ recent output. They were part of the writing team that’s been honored with one of the film’s six Oscar nominations. It was Matt Charman who zeroed in on the story of attorney James Donovan, the private citizen central to the negotiations that traded Soviet spy Rudolf Abel for American U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers. I’ve heard nothing confirming exactly what additions were made by the Coens, but I suspect that they’re responsible for the screenplay’s verbal wit, as well as for some character details (like Donovan’s nasty cold and Abel’s whimsical stoicism) that make this story crackle to life. Tom Hanks is, of course, his usual Heroic Everyman self, but the picture in many ways belongs to Oscar-nominated British actor Mark Rylance, as a spy who tells nothing, asks for nothing, but is surprisingly lovable nonetheless.

 Watching the film’s first half took me back to my childhood when we were all subjected to duck and cover drills, neighbors were building backyard bomb shelters, and the possibility of a nuclear attack by the USSR seemed all too plausible. By contrast, the later scenes—which take place in a divided Berlin—reminded me of my 2015 visit to modern-day Germany. As shown in the film, East Berlin in the early Sixties was a grey-toned place of squalor and rubble. Its citizens were walled off from the West, and machine-gun emplacements were everywhere. Today, by contrast, the reunited city gleams. In 1962, approaching Checkpoint Charlie (as Tom Hanks must do in Bridge of Spies) was serious business. Now, however, Checkpoint Charlie is a tourist destination, with a McDonalds close at hand.

 Then, of course, there’s Hail, Caesar!, a movie as blithe and silly as Bridge of Spies is solemn and thoughtful.  This shaggy-dog tale of a studio fixer (Josh Brolin) in 1950s Hollywood doesn’t go deep, but it presents a joyous array of movie tropes from the era just before TV and the Youth Movement took over Tinseltown. It’s a Coen brothers valentine to singing cowboys, drawing-room extravaganzas (with Rafe Fiennes as a stiff-upper-life British director trying desperately to teach high style), tap-dancing sailors (Channing Tatum makes like Gene Kelly), and Scarlett Johansson as a tough gal at the center of a Busby Berkeley-style water ballet. (The L.A. Times has a great piece on the Aqualillies, the swim troupe that’s featured in the film.) Then there’s a detour into Blacklist politics, with George Clooney at his dopiest (and dupiest) as the star of a Bible epic who gets kidnapped and brainwashed by a gaggle of Commie screenwriters. Hail, Coens! 

Checkpoint Charlie as tourist destination, Berlin, 2015

Friday, February 5, 2016

Busting Out of Prison, Cinema-Style

We in Southern California don’t seem very good at keeping our felons where they belong. Over the last few weeks, we’ve listened breathlessly to news reports about three accused killers who escaped by rappelling down (via a rope of braided bedsheets) from the roof of an Orange County jail. The fact that they were considered armed and dangerous didn’t make us feel particularly good. I just read a harrowing story about a Vietnamese immigrant cab driver who was commandeered at gunpoint to drive the three around Northern California. At night in a seedy motel room, he listened to them arguing about whether or not to kill him.

They’re back in custody now (phew!), after more than a week of freedom. (Fortunately, the least vicious of the men, the one who ultimately turned himself in to authorities, saw fit to protect the cabbie from his murderous partner in crime.) But around the time they got caught, another inmate escaped, this one from an L.A. lockup. And this morning my newspaper brought me the story of an L.A. County gang member released by accident, even though a murder rap was pending. Oops!

The whole thing, of course, has got me thinking about movies. As we know, there are plenty of great films about dangerous convicts on the lam. Here’s one oldie: The Petrified Forest, starring Humphrey Bogart in a star-making role. It’s not Bogart but Leslie Howard who’s the movie’s hero, the character for whom we’re rooting. Bogart, though mesmerizing, is dangerous and scary: not anyone you’d want to hang out with. (Bogart was to play a similar role in The Desperate Hours, before permanently evolving into a movie good-guy.)

But it occurs to me that over the decades we’ve come to root (at least when we go to the movies) for convicts who manage to break free from their prison cells. Back in the Production Code days, it was a given that lawbreakers had to be punished and escapees had to be tracked down by the forces of law and order. Since then, though, we have developed a curious tendency to view prisoners with sympathy, seeing them as wrongly convicted or as guilty only of minor transgressions that we can somehow excuse. Perhaps it’s a holdover from the turbulent Sixties: today outlaws appeal to us as charismatic anti-heroes. The judges, the wardens, the prison guards: these are the people we mistrust, and we’re glad to see them thwarted in their attempts to bring down men and women who should be roaming free.

Examples? How about The Fugitive, both the TV series and the 1993 film, which focus on the flight of a man (Harrison Ford in the movie) wrongly convicted of his wife’s murder? Then there’s The Rock (1996): its plot is so convoluted as to defy description, but one of its chief heroes (Sean Connery) is the only man ever to escape from the fortress-like island we call Alcatraz. But the best example is The Shawkshank Redemption (1994), a film so well-loved that it was just added to the National Film Registry administered by the Library of Congress because of its cultural and aesthetic significance. Its protagonist (Tim Robbins), has been convicted of a double murder he didn’t commit. He suffers horrors like months of solitary confinement, but ultimately makes a triumphant escape.  

Then of course there are all those Roger Corman flicks I worked on – movies with titles like Caged Heat and The Big Bust Out --in which invariably innocent (and scantily clad) young ladies break away from their sadistic captors. But that’s a story for another day.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Iowa Stubborn: The Bridges (and Voters) of Madison County

Yesterday, all eyes were on Iowa, as the famous Iowa Caucuses kicked off the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign. As for me, I’ve been thinking about Iowa too. That’s because -- after seeing Jason Robert Brown’s stage musical version of The Bridges of Madison County -- I’ve finally caught up with the celebrated 1995 film. Of course it stars Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood as the Iowa housewife and the roving photographer who get caught up in a torrid four-day romance when he shows up to snap pictures of the area’s covered bridges. No, I’ve never read the sappy Robert James Waller novel that introduced this saga, and I don’t think I’m ashamed of that fact.

Waller’s novel unfolds from the perspective of the photographer, Robert Kincaid, looking back near the end of his life on a love affair he’s never forgotten. But both film and musical focus primarily on Francesca Johnson, an Italian woman who married an American G.I. at the close of World War II and has since been living a life of quiet desperation on an Iowa farm. Despite the love of her husband and teenaged children, she has never been awakened to true passion until Robert blows into town. Then the question becomes: should she upend her familiar world to follow her bliss?

In the stage version, award-winning playwright Marsha Norman (sensitive to the multiple tugs and pulls on a woman’s existence) surrounds Francesca and Robert’s love story with the doings of family, friends, and neighbors. In a nod to Thornton Wilder’s classic Our Town, she sets their romance in the context of the larger community. This includes two gently bickering oldsters, a neighboring couple living close by. There’s no question in the stage version that the woman (a character named Madge who makes one very slight intrusion into the film) knows what’s going on, and tacitly gives her consent. The play also pays attention to Francesca’s good-guy husband and quibbling kids (off to win a livestock prize at the county fair while there are big doings in the farmhouse bedroom back home). A sense of who these people are gives weight to Francesca’s ultimate decision about her future.

 On screen, the affair between Francesca and Robert (told in flashback as her now-grown kids finally learn her secret) seems to take place in a sort of romantic bubble. Perhaps this was deliberate, to heighten the sense of magic isolation between the two. But aside from that one innocent intrusion by Madge, no neighbors are about. We don’t get to learn much about Francesca’s husband and children, the state fair is totally off-screen, and there’s no attempt—as there is on stage—to explain why Francesca felt the urge to leave Italy for marriage in an unknown place. Personally, I would like to have known her worlds (past and present) much better, before buying into her need for love with the proper stranger. The one element of the film that’s not in the stage play is a local woman (seen being denied service in a diner) who has clearly been ostracized for an adulterous romance. We’re eventually told that Francesca will befriend her after Robert’s departure, but not enough is made of the character and her situation to mean much.

The movie, though, does have some things going for it, like amber waves of grain, an appealing score, and – best of all – Meryl Streep. Here she’s dark-haired, olive-skinned, and a completely new person from the actress we know so well. Too bad Clint Eastwood, who produced and directed as well as starring, gave his actor-self top billing. 

Friday, January 29, 2016

Carol Burnett: TV’s Clown Princess of Parody

One of the new movies opening today is a Marlon Wayans flick called Fifty Shades of Black. It’s not hard to guess which mega-sexy erotic romance it’s spoofing. In recognition of this new release, a Los Angeles Times staff writer has devoted a column to the long Hollywood tradition of making fun of movie hits. Funnyman Stan Laurel was sending up well-known dramatic movies back in the silent era. Bugs Bunny did it decades later. Mel Brooks, of course, has made some of the funniest genre parodies around. Who can forget such Seventies comic gems as Blazing Saddles (spoofing old westerns) and Young Frankenstein (spoofing horror films)? In 1980, the Zucker brothers and Jim Abraham scored with an hilarious parody of disaster movies like Airport. Their film was titled  Airplane!  Surely you’ve guffawed at it. (And don’t call me Shirley!)

One of the tricky things about a movie parody is that it needs to be able to sustain its comic tone throughout. A spoof can go limp pretty quickly. One of the joys of The Carol Burnett Show was its almost weekly movie parody. These were short, sweet, and hilarious. Of course they were built around the talents of a matchless comedienne who’s being honored this weekend by the Screen Actors Guild with a lifetime achievement award. I can’t think of anyone who deserves it more.

Carol Burnett (now 82 and still active) first won public notice in 1959 for her leading role in Once Upon a Mattress, a musical comedy version of “The Princess and the Pea.” As the gawky and not very delicate Princess Winifred, she was wholly endearing. When the show transferred from Off-Broadway to The Great White Way, a star was born. Broadway led to a featured role on the Garry Moore Show (1959-1962), a TV variety program I remember fondly. She also starred, along with good buddy Julie Andrews, in one of the all-time great TV specials, Julie and Carol at Carnegie Hall

Her movies have ranged from the schmaltzy Pete ‘n’ Tillie (1972, opposite Walter Matthau) to Robert Altman’s wacky A Wedding (1978) to the role of the mean Miss Hannigan in Annie (1982).  She copped an Emmy nomination for a rare dramatic role as the grieving mother of a dead soldier in the powerful Friendly Fire (1979).

But of course she’s best known for one of the greatest of all TV variety shows, The Carol Burnett Show (1967-78). As a regular watcher, I loved the blend of music, dance, comic sketches, and the host’s ingratiating personality. In her youth, Burnett had worked as a Hollywood usherette (one who got unceremoniously fired by her boss when she discouraged two movie-goers from entering at the tail-end of Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train). She has always adored movies, which is why it was only natural for her to parody so many of them on her program. With her stalwart sidekicks (including Harvey Korman, Vicki Lawrence, and, often, Tim Conway) pitching in to help, she delivered devastatingly funny take-offs on movies old and new. I still chuckle at Burnett and Korman in a From Here to Eternity spoof, smooching on the beach and then being doused with a bucket of water. I also remember them as Jenny and Oliver in Love Story, so entranced with one another that they can’t bear to part long enough to answer the doorbell. But most Carol Burnett fans agree that the cream of the crop was her two-part Went With the Wind. Thanks to YouTube for allowing it to live on. All hail the princess of parody—and congratulations! 

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Robert De Niro: A Dirty Grandpa Leaves the Mean Streets Behind

Today I learned that something called Dirty Grandpa had just grossed $11.1 million in its opening weekend, finishing 4th at the box office. Though it did well with ticket-buyers, the critics -- almost without exception -- have hated this movie. Richard Roeper, for one, denied the flick a single star, writing that “If Dirty Grandpa isn’t the worst movie of 2016, I have some serious cinematic torture in my near future.”

Dirty Grandpa (not to be confused with Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa) is a would-be comedy featuring a foul-mouthed old man whose attitudes are offensive in almost every conceivable way. The gist of the plot is that he kidnaps his uptight grandson (Zac Efron) and drags him on a road trip to Florida. Shockingly, the character is played by the great Robert De Niro, who seems to be making a point of starring in innocuous would-be laugh-fests.

Not that there’s anything wrong with an an actor known for his dramatic skills turning to comedy. It was the great 19th century thespian Edmund Kean who is reputed to have uttered, on his death bed, the immortal show biz maxim, “Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.” Certainly the skill of our favorite comic actors, like Jack Lemmon, Steve Martin, and the late, great Robin Williams, is nothing to sneeze at. And I’ve personally enjoyed De Niro in such comedic films as Meet the Parents and particularly Analyze This, in which—playing a Mafia boss with neuroses—he seemed to be parodying his classic gangster roles of the past.

I have De Niro on the brain right now because of a recent airline trip, on which I attempted to watch his amiable 2015 comedy, The Intern. As seems so often to happen with those seatback television set-ups, the sound wasn’t good, so that I lost a good deal of the dialogue. Then at the midpoint, the transmission failed entirely. No matter—as is true with so many of Nancy Meyers’ film projects, it was easy enough to predict the ending.  It seems Anne Hathaway is a brilliant young clothing designer who heads a thriving e-commerce start-up. She’s a workaholic with a cute kid, a shaky marriage, and an intensely hands-on management style. Into her life comes a seventy-year old widower (De Niro) who has traded retirement for a slot in a senior citizen internship program. Of course Hathaway is skeptical of his presence within her trendy loft headquarters. But (although his briefcase and formal suits make him stand out among the company’s hipsters) his business savvy and general common sense turn out to be a godsend, and ultimately set her on the right path.

What’s surprising in The Intern is how convincingly De Niro plays nice. Even a touch of meekness is not beyond his skills. But I’ve got to say that I miss the De Niro of old, the one who was unpredictable and dangerous. I’m talking about the volatile Johnny Boy of Mean Streets, the haunted young Vito Corleone of The Godfather, Part II, the fanatical Travis Bickle of Taxi Driver, the downright scary Max Cady of Cape Fear. Especially for Martin Scorsese, De Niro has played a panoply of mobsters and monsters that movie fans will never forget. More recently, David O. Russell has given him rich roles too, like the father (and obsessive Philadelphia Eagles fan) in Silver Linings Playbook, a film that successfully melded comedy and depth of feeling. I’m glad De Niro feels no inclination to rest on his laurels. But I hope he will confine himself to projects that are worthy of his talent.

I have no inclination to see this film, but because I'm writing a book on the long-range impact of "The Graduate," this advertising image gave me quite a chuckle.