Tuesday, June 30, 2020

“The King of Staten Island”: More Than Skin Deep

Unlike many New York City residents, I’ve actually spent time on Staten Island. Though the island constitutes one of the city’s five boroughs, residents of the Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn, and Manhattan rarely set foot in what is primarily an urban bedroom community, best reached by the picturesque Staten Island Ferry. But the island has its own patois, its own zoo, its own beaches, and even its own (minor league) baseball team, the Staten Island Yankees.

The mixed sense of pride and embarrassment felt by the residents is conveyed in a raucous but sweet new Judd Apatow comedy, The King of Staten Island. It begins with a clutch of layabout buddies not far into adulthood. Their natural topics of conversation include their chances of scoring good dope and the fact they consider their locale a dead end. Says one, “Why can’t we be cool, like Brooklyn?” Gripes another, “We’re the only place New Jersey looks down on.”

Central to this conversation is Scott, whose dream is to open a combination tattoo parlor and restaurant, to be named Ruby Tattoosday. Like the rest of his life, this dream isn’t going anywhere. At age 24, he doesn’t have a real job and lives at home with his widowed mom. Among his friends he riffs about his neuroses and physical issues (ADD, Crohn’s Disease, you name it) and seems to make light of the fact that his father, a local firefighter, died during a rescue mission in a hotel fire when Scott was seven. It’s clear, though, that having a Hero Dad has made his own life seem insignificant by comparison.

Apatow wrote this film along with comedians Dave Sirus and Pete Davidson. Davidson plays the leading role, one that reflects the broad strokes of his own life. He too was raised on Staten Island, has a host of physical and mental issues, and lost a firefighter-dad in the rubble of the World Trade Center. That’s probably why he seems so wholly credible as Scott, a slacker who is both foul-mouthed and funny, both bone-headed and soft-hearted, dumb enough to get involved in a criminal enterprise and yet smart enough to have the potential to move forward. I don’t think it’s an accident that the film’s final scene finds him on that Staten Island Ferry, heading for Manhattan. This isn’t Saturday Night Fever, but still there’s a sense that, given enough love and guidance, he has the potential to move into a healthy adult life.

A first-rate cast handles with gusto the profanity-laced script. It’s good to see Marisa Tomei, once the Brooklyn bombshell of My Cousin Vinny, as Scott’s plucky mother, who finds love in the most unexpected place. When Tomei won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her Vinny role critics scoffed, unwilling to recognize the brilliance of her comic performance. Years later she nabbed additional nominations for heavily dramatic roles in The Wrestler and In the Bedroom, but I’m glad the current film makes room for her blue-collar spunk as well as her tender heart. There’s also a wonderfully credible sense of blunt camaraderie among the firemen with whom Scott eventually finds a home away from home. I can think of no better compliment than to say that they all feel very real indeed. And such wry throwaway dialogue as (at an emotional moment), “We don’t have to get all Oprah” helps keep the film’s potential sentimentality at bay.

Anyway, there’s not much place for the sentimental in a film that climaxes in a bizarre tattooing session. Personally, I loathe tattoos, but I loved The King of Staten Island. 

A fond farewell to the talented Milton Glaser, to the irreplaceable Carl Reiner, and to the enigmatic Charles Webb, who wrote the novel that became the film The Graduate. More to come!

Friday, June 26, 2020

Of Defenestration and Other Deaths: Steve Bing and Joel Schumacher

Movie fans who love a mystery will be salivating over the demise of zillionaire film producer Steve Bing, who was found dead Monday at the base of the Century City residential tower where he had a luxury apartment on the 27th floor. The strong indication is that he leaped to his death. I slightly knew his mother Helen, a gracious lady who was a leading L.A. philanthropist. The fifty-five-year-old Bing was a do-gooder in his own right, pledging funds to charitable causes and giving major support to the Democratic Party. He also had a serious connection to Hollywood. His reported $80 million investment made possible the screen version of The Polar Express, which went on to earn $285 million globally. He was behind the Rolling Stones concert film Shine a Light, directed by Martin Scorsese, as well as a Jerry Lee Lewis album, Last Man Standing.

Nor was Steve Bing just valued for his money. He wrote several films and TV episodes, and directed one, Every Breath. Among his 18 producer credits was a popular action flick, Get Carter. Though he kept a low profile, he made headlines when he was revealed to be the father of the son born in 2002 to British glamor-girl Elizabeth Hurley. Now a man who seemed to have everything, and lots of it, is gone. Suicide, apparently. But why?

There’s no mystery about the death that same day of 80-year-old Joel Schumacher, who succumbed to cancer in New York City. I wasn’t aware until recently that Schumacher started out as a costume designer, beginning with 1972’s adaptation of Joan Didion’s Hollywood novel, Play It As It Lays. He costumed six films in all, including Woody Allen’s futuristic romp, Sleeper. He then transitioned into screenwriting, getting his name on such popular entertainments as Car Wash and The Wiz, before making the leap into directing with The Incredible Shrinking Woman in 1981.For the Brat Pack hit St. Elmo’s Fire, he both wrote and directed. Of his early directorial efforts,  I’m partial to the spooky charms of The Lost Boys, the teen vampire saga set in picturesque Santa Cruz.

Once Schumacher’s directorial career got rolling, he proved a master at bringing to the screen the tense legal dramas of John Grisham, including The Client and A Time to Kill. He won the hearts of fans with thrillers of all kind (Phone Booth, starring Colin Farrell, is a prime example), and is known for his colorful contributions to the Batman screen franchise.  (Yes, he’s the genius behind casting George Clooney in Batman & Robin  and adding nipples to the Bat Suit.)

Despite his mass appeal, top critical honors eluded him, though that didn’t stop him from trying. In 2004, he directed a splashy cinematic version of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s stage musical, The Phantom of the Opera. (Its three Oscar nominations were all in technical categories.)

But I want to end here with a nod to one of his earliest films, The Last of Sheila. In 1973 Schumacher designed the costumes for this twisty whodunit. It was written by none other than Stephen Sondheim and Anthony Perkins, both great lovers of puzzles and word games. The story features beautiful Hollywood folk (Richard Benjamin, Dyan Cannon, Raquel Welch among them) cruising the Mediterranean aboard a luxury yacht, all of them somehow connected to a gossip columnist who’d died a year earlier in a hit-and-run attack. Through an elaborate game proposed by host James Coburn, secrets are revealed and it’s clear that nothing is what it seems. Which is why I can’t stop wondering about the fate of poor Steve Bing. 

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

May the Space Force Be With You

Hollywood makes for strange bedfellows. And quarantines, I’ve learned, can make for some strange TV watching. Up until now I had thought that Steve Carell could do no wrong. Over the years I’ve cheered for his many and varied screen performances: as a sweet, shy doofus in The Forty-Year-Old Virgin (2005), as a gay Proust scholar with a suicidal streak in Little Miss Sunshine (2006), as a good-hearted supervillain boasting an impenetrable accent in the animated Despicable Me (2010). Mostly he’s been known for comedy, but his biographical role as murderous wrestling enthusiast John E. du Pont in Foxcatcher (2014) nabbed him an Oscar nomination.

He’s a writer too, responsible for the script of The Forty-Year-Old Virgin. And he’s both written and directed episodes of The Office, the long-running TV sitcom (2005-2013) in which he starred as Michael Scott, the world’s most well-intentioned but aggravating boss. (I’m partial to the episodes, like “Diversity Day,” in which he clumsily tries to promote interracial good will while infuriating absolutely everyone on his staff.)

So what’s he up to now? Well, on May 29 of this year, when we were all deep into social distancing mode, Carell and writer-producer Greg Daniels (who worked with him on The Office) introduced a ten-part new Netflix comedy series, Space Force. As the title suggests, the series is intended as a satirical look at the current administration’s actual plan for a new branch of the U.S. military, intended to focus on the conquest of outer space. There’s some contemporary resonance to the show: it establishes an unnamed POTUS who likes to send out emphatic Tweets and whose proposed slogan for the new space exploration effort, “Boots on the Moon,” is a variation on his original catchphrase: “Boobs on the Moon.”

My quarantine partner is an aerospace engineer and I too have a certain interest in space exploration, so this was something we didn’t want to miss. When the Space Force moon rocket lifted up, and when the command module gracefully settled on the lunar surface, Bernie was impressed at the details that were portrayed correctly. Needless to say, the show’s satirical slant also required some ludicrous exaggerations, like a launch that was moved up by four years to thwart a competing Chinese mission, necessitating a motley crew of untrained welders and electricians to staff a lunar science lab. And, as the head of the team on the ground, Carell projects the sort of oblivious geniality that marked his Michael Scott. Here he’s a four-star general, not the boss of the Scranton, PA branch of Dunder Mifflin Paper Company, but this new character is equally clueless.

For me the show’s top asset is John Malkovich, as Space Force’s chief scientist, a  rather effete hyper-intellectual who’s a good counterweight to Carell’s bluff General Mark Naird. Also along for the ride is Lisa Kudrow as Mark’s wife. For reasons that are never explained, Kudrow’s Maggie has spent most of the season’s 10 episodes serving a forty-year prison sentence. (If there’s a joke here, it escapes me completely.) As for Carell’s role, no one seems to have decided whether he’s a comic buffoon or a sensitive guy missing his wife and struggling with his angry teen-aged daughter. There’s a good gag or two: the lead astronaut, an ambitious young African-American woman, agonizes over to what to say when she makes history by stepping onto the lunar service. She decides on a history-evoking phrase, “It’s good to be back on the moon,” but muffs it, saying instead, “It’s good to be Black on the moon.” Funny, but not worth ten episodes.