Archive: July, 2009
Writer-celeb Adam Sandler and writer-director Judd Apatow go way back. Twenty years ago the star, 43 next month, and the filmmaker, 41, roomed together in Los Angeles while trying to crack the fortress that is Hollywood. Videotapes of prank calls they made then open Funny People, Apatow's portrait of an uber-successful comedian without intimates (Sandler) who hires an adoring fan and aspiring comedian (Seth Rogen) to nurse him through a health crisis and write material for him. Is Funny People funny? I laughed, I cringed. (I was supposed to, I think.)
Going in (something of a slog, considering the trailer for the film was an object lesson in too much information), I wondered how Sandler's persona of the passive-aggressive eternal boy would mesh with Apatow's theme of the arrested-development male (see 40 Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up) trying to evolve. Coming out, I'm not sure if it was a mesh or a partially-successful graft.
Whichever, my respect for Sandler as an actor continues to grow. Funny People gives him the scope to consistently surprise the audience with unmodulated anger and elastic voice. He has more colors in his performance than just blue (as in moroseness and profanity). Unbelievably, in 15 years he's made more than 20 feature films ranging from the juvenilia of Billy Madison and Happy Gilmore to the youthful romanticism of The Wedding Singer and 50 First Dates to the moody, broody man-on-edge in Punch-Drunk Love and Reign Over Me. The performance that best reflects all these different facets of the Sandler persona is his role in Spanglish. Still, I wish he would ditch gratuitous remakes like Mr. Deeds and The Longest Yard to develop material that challenges him as an actor. BTW, while I thought I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry was strained, I laughed myself silly through You Don't Mess With the Zohan. Your thoughts on Sandler? Apatow? Funny People? Sharing too much information in a movie trailer?
My favorite movie geeks are gearing up for the new season of the AMC cable series Mad Men, set in a Madison Avenue ad agency during the the JFK's Camelot era. Until it's back on air, may I suggest my six favorite movies about hucksters, some of which influenced the series in content, art direction and attitude?
(Pictured is Cary Grant, who famously twice played an adman, in the delicious Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, where he struggles over an ad campaign for canned ham, and in the superlative North by Northwest, where he is too busy eluding arrest to do any copywriting.)
1) Christmas in July (1940) Preston Sturges farce about an ordinary joe (Dick Powell) who thinks he wrote a winning slogan for a coffee company and spends the prize money before he's got the check.
Jay, a reader, writes to complain about what he calls "chopped-up" movies and what I would call a "fractured narrative," you know, movies that have beginnings, middles and ends but not in that order. (Think Pulp Fiction and Memento.) For him, the latest offender is (500) Days of Summer. I very much enjoyed the film about an aspiring architect who begins the movie by telling us his relationship ended and that he doesn't know why, and then recalls, non-chronologically, the highs and lows of the affair the way one might recall it for a friend who wasn't around.
For Jay, this is "a cheap attempt to create suspense where there shouldn't really be any. I also heard someone say that chopping the movie up keeps the viewer on his toes while watching it. But again, I just feel like this is a cheat, in that if the movie were interesting enough in the first place, the viewer wouldn't need a trick like that to stay involved." (My only issue with (500) Days is that I find the Zooey Deschanel character irritatingly self-conscious.)
The earliest case of a fractured narrative that I know of is The Power and the Glory, a 1933 Spencer Tracy film written by Preston Sturges about a rags-to-riches industrialist. The story is told in flashback, intercutting the industrialist's rise to power with his fall from grace, and many cite it as a precursor of Citizen Kane. For me, this structure mimics that of a mystery, where the viewer gets jigsaw pieces of information and tries to fit them together for the big picture.
So beloved and so vital a part of the national folklore is The Wizard of Oz that it's almost incomprehensible that the 1939 film based on L. Frank Baum's American allegory, the film that made Judy Garland a star and "somewhere over the rainbow" a goal, was not an immediate classic. As this wonderful piece by Emma Brockes (hat tip, moviecitynews.com) reports, the film did not make its $2.7 million investment back until 1956 when CBS leased television syndication rights and the flying monkeys haunted the dreams of a generation of baby boomers and their children.
Brockes delicately teases out the populist references of the source material while celebrating the New Deal lyrics of wordsmith and social activist E.Y. "Yip" Harburg. (As a college literature prof explained to us when I was an undergraduate, the yellow brick road represented the gold standard, the Scarecrow American agriculture, the Tin Man American industry and the Cowardly Lion Wall Street.) And she colorfully describes the atmosphere at the Oz conventions (before Trekkies and Star Warriors there were Oz nuts): "The Baum-ites disdain the Judy-ites; the Oz scholars cut eyes at the collectors. Everyone loves the Munchkins."
My guess is that in the age of DVD and downloads, with the possible exception of The Godfather films, the average American over 30 has seen The Wizard of Oz more times than any other title. I still shudder when I hear the seven-note bar of music that heralds the flying monkeys. My throat constricts and heart enlarges when Judy Garland sings "Over the Rainbow." What pulls me through is the film's devastation-defying hope and, as Brockes infers, the sense that we each have more power than we think we do. You?
Nearly 47 years after her 1962 death at the age of 36, Marilyn Monroe continues to bewitch. So the news this week that a brassiere once worn by the beguiling blonde sold at auction for $5,200 shouldn't be a surprise. The undergarment in question is a marvel of engineering, a double-slung sling described by lingerie authorities as an antecedent of the Wonderbra.
Perhaps more than any actress of her generation, Monroe lived the truth behind the Oscar Wilde quip that to be natural is such a difficult pose to keep up. The late Holly Solomon, an art dealer who befriended Monroe when both studied at the Actor's Studio in New York during the 1950s, sometimes shared a cab with her to the Sutton Place apartment where they both lived. Solomon liked to tell the story about how impressed she was that in the era of long-line foundation garments and binding girdles, Monroe seemed unbound by underwear and the proprieties of the day. "In the elevator one day I screwed up the courage to tell Marilyn that I wished that I could, like her, go braless," Solomon recalled. To her surprise, Marilyn giggled and unbuttoned her blouse to reveal a sheer brassiere that had nipples embroidered on its cups. "It's about illusion," Monroe confided.
Art historians tell us that famous nudes (think of Goya's Naked Maja) are depicted displaying their wares as though corseted in the fashion of the day, but with the foundation garments stripped off. So the figure is both clothed and unclothed, as it were. In this sense, Monroe continued this longstanding visual arts tradition.
When did nudity in movies stop being sexy and start being funny? I speak, of course, of scenes in this summer's films The Hangover, The Proposal, Bruno and The Ugly Truth (opening Friday) in which the anti-erotic nudity of Zach Galifianakis, Sandra Bullock, Ryan Reynolds, Sacha Baron Cohen and Katherine Heigl is played for laughs.
First time I noticed this was about six years ago in Something's Gotta Give in a scene where Jack Nicholson loses his way in Diane Keaton's house and startles his nekkid hostess in the hallway. (This, shortly after a scene where Nicholson, on pain meds, wanders down a hospital hallway with the back of his hospital gown open.) Then there was Sideways where the Naked Guy runs down the street trying to beat up Thomas Haden Church who had his way with Naked Guy's wife. Since then, the naked Greco-Roman wrestling between Borat and his videographer in Borat has been a high of low gross-out comedy.
Do the laughs come from the surprise of seeing man and woman parts not in the service of titillation? Or....? Your thoughts?
While previewing Julie & Julia, Nora Ephron's yummy film about blogger Julie Powell (Amy Adams) and her heroine-worship of jolly French chef Julia Child (Meryl Streep), I whispered to a colleague, "Is Streep the first actor ever to have previously played on screen the director he/she works for in a subsequent film?" (Streep, of course, played Ephron in Mike Nichols' Heartburn (1986), about the bustup of Ephron's marriage to Washington Post scribe Carl Bernstein.)
The closest example I can come up with is that William Wellman, Jr. played his father in senior's Lafayette Escadrille, (1958), about the elite World War I flying legion -- but that misses the mark by many miles. Can you think of one?
The Streep/Ephron connection goes back to Silkwood (1983), which Ephron co-wrote with Alice Arlen. In Julie & Julia, Streep is a jolly, jolly Julia, nailing the carbonated voice, cheery confidence and irrepressible vivacity of the woman who taught Americans how to bone a duck, set an aspic and embrace butter like a long-lost lover. It also occured to me while watching Streep's masterful embodiment of the master chef, that the actress might have played more real-life figures than any other performer. Let's see: she was Karen Silkwood, Isak Dinesen in Out of Africa, Ephron in Heartburn, Lindy Chamberlain, accused child murderess, in A Cry in the Dark, violin teacher Roberta Guaspari in Music of the Heart, Susan Orlean in Adaptation and now Child in J & J. She played a slightly fictionalized Carrie Fisher in Postcards from the Edge. That makes eight. Can any other actor top that?
Not many actors make the leap from small screen to big screen. Yet Katherine Heigl, that double dip of praline who won a supporting actress Emmy for Grey's Anatomy a few years back but was snubbed today when nominations were announced, is prospering as a movie star. Her first two films as a lead, Knocked Up and 27 Dresses, were huge successes. And there's every reason to think she'll go three-for-three with The Ugly Truth, the R-rated rom-com co-starring Gerard Butler, opening next Friday. From the looks of the trailers, The Ugly Truth recalls the pleasant Ashley Judd/Hugh Jackman vehicle, Someone Like You.
Your thoughts on Heigl ? On why she may be faring better on the big screen than the small? (On the small screen, gestures have to be a little larger in order to register while on the big screen, which is more microscopic, actors have to dial it down.) Other actors who made the successful transition? Denzel Washington and Johnny Depp. Jennifer Aniston and Kathleen Turner. James Garner and Sally Field. Burt Reynolds and Clint Eastwood.