June 11, 2012

Happy 100th, Paramount!

As you may or may not know, this year (and this month) marks the 100th anniversary of Paramount Pictures. Being a Paramount employee, I am especially aware of this fact, and have been observing the occasion in high style - from on-lot events to special screenings. The company just unveiled their anniversary "group photo," a gathering of 116 Paramount stars of past and present that was taken last winter. (I got to work the event and Mark Wahlberg waved at me. It was awesome.) Below is a preview, but I'd strongly recommend going to Vanity Fair's website where you can mouse over and enlarge each part.

They also distributed these super-cool posters to all employees (including me!) with little icons representing a slew of Paramount films. See if you can name 'em all!

But you don't have to be an employee to get in on the fun. There's been several new Blu-Ray releases of Paramount's catalog titles, including a gorgeous restoration of Wings (1927) that is not to be missed. And at least in the Los Angeles area, there's been a number of retrospectives, including a sidebar at the TCM Classic Film Festival back in April. Unsurprisingly, however, the films mentioned tend to be the obvious choices - your Godfather, Breakfast at Tiffany's, Forrest Gump, and so on. So for those who want to dig deeper, I've compiled a list of lesser-known Paramount titles for you to dive into and explore, one for each decade of the studio's existence. All are available on DVD unless otherwise noted.

The Cheat (1915)
Many people don't realize that Cecil B. Demille was actually a founding father of Paramount - his partnership with New York theater producer Jesse Lasky created the studio's inaugural hit, The Squaw Man, in 1914 and started the mass migration to Hollywood. Demille remained extremely prolific throughout the silent era, cranking out up to a dozen films per year. The Cheat was among them, and proves that he was already lightyears ahead of many of his contemporaries. The plot about a society woman falling prey to a predatory Asian man is a bit uncomfortable today, but that doesn't take away from the incredible atmosphere created by dramatic lighting and intense performances. To quote Kevin Brownlow, it features "the favorite DeMille mixture of sex, sadism and sacrifice" - not a bad way to spend an hour.

The Docks of New York (1928)
And speaking of atmosphere, we move on to Paramount rock star Josef von Sternberg. Best known today for his collaborations with Marlene Dietrich, he did some stunning work in the silent era. For those who think silent films can't grip you by the throat, think again. Docks features a fascinating array of richly rendered blue-collar types, from the rough-and-tumble dock worker to the suicidal floozy he falls for. The mise-en-scene could give Orson Welles a run for his money, and the realistic romance might wring tears from even the most jaded viewers. 

Island of Lost Souls (1932)
Universal was unquestionably the biggest name in horror in the 1930s, but that doesn't mean that other studios didn't give it a whirl. Paramount made a notable entry to the genre with 1931's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, featuring an Oscar-winning performance by Fredric March that still resonates today. Island is somewhat of a gleefully demented cousin to Jekyll, featuring a delicious performance by Charles Laughton as one of the more atypically suave and bemused mad scientists you'll encounter (he supposedly based the character on his dentist). Bela Lugosi chips in a small but memorable role that he allegedly took due to bankruptcy, and you won't forget Kathleen Burke as the Panther Woman!

The Big Clock (1948)
Clock is a bit of an odd duck. It's largely classified as a noir, but noirs don't typically feature such a varied and unusual cast of characters or a sense of humor. The premise is simple: a crime reporter (Ray Milland) is both the hunter and the hunted in a murder frame-up. But the clues, twists, and character development in this adaptation of an equally excellent novel never let up. Charles Laughton lends his considerable talents once again to the role of the nefarious employer, while his real-life wife Elsa Lanchester is hysterical as a daffy artist. Even the kooky bartender shines. Consider it the cure for the common noir.

The Mating Season (1951)
I discovered this film a couple years ago by virtue of TCM. I figured that with the likes of Thelma RItter, Gene Tierney, and Miriam Hopkins and a screenplay by frequent Billy Wilder collaborator Charles Brackett, it had to be a winner - and I was right. It's like a blend of Lubitsch and Hawks with a dash of sugar. Tierney proves to bean adept comedienne, playing nicely off the always-great Ritter, the mother-in-law the former mistakes for a maid. The domestic confusion and misunderstandings might seem a bit contrived, but isn't that the case for most comedies? And when it's this much fun, does it even matter? (Not available on DVD, but it's on Netflix Instant)

Seconds (1966)
Despite producing classics like True Grit, The Odd Couple and a slew of Jerry Lewis comedies, the 60s were a rough time for Paramount. The studio was trying to find its identity as it transitioned out of the studio era, and neared bankruptcy late in the decade before whiz-kid producer Robert Evans greenlit a series of hits. One of the results of that identity crisis was the trippy and disturbing Seconds. A man is lured in by a shadowy agency's promise of a new life, and they deliver at first, with head-to-toe plastic surgery and a new identity. But can you ever really start over? Not when director John Frankenheimer is masterminding your downfall, Jerry Goldsmith is providing the creepy score, and James Wong Howe is delivering warped, almost experimental cinematography. The casting of Rock Hudson in the lead came as a surprise to many, but he turns in a career-best performance. While I'm not sure I agree with the film's original tagline claiming it's too intense for even strong stomachs, it definitely feels like a nightmare, start to finish.

Play it Again, Sam (1972)
If it walks and talks like a Woody Allen movie, then it is one, right? Not the case with Sam, one of a handful of films that Allen wrote but didn't direct. You get just enough Woody-ness, but for those who don't like his shtick, it's not as overwhelming as in some of his other films. It features the typical Allen trio of himself, Diane Keaton, and Tony Roberts caught in a Casablanca-esque love triangle. Taking the analogy further, Allen's character is haunted/mentored by the spirit of Humphrey Bogart (character actor Jerry Lacy, in a performance so uncanny I had to look up whether they digitally reincarnated Bogart somehow). It's light stuff, but for a film fan, it's to hard to beat a mashup of Casablanca and Allen.

Top Secret! (1984)
A lot of lesser-known 80s flicks are that way for a reason (who could forget the Paramount classic Gatorbait II: Cajun Justice?). So Top Secret! isn't exactly unknown, but it does hold a pretty low place in the canon. The creative team of Zucker-Abrams-Zucker is far more known and appreciated for Airplane! and The Naked Gun, but I think Secret deserves to sit proudly alongside those two. Part of what makes the ZAZ movies work is the deadpanning of the straight man, typically Leslie Nielsen. But the straight man here is played to the hilt by Val Kilmer, in the role of an Elvis-like pop star. I constantly quote the line "I know a little German...he's right over there!" and based on the blank stares I get, maybe this movie IS kinda obscure.

A Simple Plan (1998)
The 90s were a time for blockbusters at Paramount, including three Best Picture wins for Forrest Gump, Braveheart, and a little movie called Titanic (shared with Fox). But among all the epics and franchises was this little gem of a crime thriller by Sam Raimi. It features the 90s-tastic trio of Bill Paxton, Bridget Fonda and Billy Bob Thornton in the leads, and falls into the subgenre of "simple thing that goes horrifically wrong in every way imaginable for everyone involved." The snowy setting evokes comparisons to Fargo, but there's no laughs here. Just a well-constructed, chilly exploration of morality.

Wonder Boys (2000)
This is one of those films where each actor just shows up and does their trademark thing to its full potential. Michael Douglas has a midlife crisis, Robert Downey Jr. bounces around and makes witty remarks, Frances McDormand is headstrong, Katie Holmes plays jailbait. But it's Tobey Maguire who really steals the show - turns out he's a comedic genius. His chronically depressed prodigy James is the linchpin of the whole operation, and it's doubtful that any writer or director will ever use him this well again. Despite the guns, pills, theft of Marilyn Monroe's wedding coat, dog violence, and RDJ's appetite for transvestites, the film has a heart of gold at its center and never feels forced.

Shutter Island (2010)
Naturally, no film I pick from the last two years is going to be terribly obscure, especially since Paramount's output has become rather limited in recent years. So I'll focus instead on one I feel was unjustly overlooked. Scorsese's work here is no Raging Bull, sure, but why do we even bother comparing everything a director does to their highest achievements? It was an unusual move for him to dive into horror, but it's so much more than that. It's a mystery, it's a thriller, it's a drama about sanity, memory, and grief. The plot and acting can be a bit overheated at times, but this isn't a documentary - it's an exploration of a fractured mind. Leonardo DiCaprio gives an incredible performance, as does the illustrious supporting cast, and the aesthetics are painstakingly perfect. Give Shutter Island another shot without forcing it into the restraints of what you'd expect from Scorsese, and I think you'll be surprised.

Here's to the next 100 years! What overlooked Paramount films do you love?

May 1, 2012

This is...Cinerama!

I've always taken some issue with the notion that certain movies "must" be seen on the big screen. Obviously, theater viewing is always preferable, but is it ever so imperative that it renders any other form of viewing pointless? Prior to April 15 of this year, I would have dismissed that idea as hyperbole.

But then I experienced How the West Was Won in Cinerama.

For the uninitiated, Cinerama refers to both a filming and projection process that utilizes three synced cameras, resulting in a mega-wide aspect ratio. On paper, that doesn't sound terribly exciting. Breathless period advertising for Cinerama probably sounds just as quaint as ecstatic claims of "stereophonic sound!", if not more so. It was a gimmick developed so filmgoing could compete with television, and reads rather transparently as such. 

Due to the costly and involved nature of Cinerama productions, only a handful of them were made, and only two were traditional narratives: How the West Was Won and The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm (the rest were shorts, travelogues, etc). I had never seen West before, and it certainly boasts an impressive pedigree - it's a three-hour episodic history of the West with segments directed by Henry Hathaway, John Ford, and George Marshall, featuring a mind-blowing cast that includes James Stewart, Henry Fonda, John Wayne, Debbie Reynolds, Gregory Peck, Eli Wallach, Richard Widmark, Karl Malden, Lee J. Cobb, Walter Brennan, Thelma Ritter, Agnes Moorehead, and more. I would have been happy enough watching the Blu-ray, but when the TCM Classic Film Festival announced that they were showing it in its original format I jumped at the chance.

Going in, I was still somewhat skeptical that Cinerama was anything remarkable. For me, I was just looking forward to seeing the film on the big screen, at Hollywood's Cinerama Dome, while harboring a bit of curiosity about this rare format. (I was also very sleepy, since the TCM folks decided to schedule this at 9:15 a.m. on a Sunday.) After all, it's just a really wide screen, right?

It basically is. But cinematic gimmicks are only as good as what you make of them, and West makes something spectacular.

Think about it. Would sound have made such a splash in movies if there hadn't been crackpot writers churning out unforgettable snappy dialogue? Would color have really stuck around if filmmakers like Victor Fleming and Vincente Minnelli hadn't created such breathtaking Technicolor imagery? Who would have given a hoot about widescreen if directors like Nicholas Ray and Frank Tashlin hadn't exploited it so marvelously? Is the modern-day ambivalence towards 3-D rooted in the medium's shift toward subtle depth perception over eye-popping thrills? Basically, you can only get out what you put in. The gimmick alone isn't worth a thing - it's up to the men behind the curtain to do something with it.

Cinerama and the filmmakers behind West are a match made in heaven. The directors and cinematographers behind the film present a jaw-dropping panorama of the American West, as filmed all over the USA. Tracking and helicopter shots present mountains, rivers, oceans, deserts, forests, caves, even 1960s urban centers (spoiler alert: the West lasted beyond the 1800s) in a stunning 146-degree display. (It makes perfect sense that so many Cinerama films were travelogues; I could have watched various types of scenery in triple projection all day.) The three simultaneous projections meant you could frequently see two blurry vertical lines dividing the image, but it's such a minor detraction that it hardly bears mentioning. In fact, if anything, it keeps the viewer constantly aware of the unbelievable creativity and effort involved in creating such a spectacle. 

And spectacle it is! There's a raft drowning in currents, the Civil War, covered wagons crossing rivers, a river pirate attack, a buffalo stampede, and a chase and shootout on a moving train. Even tranquil moments such as James Stewart paddling downriver in a canoe provoked gasps from the audience, at the sheer beauty of both the composition and pristine condition of the print. And if frame composition seems like the unsexiest thing imaginable, you have to keep in mind that the view here is so wide that the directors basically crafted a new universe with each shot. Scenery, props, animals, actors, extras are all arranged painstakingly, as if for a painting. That was in fact one of the frustrations of working in Cinerama - production designers had to prep much larger areas than they were used to. You almost want to pause every frame and scan across it to catch all the details.

I should also mention the sound. Admittedly, I don't usually think much about movie sound except in terms of volume. Perhaps this is more a function of subpar sound systems in theaters (although I will say that when I saw Thor at the Arclight Hollywood, I enjoyed quite a bit of seat-shaking from the bass). Traditional Cinerama recorded with seven (!) discrete audio tracks, and the sound at the screening was incredible. Particularly of note was the music, which is a mix of original compositions and bombastically-arranged hymns. Much of it was composed just for the film, so the modern influence is undeniable but it still somehow works with the period.

After the film, national treasure Robert Osborne did a brief interview with Debbie Reynolds, who is as spunky and kooky as ever. She mentioned how her character was originally supposed to be in just the first segment, but they just kept calling her back to do more and more. The filming was so long and intermittent that she gave birth to two children before it was all over. The production was an arduous one, too; Reynolds spoke of how the multiple directors pushed the talent to perform dangerous and life-threatening feats, and some stuntmen even lost their lives. On top of the physical challenges, the actors had to contend with the strange blocking that Cinerama required. If they acted out a scene the way they normally would, the eyelines and body language would be all wrong. In order for it to appear convincing in Cinerama, they were forced to perform otherwise normal scenes like avant-garde absurdist theater, facing away from and looking past their costars.

Is West even a good film outside of Cinerama? I honestly don't know. Most of the characters have such small roles that you never really get attached to anyone. The dialogue, while satisfactory, doesn't really stir the soul (although there is quite a bit of unexpected humor). As a history lesson, it's patchy and simplistic. But as cinema, there's nothing like it. I don't even mean that in a pretentious way, like how Godard might be cinema (and I'm not knocking Godard). I mean that no matter who you are, if you sat down in that theater and experienced what I did, there's no way you wouldn't have had your socks knocked off.

Click to enlarge! It's too wide even for this blog!
Human beings are limited in how well they can convey perceptive and esoteric events. Particularly someone like me, who's jaded enough that I don't often feel I've experienced something magical. But you'll just have to take my word for it when I say this was magic. (And not to be a crotchety old person, but this is coming from someone who has yet to be sufficiently impressed by IMAX or 3D.) I gasped. I literally gasped. 

These days, Cinerama is naturally pretty hard to come by. But if you live in the Los Angeles area, you're in luck - the organizers of the event alluded to a Cinerama festival taking place this fall.

Big props to the TCM Festival people for putting this together, and the five-man projection team (!!) for such a glorious presentation. More belated, miscellaneous musings on the festival will follow.

Have any of you ever had the privilege of seeing a film in Cinerama? 

April 24, 2012

Perilous pups and killer kittens

Ever cruise around the internet and find something so tailored to your interests that you figure you probably created it in your sleep?

That was my thought process upon discovering a certain Listmania list on Amazon that combines two of my favorite things: film noir and animals. Some unspeakably wonderful person has compiled a lengthy list of dog and cat appearances in films noir. But the icing on the cake is that the descriptions are written in noir lingo, such as "Clinging cur makes and breaks Mad Dog" (High Sierra). Check out the list here, and part II here.

More of a horse person? Don't worry, the list creator thought of that too

I love the internet. So, so much.

April 4, 2012

"Oh, you're too young to have heard of it"

A large part of my job at Paramount entails giving tours to the public. Last week I gave a tour to a group of mentally disabled adults visiting from Chicago. They were an absolute blast - super enthusiastic, and full of questions. One gentleman in particular was especially inquisitive, and one of the group leaders warned me that he'd talk my ear off, but I didn't mind a bit. At one point, he asked "what's the name of that John Wayne movie with his son and Maureen O'Hara? And it's funny?"

Without hesitation, I replied, "Oh, do you mean The Quiet Man?"

A chorus of impressed murmuring ensued before he responded nonchalantly, "Nope, the other one."

The other one? I was stumped. I contemplated it for a moment.

At this point, one of the other group leaders interjected. Condescendingly, she told him "Oh, leave her alone. She doesn't know what you're talking about."

Welcome to the life of a 24-year-old classic film buff.


Look, I get it. There aren't a lot of us out there. If you were to assume that I preferred the onscreen company of Robert Pattinson to Humphrey Bogart, the statistics would be in your favor. I'm not necessarily begrudging the people who make this assumption, although it is narrow-minded and frustrating. What bothers me the most is when I prove that I know what I'm talking about, and people don't hear or listen. In the case of the above woman, I admit I was a tad confrontational. I said something like "I know perfectly well what he's talking about. You know what I did this weekend? Watched silent movies." That may or may not have been what I actually did on the weekend in question, but my point was that it happens often. She replied, as if I had just described my workout regimen, "Good for you!" but quickly added "you probably do it for your job, right?"


Why could this woman not comprehend that I watched classic films of my own free will? And why is that okay to say, but I'd probably get smacked if I told her "Oh, I bet you haven't heard of Twitter because you're too old"?

What's especially puzzling is that movies (and TV) are the only art form(s) where this happens. No one blinks an eye when people are interested in the literature, drama, music, or visual art of a time before their own. Our culture keeps these artifacts alive - does it not do the same for cinema? Perhaps it's because other art forms are more likely to be taught in school - you're more likely to read Shakespeare and listen to Mozart than you are to be shown Godard. And people invariably know of events that occurred before they were born, so is knowing about that culture really such a stretch? My default comeback to "Oh, you wouldn't have heard of it, it was before your time" is "The Civil War was before your time. Have you heard of that?"

Again, maybe it's a bit catty, but the assumption that people are too ignorant or close-minded to explore culture other than their own is downright rude. I used to work at a video store where I'd get this all the time. Many people snapped out of it once I demonstrated I knew my stuff, but others would continue like the group leader woman and keep condescending to me because of my birth year. If you alter this sentiment somewhat, it pretty clearly becomes something you could not say in public. How about "oh, you wouldn't know about sports, you're a woman" or "you wouldn't know about Easter, because you're Jewish." Please don't think I'm classifying people's attitudes toward me as a hate crime or anything. But it's just so disrespectful to approach people like that.

I know I don't. I'll give people the benefit of the doubt, no matter how small a chance they have of knowing what I'm talking about. If I'm greeted with a blank stare, only then will I go back and clarify. Giving tours day in and day out, you learn to cater to the lowest common denominator. But if people seem pretty savvy, I'll roll with it, no judgment.

So, I implore you: don't make narrow-minded assumptions about people's tastes based on external factors. Talk to them and find out. 

Do you find this to be true? If you're a youngish classics fan, do you get this treatment? Or in general, do people make exclusionary comments about your taste based on some demographic you're in? Relate and commiserate!

March 12, 2012

Employment in film

Due to the unfortunate timing of my birth, in 2009 I found myself graduating from college smack-dab into a recession. With a film degree, no less. Needless to say, I had a rough couple years there before I wound up in Los Angeles and miraculously snagged an entertainment industry job. It's a temporary position, however, so I'll soon find myself out on the proverbial streets again.

Granted, I didn't have much hard job-searching experience before I graduated, but I can say with confidence that the system has become Kafkaesque and absurd. Applications for menial, minimum-wage positions get thousands of applicants within an hour. You need 2-4 years experience doing PRECISELY the job you're applying for if you are even going to CONSIDER bothering anyone with an application. If you're lucky enough to get an interview, employers ask trick "Google questions" to suss out vague and undefinable characteristics. Or sometimes you just need to be attractive - I've been to interviews where they clearly just wanted to look me up and down, and nothing else.

It wasn't always this way. How do I know? Well, my job-searching experience prior to the recession was relatively painless. A few emails, a few questions, and boom, I'm behind the counter of some retail establishment. But I also know because of movies. One of the many reasons I love cinema is that is gives you a glimpse not only into the more exciting and prominent aspects of a time and place (war, culture, social customs, etc.), but the mundane as well. From an anthropological standpoint, I love watching people in older films go about their everyday business. So as someone who has frequently felt the hopeless, infuriating frustration of unemployment, I have particularly latched on to depictions of work acquisition in films. Now, I understand that narrative films don't always show things exactly as they are - either to streamline them or make them more interesting. But you can still learn a lot about the employment culture of a period from its cinema. Therefore, I present a rough history of American employment as told through the movies:

Obviously, in the way-back times, getting a job was a cinch. This becomes apparent from watching silent comedies, where a hapless hero would often have several jobs over the course of a single film. Normally, the process goes like this: Keaton/Chaplin/Lloyd etc sees a "Help Wanted" sign in a window, goes in to inquire, is asked "can you do (x)?" to which they naturally respond yes, and are hired on the spot. Now, I would imagine this has something to do with storytelling efficiency, especially since these films are often quite short. But the 1920s especially were bountiful times for America, so it's not hard to imagine that many blue-collar workers were hired in this way. (In College [1927], Keaton even manages to find work as a "colored waiter" by applying greasepaint. Naturally, it backfires.)

But then, of course, came the Depression, and suddenly things weren't so easy. Even more upbeat films tended to always have the Depression in the background, such as in Gold Diggers of 1933. Four sassy showgirls are between gigs, and never know where their next meal is coming from (frequently, it's the neighbor's windowsill). They understand that job-searching is a full-time job, so they spend every waking hour cajoling, persuading, manipulating and seducing producers and backers in order to get a new show off the ground. Their resourcefulness serves as an inspiration to modern-day job-seekers (well, perhaps minus the seduction part).

Alternately, if you were an employer in the 1930s looking to hire, you could literally pluck men off the streets. That's the approach taken by wealthy families in both My Man Godfrey (1936) and the eerily similar Merrily We Live (1938). Both have daffy women in search of household help - in the former, she finds a butler at the city dump, and in the latter, a tramp on the doorstep becomes the new chauffeur. Irene Bullock in Godfrey finds the titular butler as part of a scavenger hunt, the item in question being a "forgotten man" (a common term at the time for victims of the Depression). Matriarch Emily Kilbourne in Merrily, by contrast, has a patronizing habit of "collecting" and reforming vagrants. There were certainly enough to keep her busy.

The economy improved with WWII, but men returning from overseas were often faced with the unsavory reality of either finding a new job or being stuck with the same one. Dana Andrews' character in The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) is forced back into the same minimum-wage soda jerk position he had before the war, working under a younger man he had previously trained. His disillusionment eventually gets him fired, and despite attaining the rank of captain in the Air Corps, he can find no corporate or civilian equivalent. Broke and refusing to parade around in uniform, his hastily acquired wife leaves him. Fortunately, he eventually convinces a fellow veteran to give him a job building houses, foreshadowing the growth of suburbia and the economic boom of the 1950s.

Things get easier in the 50s. Smooth-talking Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas) creates a position for himself at a newspaper in Ace in the Hole (1951), despite having been fired from many previous employers (no background checks or references!). The deal is sealed by the brilliant but desperate line, "I can handle big news and little news. And if there's no news, I'll go out and bite a dog." In Imitation of Life (1959), Lora Meredith (Lana Turner) rather suddenly hires Annie (Juanita Moore) as a live-in nanny simply because Annie found Lora's daughter on the beach and looked after her for a bit. Letting a total stranger live in your house? People were just more trusting then, I guess...


In 1961, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying opened on Broadway; by 1967 it had gotten the silver screen treatment. Although the musical is a Pulitzer-winning satire, it's actually based on an autobiographical account of a man working his way up from the mailroom to the vice-presidency of a company. Its fundamental premise is that success is entirely contingent on saying the right things to the right people - words to live by to this day. A more direct form of deception was practiced by Frank Abagnale Jr, in the 60s-set true story Catch Me If You Can (2002). Starting at the age of 16, Abagnale conned millions of dollars by impersonating doctors and pilots. Con artists obviously still exist, but I'd imagine that technological innovations have made it exponentially more difficult (in case you were considering it as a career path).

Films of the 1970s featured many drifters who seemed to pick up employment with ease. As with prior decades, jobs that now require advanced degrees and certifications were entry-level - such as Pinky's (Sissy Spacek) new gig at the start of 3 Women (1977). She works at a physical therapy facility for the elderly, but based on the lackadaisical attitude and lack of qualifications among of the employees, it could just as easily be a roadside diner. Today, any physical therapy position (even an aide) requires two-year certificate. Lawsuits much?

The 1980s saw Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie (1982) dressing up as a woman to get work as an actor (well, actress), and succeeding. I would not, however, recommend this as a course of action for job-seekers.

The freshly graduated slackers of Kicking and Screaming (1995) have mostly themselves to blame for their unemployment, but there is a moment that inadvertently foretells the current insanity: "You have a second interview - for a video store?" For the most part, though, the 90s are a boom time, but with abundance comes discontent. Thus in 1999, a significant trio of anti-establishment, job dissatisfaction films were released: American Beauty, Fight Club, and Office Space. Beauty focuses on a more all-around unhappiness, but does feature its protagonist theatrically quitting his corporate job and rebelliously taking up at a fast-food restaurant. (How ironic that many workers today are following similar patterns involuntarily.) Edward Norton's job in Fight Club could not seem more soul-sucking - greenish lighting, sickly-looking employees. Office Space takes a comedic approach, but still depicts the white collar workplace as a unique form of hell from which one must escape.

Career abundance continued into the 2000s, which is why Seth Rogen's character in Knocked Up (2007) gets a cushy tech job despite having never worked anywhere before.

...And we all know what happened next.

Not many films have dealt with the recession head-on. The ones that have, such as Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (2010) and Margin Call (2011), explore the actual happenings of Wall Street as opposed to the effect on the common man. More peripherally, Wendy and Lucy (2008) focuses on a young woman who's out of money and trying to relocate to Alaska, but the circumstances of her situation are vague. Tiny Furniture (2010) chronicles a mopey underemployed grad who mostly has herself to blame. The title character in Larry Crowne (2011) sets off on a journey of self-discovery after being laid off from the business where he has worked for 20 years. Shawn Levy's Interns will soon go into production, starring Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn as two laid-off businessman who start back at square one as - you guessed it - interns. 

Ultimately, what it comes down to is that recessions don't make for great cinema. You can't have forlorn hobos wandering through dusty roads, Grapes of Wrath-style. You can't have repressed office drones rebel, like so many movies of the 90s did. From my experience, recessions just create a million little frustrations and disappointments. Perhaps when something or someone breaks through the lingering effects of this recession, we can have a film about it. Another con artist, perhaps?

This is by no means comprehensive - please chime in with more employment-related cinema. How has the recession treated you? Any wisdom and/or horror stories gleaned from movies?

February 23, 2012

Is this actually a movie? #9

I frequently find myself thinking, "know what I could really go for? A comedic western starring Insane Clown Posse."


Not only does Big Money Rustlas adhere to the above description, but it features a slew of C-list cameos from the likes of Ron Jeremy, Tom Sizemore, Brigitte Nielsen, Vanilla Ice, and Dustin Diamond. It has rave reviews on Netflix, such as (and I quote) "This movie is by far too godly for you non juggalo hater noobs to even fathom so if you rented it then dont talk crap it is litterally the funniest movie EVER!!!" A couple fans do provide constructive criticism, such as "I thought the other Psychopathic artists could of [sic] had more lines or bigger parts like ABK and Blaze." 

This masterpiece of cinema is available for your viewing pleasure on Netflix Instant. If westerns aren't your thing, however, there's still hope - this film is actually a prequel to Big Money Hustla$, which employs a cops and robbers theme.

If anyone is brave enough to watch this, let me know. After all, I'm fairly certain it's the only film ever made containing an image that even approximates this one:


January 5, 2012

Best overlooked and underappreciated performances of 2011

Well, kids, it's that time of year again - lists are sprouting up left and right of the year's top achievements in cinema. And although there's been a refreshing lack of consensus so far, you're going to see the same names and titles popping up again and again. Most of them have earned it, so I'm not complaining. But as is my tradition, over here in the peanut gallery I like to give a shoutout to the ladies and gents whose fine work this year was undervalued. Thus I present my annual list of overlooked and under-appreciated performances. As always, I offer my disclaimer that these are not necessarily replacements or alternatives for this year's batch of nominees/winners - they're simply worthy of more attention. Onward!


Rainn Wilson as Frank in Super
Dwight Schrute has always had a bit of a crazy streak, but Wilson takes that all the way here as a passionate but misguided vigilante. Believing he has been literally touched by God, he starts attacking thugs as part of a greater quest to win back his wife. By day, he's the ultimate sad sack, but by night he can be found bludgeoning people with a wrench for increasingly minor offenses. You know it's wrong, but you can't help but root for him.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Adam in 50/50
The danger in making a "disease movie" is that the sick person can easily come off as a bland victim. I'm not diminishing the severity of cancer here, but it doesn't really make for compelling drama. Adam does have cancer, yes, but he also has a problem of letting the wrong people into his life and shutting the good ones out. Through JGL's skillful blend of comedy, pathos, and realism, the cancer story becomes a vehicle for a tale of a man letting others in.

Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton as Tommy and Brendan Conlon in Warrior
Both Hardy and Edgerton should really be on your radar if they aren't already - if nothing else, they're your new Bane and Tom Buchanan, respectively. This film showcasing their great fraternal chemistry slipped unjustly through the cracks, with many blaming a perceived similarity to The Fighter. While it's true that both films feature brothers who participate in ring-enclosed sports, the similarities end there - Warrior is an almost mournful film about a severely damaged family, and how MMA (mixed martial arts) might be the only thing that could bring them together. Edgerton brings a natural realism to the role of the family man with the rowdy past, and Hardy is riveting as the enigmatic, uncommunicative drifter.

Conan O'Brien as himself in Conan O'Brien Can't Stop and Steve Coogan as himself-ish in The Trip
Cuz like, isn't life just a performance, you guys?! In all seriousness, the fascinating thing about these two films (the former a documentary, the latter a mockumentary) is that it's sometimes challenging to discern what's real and what's not. I doubt Coogan is a reckless womanizer, for instance, but is he actually that dismayed by the state of his career? O'Brien, on the other hand, seems like someone who is always "on" and is especially aware of the cameras, making it seem like he's always performing. One thing's for sure: both of them are very, very funny.


Saoirse Ronan as Hanna
I never saw the point of classifying child actors separately - you've either got the goods or you don't. Ronan towers above others two or three times her age in this electrifying tale of a girl raised by her father to be an assassin. Although somewhat of a kindred spirit to Hit-Girl in last year's Kick-Ass, Hanna has been raised in the wilderness and never known anyone but her father. Thus scenes of her instinctively annihilating adults are mixed in with tender scenes where she tries to have the childhood she was denied.

Kristen Wiig as Annie in Bridesmaids
Aside from a surprise Globes nom, all of the acting love for this film has been directed solely at Melissa McCarthy. I'm not saying she's unworthy, but the fact that everyone is treating a woman doing gross-out humor as a comedic breakthrough is kind of sad. Frankly, I think Wiig's work here is much more nuanced and daring, as she's not only hilarious but fairly despicable and destructive throughout.

Jenna Fischer as Laura in A Little Help
As Pam Beesly on "The Office," Fischer plays nice. For her uglier side, turn to this indie, which is a bit uneven but shows off her acting chops. A former high school beauty turned hometown hot mess, she has petty and insulting fights with her young son and everyone else in her family, but she just wants them to like her. Fischer explores what it's like to have your life be in shambles, but not in the cutesy romantic comedy way (as in "oh no, my job is hard and I trip a lot!").

Mia Wasikowska as Jane Eyre
Confession time: despite being, ostensibly, a girl, this was my first introduction to the tale of Jane Eyre. I therefore have no basis of comparison, but I dare anyone to play the role better than Wasikowska. Naturally, it's unfortunate that we have to go back over 150 years to find a female character this strong without an obvious hook (e.g. an assassin), but I'm grateful to Wasikowska for reviving her with such intelligence and passion.


Sacha Baron Cohen as the station inspector in Hugo
Cohen does not do subtlety. And really, would you want him to? Playing a man who could easily be a cousin of his garish barber in Sweeney Todd, Cohen is operating in his typically alternate plane of existence, which dovetails nicely with the world of Hugo. And yet, he does find a balance - despite possessing utter dominion over the train station, he is still rendered helpless by a lovely shopkeeper.

Armie Hammer as Clyde Tolson in J. Edgar
Not content to rest on his laurels as a man so stunningly gorgeous it's scientifically impossible, Hammer has been one to watch lately. Here, he plays nicely off DiCaprio's Hoover, being the more socially adept half of their ambiguous partnership. But the most impressive part of his performance is how well he pulls off old age. So often when actors play older, they're going through the motions but something just feels off. Not the case here - I completely bought the athletic, 25-year-old Hammer as the 70-something, post-stroke Tolson.

Ezra Miller as teenage Kevin in We Need to Talk About Kevin
Since the titular nightmarish offspring ages from 0 to 16 in the film, he is portrayed by multiple actors, including two talented children. But it's Miller as the teenage Kevin that really steals the show. Kevin is a nature vs nurture study about the origin of sociopaths that offers no clear answers, and Miller dominates every frame he's in with an utterly chilling and compelling presence.

Jon Hamm as Ted in Bridesmaids
Some people have all the luck...they're gorgeous, talented, AND hilarious. One would never expect the man playing Don Draper to have killer comedy skills, but lucky for us, he does. And they're on full display here, with Hamm as the filthiest, most degrading man you could ever date. 


Keira Knightley as Sabina Spielrein in A Dangerous Method
Frankly, I'm surprised that awards-bestowing entities aren't all over this. She plays a historical figure with both physical and mental problems, for crying out loud! But it's never for its own sake - Knightley skillfully depicts Spielrein's journey from stuttering, hypersexual patient to insightful doctor, and walks away as the true focus (and star) of the film.

Jennifer Morrison as Tess Conlon in Warrior
Typically in sports movies, the love story is in the courtship phase (i.e. Rocky, The Fighter, etc). Warrior takes a different approach here by having one of the protagonists be married, thus showing the strain of his career decisions on a preexisting relationship (with kids). Morrison transforms what could have been a throwaway role into something remarkable, balancing a love for her husband with an urgent need to sustain her family.

Ellen Page as Libby in Super
My boyfriend always explains his unconditional adoration of Tom Cruise as an actor by saying that he completely commits to every role he plays, no matter how slight. Perhaps that's why I always love Page - she has an intense "there"-ness apparent in roles from normal to deranged. And boy, this is deranged - Libby gleefully attacks people, rapes men twice her age, and generally revels in chaos. In anyone else's hands it might have just been embarrassing, but Page knocks it out of the park.

Colette Wolfe as Sandy in Young Adult
Playing a gawky townie, Wolfe only has a few minutes of screen time at the end of the film, but she certainly makes her mark. In those few minutes, she summarizes the moral of the film (which isn't quite what you'd expect), makes you laugh with her deadpan comedy, and tugs at your heartstrings.


Attack the Block
Ever wonder why aliens only seem to invade the suburbs? Joe Cornish did, so he wrote and directed a film about an invasion in a South London hood. Unofficially tasked with defending the streets are a teenage street gang and the young woman they terrorized earlier in the night. Cornish's cast is comprised almost entirely of inexperienced actors making their debut (with the righteous exception of Nick Frost), and they bring a great energy and camaraderie to the film while replacing time-worn alien-fighting archetypes.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
Gary Oldman is being rightfully recognized for his performance here, but it's really more of a group affair. It's a who's who of British actors working together beautifully for the sake of the story - not even recent Oscar winner Colin Firth has that big a role, but everyone is an important piece of the puzzle.

The Ides of March
This cast is an embarrassment of riches that could easily fill a trophy case with their combined awards. Stars like Marisa Tomei and Jeffrey Wright chip in mere minutes of screen time to this well-crafted, simmering political tale. Additionally, many of the players are going against type - George Clooney as a semi-villain, Ryan Gosling tapping into his dark side without killing anybody, and Paul Giamatti being only somewhat pathetic.

What are your favorite performances of the year that you feel aren't getting enough love?

December 1, 2011

The year in dog

Movies and dogs are pretty much my two favorite things in the world. So when you combine the two of them, I'm in hog heaven. This year, some canine talent burst onto the scene that could easily be compared to the star power of Asta or Lassie. Beyond those career-defining roles, various films this year were positively peppered with pooches. I'm not just calling them out for being cute, but I truly believe that they were all strong screen presences, even those with limited screen time. Oh, and they're cute!


Uggy in The Artist

We'll start with the pup that won big at Cannes. Yes, Uggy is the lucky recipient of this year's Palm Dog award, which the Cannes jury awards every year for best canine performance. (I pretty much died when I found out that this was a real thing). To call Uggy a scene-stealer would be to call Citizen Kane a pretty good flick. Director Michel Hazanavicius knew the star he had on his hands, so he cleverly cast him as a spunky sidekick, both onscreen and off, to the film's actor protagonist. When I saw the film at the AFI Fest gala event, Uggy was in tow with the film's cast, as if to scoff at the notion that he wouldn't be.

"Arthur" in Beginners

Not only does it appear to be the year of the dog in cinema, but more specifically, the dominance belongs to the Jack Russell terrier. The breed is no stranger to showbiz, having popped up in everything from The Mask to "Frasier," but 2011 was the year it would really shine. In addition to Uggy, Cosmo the Jack Russell gives a great leading performance as Arthur in Beginners. "Leading performance" was not a typo - this dog is in nearly every frame, and has the expressiveness of his fellow actors. Costar Ewan McGregor was so taken with him that he wanted to adopt him after filming, but his trainer wouldn't let him go. And honestly, who would?

The Doberman and dachshunds in Hugo

You'd think that anyone would disappear into the shadows acting alongside the theatrical Sacha Baron Cohen, but someone found him in a perfect foil in the form of a stone-faced Doberman. Cohen's character essentially regards the dog as a human sidekick, and their relationship is all the better for it. There's also a single shot of the two of them that I won't spoil, but it might be the most delightful doggy moment I've ever seen onscreen. The film also features, in a much smaller role, a hot-tempered dachshund that finds love.


"Skeletor" in 50/50

Although Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard) is hardly the best girlfriend to cancer patient Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), she does bring an adopted greyhound into his life as a coping mechanism. Adam doesn't quite take to Skeletor at first, but the dog's mournful eyes from his past life in a shelter radiate empathy, and the two become inseparable. There's a part where the two are snuggled up in bed where I seriously thought I was going to cry. As a doggy bonus, I believe Skeletor also briefly encounters a bulldog when out on a walk.

Laika in Le Havre

Even though the Palm Dog went to Uggy this year, a special jury prize was given to Laika. I'm not sure if that means Laika is a runner-up or actually superior, but either way, the adorable mutt provides a reassuring and super cute presence in the film.

"Jankers" in Tucker and Dale Vs. Evil

(Full disclosure: the spelling of that name is a rough approximation extrapolated from a hillbilly accent.) Like the scary-looking but sweet titular characters, Jankers' odd exterior (indeterminate bulldog mix, different-colored eyes) hides a mellow and sympathetic disposition. Correctly assessing how much he means to Dale, one of the college kids even takes the dog hostage! (Jankers comes through okay though, don't worry.)

The bulldog in Hipsters

Ever wish "Glee" was more like Grease, and in Russian? Have I got news for you! Hipsters is a charming little film about the rockabilly subculture of Russia in the 50s, complete with some of the catchiest songs and swell fashions of the year. Cool cat Fred, self-appointed leader of the hipsters, extends his style even to his dog, who has dyed fur and accessories for every occasion.
Rowlf in The Muppets

He plays the piano. Nuff said.

Also notable, though I couldn't find a picture: the mutt in Take Shelter. Despite its totally laid-back demeanor, the mentally unstable Curtis (Michael Shannon) starts perceiving it as violent and keeps distancing it from his family. And let's not forget the veritable cornucopia of Golden Retriever puppies appearing as party favors in Bridesmaids! Despite the one pup per guest rule, feisty bridesmaid Megan (Melissa McCarthy) helps herself to a whole armload, and later admits she might have gotten carried away.

And even though I haven't seen Young Adult yet, I'm going to go ahead and include its featured pooch. Just look at it!

Did I miss any? What were your favorite dog performances of the year?

November 4, 2011

Films that should have been something else

It's rare that films come into being because the idea was best suited for that particular medium. Adaptations obviously happen, as well as transformations during development ("Glee," for instance, was originally envisioned as a film), but it's not like a variety of artists are all chasing the same material. Consequently, it occasionally happens that you wind up with a film that (at least in my opinion) should have been something else, where the strengths play to a different medium entirely and the choice of art form drags it down. Here, then, are some films that I think were "born into the wrong body," so to speak.

Scarface (1932) as a graphic novel
When I finally got around to seeing Scarface, I felt like I was missing something. I love a good gangster picture as much as the next guy, and even Scarface's notable contemporaries like Little Caesar and The Public Enemy seemed much more lively. To me, the film lacked the manic energy that made similar films work. There was too much dead space, too many awkward stretches, too much focus on plot. So I propose it would feel right at home as a graphic novel, where the pace can be more relaxed while still holding interest. The machine gun fire would explode in big graphic rat-a-tats, and stylized artwork (black and white, perhaps) would do the heavy lifting instead of mostly novice actors. I'd read it!
The Producers (1968) as a musical
Now, I'm aware this is sort of cheating, since the film HAS been made into a musical (albeit one I haven't seen, so I'm counting it). It's perhaps because I am aware of the musical that the film felt to me like a musical with the songs cut out. The plot is oddly arranged, the shtick gets old fast, and the vast majority of it is two actors stuck in a room getting hysterical at each other. The fundamental premise is so goofy that I think the full musical treatment would really highlight it and bring the absurdity to the max. (I'm clearly right, if a six-year Broadway run and 12 Tonys are any indication).

Beetlejuice (1988) as an art exhibit
Unlike many, I neither unconditionally love nor blindly hate Tim Burton - I take him one film at a time. My frustration with Beetlejuice was that it had wonderful production design - and that's it. The acting, directing, cinematography, editing and story were indifferent. He probably knew that he could get more financing for building a whimsically gothic collection of giant beasties if he shot a film with them. I've been to the recent Tim Burton art exhibit that's been touring the world, but the focus there is more on two-dimensional works and isolated movie props. Ideally, the world he created for Beetlejuice would have been transplanted into an immersive gallery environment where you experienced it firsthand, not once removed through a movie screen.

Once (2007) as an album
Once is about music. Any plot developments or character arcs, most of them minor, are entrenched in the music. So why not just leave it as music? The film plays like a long music video, although that's not even the best description because music videos exploit their visual component. Once does not - the characters just sit around either playing music or just kind of hanging out. Make no mistake; the music in question here is absolutely fantastic. They just didn't need to build a movie around it.

The Man From Earth (2007) as a play
I had heard a ton of great buzz about this little indie, but it proved to be a huge disappointment. There's an interesting premise buried underneath terrible acting, shoddy production values and elevator music: an immortal, non-aging man has seen all of human history unfold. Instead of being a 20-part history epic, however, the format is a bunch of intellectuals sitting in a room and talking. I don't have an intrinsic problem with this format and have seen many films that use it well, but TMFE is a textbook example of what not to do. Take a few of the sillier indulgences out of the script, cast a powerhouse ensemble of actors, and it could be a pretty great stage play. (Frankly, the way the film is made I was surprised to learn it wasn't adapted from one.)

Black Swan (2010) as a ballet
I'm well aware that the film uses the ballet Swan Lake as a launching point. But Aronofsky's dark, sexy, weird version of the ballet at the end of the film is like no Swan Lake I've ever seen. The offscreen drama of the finale is fantastic too, a virtuosic opera of madness that melds perfectly with the ballet performance. Unfortunately, the rest of the film is Natalie Portman whimpering and clipping her toenails. I'm not dismissing the film entirely, since the ending was one of the more inspired moments of cinema I saw last year. So why not combine the ballet of Swan Lake with the story of a ballerina going mad preparing for it? The histrionics fit the tone of "dance-acting," the production design can remain the same - just cast actual dancers who have been trained to emote through their bodies. 

Le Havre (2011) as a photography series 
Aki Kaurismäki's latest film immediately pulls you in with its stunning lighting. It's a strange thing to single out, but it's highly theatrical and makes the rainbow palette of the film really pop. The rest of the film, however, isn't nearly as notable - flat characters, a story that overestimates its importance, and barely enough energy to keep the thing moving. But viewing stills from the movie, they look like a carefully choreographed photography series spring-loaded with possibilities. I can totally picture them in a gallery or museum. The nature of film as a moving picture really does these compositions an injustice.

What do you think? Can you think of any films that seem destined to be something else?