Thursday, January 28, 2010

De Palma a La Mode - Part Five: And Where is The Body....?

That's not a quote from the movie I am critiquing today, rather it is a line from the Salt n Pepa song called "(I Am) The Body Beautiful"...but I thought it was appropriate as the film I am talking about is called Body Double and it does deal with that well as the question of which body is it?  But first, I must say a few warning words.  This film is considered sleazy, violent, and misogynistic...or at least it was when it was first released in 1984 (the year of my birth).  De Palma, fresh off his critical success yet box-office failure of Blow-Out and his box-office success and critical failing of Dressed to Kill, needed a little time to vent.  People were calling him a misogynist and a sleaze monger after Dressed, even though in hindsight the nudity and violence was more tasteful than exploitative (certainly compared to the Friday the 13th films that were just beginning at the same time), and he was rather upset with being mis-analyzed.  Some might say that De Palma got what he deserved and that his critics were right...I'm of the opinion that he was simply trying to do things before people were ready (such as suggestive nudity, masturbation, and explicit violence) and got thumped for it.  Friday the 13th was vilified too at the time.  At any rate, Body Double was his response to those who thought Dressed to Kill deserved an X rating.  It was full of nudity, masturbation, murder, and violence, all the things that critics said there was too much of in Dressed to Kill...and no one seemed to get the joke.

Jake Sully (Craig Wasson) is a claustrophobic actor who is having a bad day...he froze on his new film job (having to play a vampire in a coffin) and he's discovered that his girlfriend has been cheating on him.  How did he find out?  He walked in on her and her lover while they were doing the nasty.  After moving out (it was her house afterall), he finds that he's lost the film job and no one will hire him.  Lucky for him, he runs into Sam Bouchard (Gregg Henry) another actor who is trying to find someone to take over his housesitting gig.  Jake immediately jumps at the chance to live in the high rent district, in an octagonal house that looks down over the valley.  The house has a full bar, a rotating bed, and a telescope with a great view from the back window.  What's great about the view?  Well, it just so happens to look right into the bedroom of Gloria Revelle (Deborah Shelton) who seems to enjoy doing a little striptease and masturbation routine in front of the open blinds.  Jake quickly takes to watching and soon becomes fascinated by her...even becoming concerned when he sees a creepy Indian watching her as well.  Jake follows Gloria the next day when he sees the Indian tailing her, and prevents him from stealing her purse (though the Indian does take a card before he escapes).  In return for his heroism, Jake and Gloria share a passionate kiss on the beach before she runs away (stating fear of her husband as her motive).  That evening, Jake sees the Indian enter Gloria's house and sees him attack her with a large power drill.  Jake is unable to save her and sinks into deep guilt.  It is only when he is watching a sleazy porno film called Holly Does Hollywood does he perk up...not because he's aroused, but because the star, Holly Body (Melanie Griffith), is doing the exact same dance that Gloria had done in the window.

To say more about the plot would give the intriguing twists away, but suffice it to say that Jake's adventure has only just begun.  Body Double is everything people said Dressed to Kill was, and yet wasn't...and yet it seems almost tamer than Dressed to Kill.  Part of that is because, even though Columbia Pictures agreed to let De Palma make his X rated film, they recanted at the last minute...afraid to risk it not making money in theaters that will only show up to R.  De Palma still worked in plenty of nudity, but its not as close up as Dressed to Kill was...nor is it as violent as the prior film.  The drill scene is often talked about as being nasty and mean spirited, but De Palma always cuts away before it becomes truly gruesome.  Unlike the slashing of Angie Dickenson, which showed many open wounds and even the cutting of certain elements of anatomy, the killing of Gloria is more about what is imagined.  Of course, the idea of the drill is upsetting to many people...its is like the chainsaw murders in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, which also are more about what is imagined, and yet were considered too gory and unpleasant.  However, the drill also represents something more unpleasant in this scene...the male phalus...and it is 'violating' Gloria in an unnatural way.  This isn't just a 'film school' analysis either...the drill is carefully framed in several shots to either be at groin level of the Indian or showing between his legs so I find it hard to believe that De Palma did this on accident.  I think that this may be why the scene makes people uncomfortable and makes them cry is almost like watching a violent rape.  However, it is done in such an over the top and dramatic way...that it can almost come across as dark comedy.  It all depends on how you watch the film, and there is a great deal of humor in this film...much of it directed at how the porn industry is run.  It keeps the film from being quite as serious as Dressed to Kill was, and also tries to let the audience in on the joke...the joke of how the film is meant to be everything that critics said they saw before.  Of course, they didn't get it...they just saw it as more of the same.  Hopefully you won't think that if you watch is more of an engaging thriller than Dressed to Kill was and features a wonderful breakout performance by Melanie Griffith.  The enjoyment of this film comes from getting past the sexual content and paying attention to the story...which is exactly what Jake Sully needs to do as well.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

De Palma A la Mode - Part Four: A Day for Blow Outs

Today has just been a fabulous day for the start of the quarter.  Schedule wise, it couldn't have been better because we had a two-hour delay which meant shorter periods, and I had a great first day with Speech, but everything else has seemed to go wrong.  When I got here, I fell down on the sidewalk and blew out the knee in my pants (my favorite pair) so I had to go home and change into un-ripped bottoms during second period (my knee only suffered a light scrape).  I arrived back at school with only minutes to spare before 3rd period.  I also had a blow out with my seventh period today when they continually would not pay attention.  I finally just screamed at them and gave them an angry speech (which unfortunately contained the word 'fuck' I'm ashamed to say) and gave up on them.  Hopefully, tomorrow things will be better...but the idea of blow outs in my pants (no dirty jokes thank you) and in my classroom kinda works as a theme to write towards when discussing my next De Palma film...Blow Out.

Blow Out has a spotty reputation with De Palma fans because it is a great movie and is often called "the good De Palma movie"...which makes fans resentful of it because, we of course think there's more than one good one.  I know I avoided it for a long time, because it had such universal praise and because I thought it seemed unfair that it should get all the glory next to other favorites of mine like Dressed to Kill and Femme Fatale...but I can see where people get their ideas on it being 'the good one'.  It is one of De Palma's most well rounded tales with great characters and a tense plot that builds to a natural conclusion (if not the most satisfying...I'll explain later)...and it also doesn't crib as much from Hitchcock plots.  There are some who insist he stole it from BlowUp instead.  I think we, as fans, have grudgingly come to accept that the critics have a point...but that doesn't mean we have to love the other films any less.

The plot is complex yet simple, and all hinges on the journey to find a scream.  Jack Terry (John Travolta) is a sound effects man who does effects work for a small film company that produces B or C level horror films and the film opens with himself and his director viewing their latest work (Co-Ed Frenzy) and being embarrassed over the terrible scream let loose by a naked actress in a shower.  The director demands that Jack go find him a better scream to dub and to get new background effects as well.  So Jack heads out that evening and starts recording wind, an owl, and a couple talking from a bridge over a river.  Suddenly, he hears a car approaching and the tire explodes, sending the car into the river.  He dives in an saves a girl named Sally (Nancy Allen) from within, while also seeing that the man in front is dead.  In the aftermath he discovers that the man was an important political official and his involvement with the girl is being covered protect his image.  Later, when re-examining the tape, Jack is certain that he hears a gun shot before the tire blow out...suggesting that the tire was shot out and that this was not an accident.  At the same time, a hit-man named Burke (John Lithgow) who was responsible for the accident is changing evidence to cover up the crime and slowly closing in on Sally, who is one of the last loose ends of the ordeal.

The film is incredibly tense and well plotted, each event leading you to wonder what will happen next.  The characters are wonderful as well, with Travolta adding a 'Jimmy Stewart'-like everyman quality to Jack and Nancy Allen being delightfully naive as Sally.  Allen's portrayal of Sally may perhaps be what makes the film's ending so harrowing and emotional (I won't spoil it for those of you who haven't seen it) and that ending is partially why audiences stayed away from Blow Out during its initial release...stating that it was far too bleak.  I would agree that the story is bleak, but that very far from the truth about life?  I find it difficult to talk about and analyze the film without giving the good details and surprises away...but I can say that for De Palma beginners, this is the one do watch.  Everything about it works, and it features the standard De Palma camera wizardry that those of us who love him have become accustomed to.  See it, I beg you.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

De Palma A la Mode - Part Three: The Reason I Hate Elevators

Ok, the title isn't fully accurate...but "The Reason I Hate Elevators" sounds much better than "The Reason I'd Prefer to Not Ride Elevators Alone, But I Can Still Do It If I Need To"....titles need to roll off the tongue you see.  So how would De Palma make me dislike elevators?  Well, anyone who's seen Dressed to Kill would clearly know why...but don't let me give the money shot away too early.  There are equal amounts of people on both side of the fence on this film...but it doesn't divide quite as easily as later De Palma work like Raising Cain or Body Double, either because it isn't as sleazy as he's been known to get or its not quite as much of a rip off than other films have been known to be.  Of course, those who do attack it do tend to cry 'rip off' quite a bit, as the plot borrows rather liberally from Psycho (perhaps even moreso than Sisters, but then one wonders where we draw the line on 'ripoff forgiveness') but it deals more heavily with sex and sexuality than the earlier film.  Oh, and when I say it deals with sex...I don't mean it features scenes of extreme smut like Body Double or Basic Instinct...I mean it actually attempts to have something to say about sex.  Seeing as it was released in 1980, and the world was really starting to acknowledge not only sexuality, but the consequences involved in sexuality.  In this way, Dressed to Kill is part morality play, and part social commentary of the time.

The film opens rather unexpectedly for a thriller, with a gentle music score and with Kate Miller (Angie Dickinson) in the shower.  The scene never suggests that she is merely washing however, and soon it is revealed that she is indeed...masturbating.  Too much too soon?  You ain't seen nothing yet.  Suddenly, Angie is grabbed from behind and a faceless stranger begins to rape her.  Where'd he come from??  It turns out that this is just a nightmare that Angie has been having...or was it a good dream?  Its hard to tell because she soon finds herself in the middle of an actual lovemaking session with her husband that put it mildly, rather lousy.  Kate is actually fantasizing about sex with strangers and living in an unhappy marriage.  For help with this, she sees Dr. Elliott (Michael Caine), a psychiatrist.  When she arrives at their latest session, she comes onto him after relating her unhappiness with her sex life (and her afraid musing that it might be herself to blame).  He sweetly turns her down, citing marital responsibility, and she goes to the museum where she allows herself to be picked up by a tall dark stranger, unaware that she is being followed.  They make love all afternoon and on her way out she forgets her wedding ring on account of being shocked to find a venereal disease notice in the man's desk (is it AIDS?  HIV?  Who knows?).  She takes the elevator all the way down to the lobby before she notices that the ring is gone, and on her way back up she gets a nasty surprise.  It seems that the person who has been following her is a tall-blonde woman named Bobbi and Kate meets her face to face.  Bobbi quickly produces a straight razor and slashes Kate to death right there in the elevator.  All this is witnessed by Liz (Nancy Allen), a call girl, and Liz becomes Bobbi's next target.  Liz then teams up with Kate's son Peter (Keith Gordon) and they attempt to track down the killer.

That's a big plot summary I know, but it helps to know all the details to understand what makes them significant in the grand scheme of the story.  Dressed to Kill starts off like a sexual confusion story and then sidesteps into murder, which puts a lot of people off because they are unsure what kind of movie this is supposed to be.  However, the film remains about sexual confusion...its just not as obvious until the ending.  I have always liked this film, ever since the first time I saw it.  Its one of my favorite De Palma's because it has the signature cool shots, good acting, and a great murder set piece...however it also has deeper messages if one really pays attention.  As I said before, the film is part morality play...mainly Kate's section of the story.  The film at first rewards her for seeking pleasure outside of marriage, but then punishes her by revealing her lover to have a STI (they call them sexually transmitted infections rather than diseases now don'cha know?) and opening the possibility of her contracting it as well.  This was a BIG deal then, because STI were just becoming something that was being talked about at this point and was a huge source of fear for people who were sleeping with people they hardly knew.  The whole ordeal makes her feel afraid, vulnerable, and dirty.  This is not the person that she is, and she has learned that now.  I personally believe that after Kate went home, she was going to tell her husband everything...sadly, Bobbi intervened.  Unlike some critics, I don't think that Bobbi is an additional punishment for her 'sexual crime'.  Kate is just in the wrong place at the wrong time, like so many others who are victims of senseless violence.  This, along with the STI fear, is part of the 'social commentary' that I mentioned earlier.

Some of these commentary ideas seem dated now, as we have learned the virtues of safe sex and the free clinic...but the fear of discovering sexuality is still very prevalent in society today.  Unfortunately, this is the more subtle of the themes of the film and easy to miss on a first viewing (because you get caught up in the mystery story) but this theme starts and ends with our killer, Bobbi.  Bobbi, early in the film, is revealed to be a transvestite wishing to be a transsexual (she is also revealed to be a patient of Dr. Elliott, but that's not the twist) and whom is being denied a sex change operation.  Bobbi also only targets the two beautiful women in the center of the story, and never any men, suggesting that she/he is lashing out at those who turn on the male side of his/her coin (Bobbi even says once that "I'm glad I took care of that little cock teaser.").  The fear of that side of his/her sexuality drives Bobbi to violence (this was even less subtle in De Palma's original draft where the opening dream was from Bobbi's perspective and she was slashing off her own penis with the razor).  There's more to it than that, but to reveal more would be to ruin the ending which is worth seeing.  Then there's Kate, who's lousy relations with her husband drive her to committing adultary.  She is afraid of the cheat of course, but she gives in.  You might ask where the fear is here...well, the fear is confronting the actual problem.  We still live in a time where it is downright embarrassing to tell your partner that you are not being satisfied sexually, and that fear of confronting the side of her that needs more pleasure from her husband is what inevitably drives her to her downfall.  Every event that follows from the beginning is brought about because she can't bring herself to tell her husband that he stinks in bed (something Dr. Elliott even tells her to do).

Now, after all this psychoanalysis and psuedocritique, you're probably wondering "would I even be entertained by this movie??"  The answer is, like with all of De Palma's auteur work, a qualified 'maybe'.  The mystery plot is thrilling enough for an early 80s thriller, there's some decent gore and nudity for those who are into those sorts of things, and there are very good performances by the 3 leads.  However, with De Palma its always a matter of taste.  What I always say is, give it a try and if you don't like it, at least you've only wasted some of your 24 hours that day.

Oh, P.S. I went to my own Halloween party my senior year of high school dressed as Bobbi...and I scared quite a few people.

Friday, January 22, 2010

De Palma A la Mode - Part Two: Brian De Palma's "Vertigo"

Wait, what's that you're saying?  Brian De Palma never remade Vertigo!  That was and always will be Hitchcock's masterpiece!  Well,'re right.  De Palma never remade Vertigo, but he came very close in his followup to his Sisters and The Phantom of the Paradise.  The film was called Obsession, and it closely resembled Hitch's film in both tone and style.  It is a high romance (anyone who tells you that Vertigo isn't a love story is crazy) and also a tale of one man's unhealthy obsession with a love he lost to death (oh, and Bernard Herrmann is back as the composer).  Unlike the former, however, Obsession begins its major thrilling plot much quicker...whereas Vertigo was happy to slowly set up the relationship of Scotty and Madeline before killing her off (and then having her lookalike show up).  In Obsession, Cliff Robertson loses his wife and daughter to kidnappers in the first 10 minutes of the film and then a horrible accident takes their lives before he can save them.  Several years later, still wracked with guilt over the ordeal and unwilling to let go of his wife's memory, he heads back to Florence where he met his late wife.  And there she is, a woman who is almost her exact double (Genevieve Bujold).  He immediately enters into an obsessed love affair with her, wanting to go forward into a marriage but certain that danger lurks around the corner...waiting to repeat itself.

I didn't care much for Obsession when I first saw it...nor the second time I saw it.  I suppose this is to be expected, as I have enjoyed more of De Palma's maligned efforts and this one was rather critically I guess my hopes were probably too high. Yet as I watch it again tonight, I find that my tendency towards dislike is not without merit.  Yes, there is a technical savvy there is with all De Palma's work.  But yet I feel, as a regular viewer of his work, that it feels like one of his most pedestrian efforts.  The shots are dull and fuzzy, there's little split screen going on, and De Palma's usual imaginativeness seems sadly absent (the one standout shot being a long pan around that takes us from 1959 to 1975 and shows how everything has changed except for Robertson's mourning).  Others have critiqued its acting, saying that Robertson and Bujold light up the screen.  I think this is being much too generous, because I hardly think that De Palma's script gives them much to do.  Robertson is the most disappointing as he seems to sulk around with the same blank expression on his face for the entire movie.  Bujold is good as the double later on in the film...but early on they don't let her speak at all so we have little reason to fear for her in the opening kidnapping because we haven't gotten to know her yet.  I suppose one could say that De Palma's skill is shown here by what he manages to convey with no dialogue at all, but once again...he's been better both before and after this.  So now the only thing left is the story...which has been praised for being compelling and complex.  I suppose one could see it that way, but I don't see it.  I suppose its all a matter of taste, but I don't find a man who can't let go of the death of his wife and daughter interesting for an entire movie.  And that's really all it is.  Sure, its a movie about obsession and so a man who is obsessed is essential...I guess I just don't care much about his obsession.  I think if the opening were longer and had allowed us to really relate to Robertson and Bujold, as we do for Scotty and Madeline in Vertigo, and if Robertson was better at his job...then I might be more involved in the plot than I am.  I will say that the one neat thing about the movie is its ending.  You both kinda see it coming, and also can't quite believe it...and it opens several creepy avenues of thought.  I won't spoil it for you of course, but the film is worth seeing to the end...definitely.  So, with all this criticism and negativity, you probably think I really hate this movie.  On the contrary...I watch it, and enjoy bits of it (especially the ending)...but I will never quite understand the praise that is lavished on it when I feel as though De Palma's later work such as Dressed to Kill and Body Double have done everything that this film does and does it all better.  Then again, I started this blog telling you that I often differ from everyone else.  Should you see it?  Yes.  I think Obsession is a great film for those who can't stomach the nudity or gore found in De Palma's other works and it does boast a lovely score and ending.  But try to view it a little more down to Earth than some do.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

De Palma A la Mode - Part One: The Left Twin is Always the Evil One...

Brian De Palma...I'm not sure there has been a contemporary filmmaker more appreciated and unappreciated by so wide an audience (except for maybe Joel Schumacker).  It may be because De Palma is a well known Hitchcock fan and often homages (steals?) from the master's palate often, or perhaps its is because he is very often cruel to the women in his films (who could forget the elevator murder from Dressed to Kill or the drill murder from Body Double) and thus labeled a misogynist.  Sure, it doesn't help his case much when he justifies it by saying that women in peril are more interesting than men in peril in thrillers...but is he that wrong (don't call me a pig...I'm just playing devil's advocate for a minute).  However, the man does have a large body of critically acclaimed work behind him and still manages to draw a decent crowd when he opens a new movie...which is never too often.  I consider myself a big fan of De Palma, he filled my Hitchcock void when I ran out of that director's films to watch and I find his camera work astounding enough to overlook his plot holes and two-dimensional characters.  I can remember discovering his films in high school and chasing his hard to find titles down like a hungry beast (back then, DVD copies of them weren't as readily available and VHS copies were hard to find as well).  One of the last ones I saw was also his first thriller hit, and one that I enjoyed not only as an examination of his early talent but also as a starting point for his fascination with using the Hitchcock 3 in his plots (Rear Window, Vertigo, and Psycho).  It dealt with two siamese twins who had been separated in their young adulthood, and the films was called Sisters.

De Palma secured famed Hitchcock composer Bernard Herrmann to compose the score for Sisters, and the composer made one of his most famous quotes in their first meeting.  Herrmann, known for his volatile temper, complained to De Palma that nothing happened in the first 40 minutes of the film.  De Palma replied with something along the lines of: "Yeah, I know.  It's like Hitchcock." To this, Herrmann indignantly replied "YOU are not Hitchcock!  For Hitchcock, they will wait!"  This most likely explains why we are greeted with a jarring credit sequence that not only features Herrmann's bombastic theme for Sisters, but which also features undeveloped fetuses that are intended to give us a clue to the nature of the plot.  Its kinda a good thing, because otherwise we might have no idea what the movie is supposed to be about until much later in.  The film begins very slowly, with two people, Philip Woode (Lisle Wilson) and Danielle Breton (Margot Kidder), meeting on a game show. Philip and Danielle then quickly adjourn to dinner and then Danielle's place (with a quick interlude eluding Danielle's obsessive ex-husband Emil (William Finley)) for a...ahem...rendezvous where Danielle reveals a large scar on her exposed thigh.  The next morning, Philip wakes to overhear Danielle fighting with a woman who Danielle later reveals to be her twin sister, Dominique, who is angry that Danielle has slept with this man on their birthday.  After taking two pills and losing the rest down the bathroom sink drain, Danielle asks Philip to refill the prescription at the drug store for her.  He does so, obediently, fetching a birthday cake for the twins on the way and wasting enough time for Danielle to pass out on the bathroom floor.  When he returns he approaches a woman laying on the couch, who appears to be Danielle, with the cake and a big, sharp knife.  The woman quickly grabs the knife before Philip can react and stabs him to death, while having a fit.  This is clearly the unbalanced Dominique.   Danielle regains consciousness and gets Emil to help her clear away the body...but not before a nosy reporter named Grace Collier (Jennifer Salt) witnesses the whole thing from across the alley.  The rest of the film is concerned with Grace's quest to solve the mystery.

Its a small little film with a tiny plot.  In fact, if De Palma hadn't dragged out the first Act it might have been able to be a short film...but like most of De Palma's thrillers, this film isn't so much about story as it is about style.  As a director and co-writer he sets up a great deal of plot conceits using little dialogue and a lot of technical finesse in the first few minutes of the film.  We learn that Philip is a decent guy by seeing his behavior on the game show, he learn that Emil is following Danielle by seeing him in the background many times before his initial introduction, and we gain sympathy for Danielle by both observing her sweet behavior (and cute French accent) and her seemingly troubled experiences with her ex and her sister.  The split screen is used to great effect as well (on of De Palma's signature touches) as he shows the point of view of both Danielle and Emil as they clean up the murder and Grace as she tries to convince the police to go upstairs with her in the same shot.  Its amazingly tense and makes what could have been a standard cutting back and forth between scenes into something fresh and innovative (I'm still unsure why more people don't use this technique today).  Oh, and if you can see the ending coming from a mile away...its really no big shock.  The film uses the Psycho playbook almost to a T...but that's ok because like I said, the style is what makes it fun to watch.  Sometimes the journey is just as fun as getting to the end.  De Palma's films would get much more stylish and polished in the future, and he'd really find his voice when he teamed with composer Pino Donaggio, but this first chilling effort is still looked at as one of his greatest accomplishments and its definitely worth seeing for anyone who likes horror.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Semester Exams

Anyone who thinks that Semester Exam day is easier on the kids than the teachers is....well....partially right.  All I've done today is pass out a test each period, sit at my desk, and grade, grade, grade.  I'm all caught up now on everything the kids were supposed to hand in, and I'm even all set to start planning the quizzes and handouts for next week when we start reading "Night"...however, keeping them quiet and focused is tricky in these longer class periods...and writing the exams themselves is...indescribable.  I don't think I've had a more unpleasant and time consuming task than having to remember EVERYTHING we've gone over and then make a test long enough to last an entire 85 minutes.  The beast ended up being 157 multiple choice questions and 3 short responses...27 pages long...and enough to freak out several students when they felt the weight of the thing.  Oh, and did I mention that I had to re-number the whole thing....twice?  Yeah, that's because when Word works its really great...but when Word decides not to work...its a real pain in the ass. (I can hear Bond, typing away at his Mac, laughing at me and my Windows issues)  Luckily, that seemed to be the only glitch...that and a small typo on the first question.  Its unbearable when a test or worksheet is riddled with mistakes and the students notice.  You lose all credibility then.

Speaking of Bond, he lost his job yesterday at Awful Max (our pet name for Office Max) because they were 'downsizing' and 'restructuring'...basically meaning that they wanted to pay someone else less rather than keep paying him what he was making (and he was already making a pittance).  Its really unfair, but it might be a blessing in disguise.  His lease is nearly up, and he was thinking of moving to Columbus anyway in the hope of getting something better.  Maybe now he can.  I think it might be the best thing to happen to him (if all works out in that way)...but yet the idea of him leaving makes me really sad.  He's really my only 'hangout' friend around here.  I have Grumpy, but he never wants to hang...and then there's Subzilla (my substitute teacher friend) who has a family that she needs to be with a lot.  So I'm finding myself selfishly wishing that he would get to stay...even though I know its much better for him to leave.  Ah the moral dilemmas that adulthood makes us face.

Monday, January 18, 2010

I Say a Little Prayer...

So flashback to 1997...that year saw the release of two big 20th Century Fox sequels, Speed 2: Cruise Control and Alien Resurrection, yet another hit for Will Smith, Men in Black, and the sequel to one of the hottest slasher films since the 80s, Scream 2.  And yet, for all the franchise starting and followup fanfare, a little romantic comedy called My Best Friend's Wedding managed to surprise critics and audiences alike with its wit, suspense, and role reversal for star Julia Roberts.  It also jump started the careers of supporting stars Rupert Everett and Cameron Diaz and featured a classic sing-a-long in a seafood restaurant that remains as one of the most memorable scenes from a contemporary comedy.

There's a lot to like about My Best Friend's Wedding, starting with its lead player...Julia Roberts.  Roberts at this point in her career was very well known for playing bubbly, likeable leads who smiled big and managed a few good one-liners as they worked their way towards nabbing or keeping the perfect man (Steel Magnolias and Pretty Woman both spring to mind) so it was a stroke of genius to cast her not only as a cold bitch prantagonist (that's a mixture of protagonist and antagonist just so you know) but also as a girl who in fact, doesn't find true love at the end of the story.  Afterall, one doesn't reward the villain at the end of the romance right?  Its a bold move and makes Wedding seem all the more edgy than perhaps we remember it.  I mean, its not often that our lead doesn't get some sort of true love at the end of her a more conventional film, Roberts would have met someone's handsome brother or the cute caterer or something during her evil plotting to get Dermot Mulroney back and by the credits, they would share a kiss...but not here.  Sure, she gets to dance with the fabulously gay and suave Rupert Everett, but she still gets to go home to that big empty so many of us in life (yes, even those of us who don't try to break up weddings).

Cameron Diaz plays an interesting character too, who is at the same time both sweet and cute...and also a bit too perfect (almost in a creepy way).  She could have easily come off as a stock, perfect blonde who is easy for the audience to hate.  However, the writers have made sure to embue her with a thoughtfulness and intelligence that seems out of place for a woman like that...which explains why Mulroney wants to marry her in the first place.  Take, for example, her first few conversations with Roberts where she discusses why she loves Mulroney despite his faults and how she views his friendship with Roberts.  She is very eloquent in expressing her feelings and manages to rise above the bubbliness in which her character resides.  Diaz herself brings an vulnerability to the role and easily wins our sympathy in the end (regardless of how we may wish to side with Roberts at the start).  When she sees Roberts kissing Mulroney, the betrayal etched on her face is enough to make anyone sympathize.

Props also to director PJ Hogan, who had just come off the indie hit Muriel's Wedding, who not only captures the emotions of the characters so well and directs with a frenetic sense of comedy (slapstick and dialouge mesh, much like a Howard Hawks comedy) but also uses music to further advance the proceedings.  The opening credits set to "Wishin and Hopin" are memorable, as is the aforementioned "Say a Little Prayer" sequence.  The music chosen for the background soundtrack is equally important, as there are several classic love songs (mainly ones about loss or unrequited love) woven into the soft moments where Roberts is feeling contemplative as well as adding a bit of juxtaposition with her epic chase scene late in the film.  Oh, and the boys singing while on helium is a hoot as well as it sounds like Roberts and Mulroney are being serenaded by the Chipmunks during a dramatic scene.  PJ Hogan also toyed with familiar tunes in Murial's Wedding (ABBA that time) and years later in Unconditional Love (old crooner hits from Elvis and others).

If you haven't seen this film or if its been a very long time since you last saw it, you would do yourself quite a service by picking it up.  Its a great for the cold winter months when one needs laughter and love to keep themselves warm.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Brooksfest 2010: Day 3

I know I know, I haven't written since Monday.  But I have a good excuse!  Its tech week/final rehearsal week for the high school variety show (of which I am in charge) and with rehearsals, teaching, and preparing for exam week I've just been swamped and haven't felt like writing when I got home (or in the case of last night, I didn't have time when I got home).  But while the blogging world has been whizzing past me at breakneck speed, Brooksfest 2010 has still been going on and thus it must be given its due. However, before we get into that I'd like to point out (even though none of you can come) that my variety show is tonight.  I'm very excited about it and the kids are too.  Its been a real joy working with them and last night, it finally looked like a real show.  I really think that everyone who comes to see it will be greatly impressed (except maybe those who didn't get in this year, I'm apparently still on several enemies lists for that one).  There was even one kid who never showed up to rehearsals and was cut, and I could have put one of the kids who didn't get in and wanted to be there in his place.  Its too late now though, so next year I'll just have to be more aware of that.  Maybe next year I can even make it a little longer, as it seems to go pretty fast this year.  Hey, I'm still learning afterall (and by that I mean I've never done a variety show before).

Anyhoo, for today's entry I wanted to give a shout to yet another lesser known Brooks film...I know, it seems like I'm never gonna get around to talking about Spaceballs or Young Frankenstein...and one that is one of my all time faves.  This film is notable in that Brooks produces and stars in the film along side real-life wife Anne Bancroft (the only film they did together aside from Silent Movie) and doesn't direct or have a writing credit.  Why is it considered one of his films you ask?  Well, because it was brought about by Brooks who had wanted to make it for years (its a remake of an earlier film with Jack Benny) as a dream project (and the great minds at 20th Century Fox saw fit to include it in the DVD 'Mel Brooks Collection' who are we to argue with their wisdom?). The film was called To Be or Not to Be and is one of the few cases where the original film was not received with general acclaim (causing the remake to be much less maligned in comparison).  The film takes place in Poland during the start of the German occupation of the country during World War II and it is centered around a husband and wife acting team, Frederick and Anna Bronski (Brooks and Bancroft) who are struggling to keep their theater working despite the Nazi interference.  When their lives are threatened, and the lives of their Jewish friends, they must use all of their acting talent to impersonate and bluff the Nazis until they can get to safety.  In several ways, the film is a departure for Brooks in that it features highly serious moments thrown in with the comedy so one might be able to call it a dramady (this, I feel, cements the film in a reality that exists apart from average Brooks fare).  Its also notable as the first film to deal with the idea that homosexuals were persecuted just as much as the Jews in that time (that's where the pink triangle comes from).  I really can't praise the film just need to see it.  Sure, its not for everyone, but then...what Brooks film is?

Monday, January 11, 2010

Brooksfest 2010: Day 2

Boy, today just kept on going.  Actually, that's not accurate.  The school day seemed to zoom by, and I got more work done on my semester exam (I'm nearly up to 150 questions) while giving the kids time to work on homework and scenes.  I also put up the posters for the Variety Show today, which opens on Thursday night.  I can't wait, as I think its really going to entertain those who come to see it.  Also, the posters look amazing thanks to Bond.  I hope he charges me more for them when I have him do the senior class play and the musical, because I really would love to pay him what he's worth....especially since I'd be paying him with school money since they're for a school function.  Oh, and rehearsal went well today too.  Finally got the emcees worked into the rhythm and got the curtain working.  Should be smooth sailing tomorrow and Wednesday.

Tonight I bring you another Brooks film and again, it is lesser known.  This film was envisioned as a dark comedy, featuring gags as well as a thriller plot, as old Mel wanted to pay homage to the master of suspense...Alfred Hitchcock.  Hitch himself loved the film (he had a great sense of humor) and went so far as to send Brooks a bottle of wine with his warmest regards.  The film had vertigo, deranged doctors, twisted shots, and even a pulse pumping score...almost everything was there aside from Hitch himself, and it has a great title song.  Yes, High Anxiety is like watching classic Brooks and classic Hitch all at the same time.  The plot is simple...Dr. Richard Thorndyke (Brooks) has come to work at the prestigious Psychoneurotic Institute for the Very, VERY, Nervous where the previous head doctor was murdered and the staff (Harvey Korman, Cloris Leachman, and Dick Van Patten) seems very odd and shifty when he asks why.  It eventually is up to Thorndyke to solve the mystery of the hospital and save someone else from a murder.  Off to the sidelines we have Brophy (Ron Carey), Thorndyke's klutzy sidekick, and Victoria Brisbane (Madeline Khan) as the love interest and damsel in distress to add even more comedy to the proceedings.  There are, as always, a great deal of one liners and sight gags and some genuinely chilling (and yet funny) moments, such as Dick Van Patten's 'death by loud radio'.  This film is excellent Saturday night entertainment, perfect for when the sun has gone down and you need a good laugh.  So give it a chance if you haven't already, I'm sure you'll enjoy it.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Brooksfest 2010

This weekend was great I tells ya, G-R-E-A-T. I had forgotten how much one is invigorated by a snow day when one is in public school. We got a nasty snow storm (but a baby compared to the one that hit WV when I was driving home) here in Ohio on Thursday that not only got us out of school early, but also gave us a snow day on Friday. It was awesome, and yes I do have to get 6th and 7th period caught up to 1st and 5th now, but it really rejuvenated me. I got some work done, watched a lot of movies on Netflix streaming, and did a lot of reading. You'd think I wouldn't need all that time off after having just come off of two weeks for Christmas, but Christmas break was oddly depressing where as this was just a nice lazy time. I can't explain why that is, but it just was.

Anyway, part of this weekend was devoted to doing something I manage to do every year without thinking of it. It isn't until its almost over, that I realize that Brooksfest has come and gone again. Its not an annual thing, or a planned thing, but somehow every year on some weekend I start watching all my Mel Brooks movies in no particular order and have a good cheap laugh. I think I was inspired when I went to visit Bond Friday night (he was making my poster for the school variety show...and they look great) and I took with me a handful of comedies: Romancing the Stone and a pile of Brooks films that he might not have seen (Silent Movie, High Anxiety, To Be or Not to Be, and History of the World: Part I) .  We ended up watching only Stone, which is so great a comic adventure that it doesn't even need to be written about, but it made me want to go back and Brooks it up on Saturday.  I've always liked Brooks, even when I was a kid.  I think the first one I ever saw was Spaceballs, which of course is one of his better loved ones, and then my father showed me some of his favorites one summer vacation.  It wasn't even until years later that I would see some of my favorites (and even lesser known than the ones mentioned)...The Twelve Chairs and To Be or Not to Be.  Brooks is sometimes hard to take, his great films rise to the top of AFI's list (Young Frankenstein and The Producers) and to the bottom of the IMDB popularity list (Robin Hood: Men in Tights and Dracula: Dead and Loving It) but he's always been better than you think, even when he's not at his best.  Anyway, I just wanted to preface why Mel Brooks is so important to me and why it is always worth noting in my year when Brooksfest happens.

Tonight I want to give a shout out to one of my favorite films in the Brooks canon and one that's so funny, it doesn't even need to make a sound....well, maybe a few sounds.  In 1976, Brooks starred in the first film that he had also written and directed and based it upon his own experience trying to get the film made.  Why wouldn't someone want to make a Brooks film at this point?  Well, it was supposed to be the first silent movie made in four decades...but the gamble paid off and Silent Movie was unleashed on the public.  The film chronicles the quest of a has-been director and his two partners (Dom DeLuise and Marty Feldman) to make a silent movie using the biggest stars in Hollywood with the intention of saving a movie studio from an evil conglomorate (named Engulf and Devour...a thinly veiled poke at the acquisition of Paramount by Gulf+Western).  It was all slapstick and Mickey Mouseing music (for those of you who don't know, when a score Mickey plays along with the action on screen...think any cartoon 'shave and a haircut...two bits' joke) and it was a comedic success.  I think more people should watch Silent Movie, because it really is a hoot.  It feels like you're watching a classic Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin movie, and all the sight gags and sped-up film just make you giggle.  Plus, there's that lowbrow Brooks touch that gives it all a slight edge, such as the recurring gag of the lady walking by when Mel and company are embracing and yelling "Fags!"...a joke that you'd think would offend me, but it really doesn't.  Perhaps because it isn't Brooks being a bigot, but because it is Brooks making fun of bigots.  Besides, if comedy wasn't a little bit offensive, it wouldn't be as funny.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Wednesday...another delay

We got another two hour delay this morning...this time as I was fixing breakfast.  Once again, I was already ready to go and so once again...I'm here sitting watching tv waiting for work time to roll around.  I won't lie, its nice to have chill mornings before work...but I wish I could just go back to sleep.  Someone might say 'Of course you can! Just set an alarm!' but the thing about me is, I can't go back to sleep once I've been up a certain amount of time.  Its a weird thing of mine.  I remember when I was 17 and I could sleep anywhere at any time...but as I got older it was much more difficult.  Now its only when its nighttime...and occasionally during a long car ride where I'm not driving.

Speaking of sleep, I had a really good one last night.  Very deep, very visual dreams.  And there was no pill involved.

I spent a good deal of last week watching the new blu ray discs (or BDs) that I bought and its time to talk about one of my favorites...from the Star Trek series.  There are several in the series that I like...and yet one stands out above all the others as being both original and deep.  That would be Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. This was the last outing for the original cast members, and not a moment too soon as the cast was definitely beginning to show its age and expanding waistlines, and so the producers decided to play all their big aces.  First, they got director Nicholas Meyer (who helmed the hugely popular Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan) to come back to direct this installment, they also got him to help write the script with Leonard Nimoy (who directed the amazingly successful fourth installment) who had an amazing idea to combine themes of the Cold War with "Star Trek" so that the Enterprise could explore the idea of change and the fight for peace.  It begins with the accidental destruction of the Klingon moon, Praxis, which places the Klingon empire on the fast track for extinction.  Spock then begins a dialog with Chancellor Gorkon, of the empire, to discuss peace.  This gets the Enterprise and her reluctant crew involved in escorting the Chancellor to Earth for peace talks, much to Kirk's dismay (he hates the Klingons because one of them killed his son).  All seems to be going tensely, but on schedule, when Gorkon's ship is fired upon and he is assassinated by two men wearing Federation space suits, its up to the crew to find out who committed the murder and to try and save peace.  Its a fascinating concept that gets away from the standard mold of "Star Trek" and becomes something more like Tom Clancy in space.  It shows how change is hard to fight for and even harder to accept after so many years of being used to the status quo.  I don't remember the end of the Cold War, I was too young, but I imagine for many it was a rough time of transition after so many years of animosity and mistrust.  Nimoy was clearly trying to get this message across in his last adventure as Spock (until the new Star Trek anyway) and that, as well as the terrific acting and plotting, is why this is one of my favorite "Star Trek" films.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010


We had our first delay/closing today at Chillicothe High School...a two hour delay that I missed the memo for.  I didn't actually check the voice messages I might have gotten in the shower this morning until I was warming up the car to leave for normal time.  I was already put together and very awake, so I couldn't go back to sleep.  So I just sat there, watching Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets until it was time to leave (the extended version at that, so there was no hope of completion before time to leave for late work...its almost 3 hours long!).  I think its interesting to go back and look at the "Potter" films again, especially since the first two are almost 10 years old and so much has progressed in film techniques and special effects since then.  Also, and this goes without saying, the stories have matured throughout just as they have in the books.  I won't hop on the 'later books = better books' bandwagon just yet though.  I've heard so many critics call the first films childish and even 'candy-ass' compared to the more mature, later installments, and it always strikes me as a huge missing of the point.  The earlier films, like the earlier books, were more childish because they were about children.  In both series, when the kids entered their teen years and were dealing with more grown-up problems, the maturity level, the dark tone, and the seriousness was ratcheted up a notch from the earlier chapters.  But you know something...they aren't really that much darker (aside from adding death).  Sorcerer's Stone and Chamber of Secrets both have very, very dark sections that interrupt the childish whimsy of finding one's self, at the age of 11, suddenly a part of a secret wonderful world.  The Quirrell/Voldemort confrontation and the scene in the dark forest are both very scary in Stone, as is the Basilisk battle in ChamberChamber is especially dark for a children's story because it is, at is core, a murder mystery (where death has been replaced with petrification) and we feel suspense as the attacks keep getting worse and worse until the criminal is caught.  I sometimes wonder what film these critics were watching...I guess since by the 4th and 5th years everything has lost its whimsy pleases these guys a lot...but by age 14 and had lost a lot of its whimsy for me too.  Its just another example where our culture is not very 'child friendly'.  I don't mean that we hate children, but we do get annoyed when children's films and stories are bright and happy in places.  I wouldn't call the "Potter" books or films exceptionally bright or happy, but there is a definite amount of light in the earlier ones that is akin to the innocence of childhood...and I don't know why that threatens adult viewers when watching the films.

Anyway, that's my little rant for today.  On the personal life side, I had a date on Sunday.  I don't have a huge amount of details on the subject, but it was nice and we do plan to see each other again.  I haven't figured out a fake name for him with yet, so for now he will just be called The Guy.  I can't wait till I get to see him again.