Saturday, June 09, 2012

Redux Riding Hood

This is one of a number of recent Disney shorts that I've never been able to see; the short's director, Steve Moore (who also directed the short Stand by Me with Timon and Pumbaa, a favorite of mine), was able to put it online recently, and has a great post about the making of it over on his blog. Lots of great talent involved on this short, which was nominated for an Oscar in 1997.

Friday, June 08, 2012

TV Report: Hatfields, McCoys, Others

I was one of apparently a great many people who watched the entire Hatfields & McCoys miniseries on History. That thing made basic cable history, becoming one of the highest-rated basic cable scripted shows ever. And it wasn't even really that good.

I liked parts of it, but six hours is a lot of time to let Kevin Reynolds cover the same ground over and over and over. The first part set up the whole feud between the two families, rooted mostly in the murder of a McCoy (who fought on the Union side in the Civil War) by a Hatfield relative (played by an almost unrecognizable--but still very scary--Tom Berenger, buried under beard and tobacco spit). The animosity between the two families builds and builds until there's an outpouring of anger over a pig theft and a court case where there's a Hatfield judge (Powers Boothe) and the entire jury is evenly split between Hatfields and McCoys. The way this movie plays out, there is no one in the Tug River Valley that isn't a Hatfield or McCoy, so it just makes it that much more irritating when, in the second part, a backwater Romeo and Juliet situation plays out that, well, come on... who was the boy going to go for? Apparently he's related to half of the courting pool. A great deal of what happens seems to happen because that boy--played by the same dreamy-eyed irritant who played Dan Patch on my much-missed Hellcats--won't stand up to anyone and just does whatever the loudest person tells him. And then the third part just kind of drags on and on in a cycle of escalating violence until I just wanted every single member of both families to wipe each other out from history.

It's too much. They've got either too much running time or the wrong episode format. I could see this playing out as, say, 10 lean one-hour episodes of an HBO series. But three feature-length episodes is a lot to take in, and there's a lot of drag to it. It just gets so repetitive, and though many of the performances are serviceable (only Jena Malone, Boothe, and Berenger really stand out), nothing here really grabbed and held on to my interest. Every tragedy just piles on and piles on and piles on at an increasingly lugubrious pace, while Kevin Costner and Bill Paxton look grim and tired, as though Anse Hatfield and Randolph McCoy have just accepted what fate has in store and watch the proceedings from a distance. (Of the two, Costner comes off better, if only because he has more emotions to play, while the very religious McCoy just gives Paxton different degrees of intensity to latch onto. Also, because I'm a film geek, it's more fun to imagine that the feud is over whose version of the Wyatt Earp story is better--Kevin Costner's terrible 1994 faux-epic Wyatt Earp, or the superior 1993 film Tombstone, which co-starred Paxton.)

Also, I thought it would be a cold day in hell before Kevin Reynolds worked with Kevin Costner again (famously saying, after Waterworld, that Costner should only work in films he directs and stars in, so he'll always be working with his favorite actor and favorite director). I'm much more interested in how that came about than anything going on in the miniseries.

Some other things:

:: I've been catching up watching Showtime's The Borgias. Much like The Tudors, it's fitfully good but never quite the show I hope it will be. The directors seem to have a serious problem reigning in Jeremy Irons, who is just having the time of his life acting to the rafters. It's a pretty show to look at, and most of the cast is decent (I particularly like Holliday Grainger as Lucrezia Borgia, who is very lovely but has some very boring plotlines), but it takes a particularly premium cable-ready period in history and doesn't know what to go for: dramatic, salacious, or political. Usually it tries for all three but can't find the balance. So it's one of those shows I watch, knowing it won't get better, but still interested enough to keep up with, all the while wishing it was a better show. At least some of it works, but it's not one of those shows I'll remember fondly for years.

:: Starz announced that the next season of Spartacus will be the last one. That's probably for the best. This most recent season killed off a lot of the most interesting characters, anyway, and started to get far too earnest for the cartoon version of history they'd been playing with. I loved the over-the-top silliness, the no-idea-too-stupid approach of the show, but this last season suffered from a fatal recasting (Cynthia Addai-Robinson was just not believable as Naevia) and dull, plodding sincerity about freedom and self-determination. Guys, it's a comic book. It's a soap opera. Don't tell me we're supposed to take this stuff seriously now. Because of that approach, Spartacus quickly became the most boring character on the show (though thank the gods Gannicus came back, because he's just awesome... maybe more awesome than Crixus).

:: Speaking of being caught up in your own bullshit, we're just two episodes into this season's MasterChef and... wow. What? They act like a show that's been on for a decade and become an American institution. Also, the overdramatic music, the melodramatic editing, the cliffhanger commercials, the self-reverential tones...all of that bullshit is ramped up to 11 this season. Did you see the moment when Gordon Ramsey opened the wooden box and pulled out the MasterChef trophy, with the silence and the light reflecting off of its majesty and people in the audition audience actually crying? This is like Iron Chef for people who need to be told what to feel.

:: I'm going to try really hard not to talk about Hell's Kitchen this year. It still suffers from all of the same problems it always has (though the audio sweetening is worse than ever). And it's already pissing me off. But since I don't want yet another contestant finding me and using a fake name to bitch me out (hi, Sabrina), I'm just going to not bother. Because, really, who cares? You know how this show goes now.

:: Also, the wife's got me watching Storage Wars. I feel old.

:: Oh, and Pretty Little Liars came back... Are we past last season's lame, histrionic finale and back into the mystery yet? Because having the girls decide to ignore the mountains of evidence they kept turning up over two seasons and the people following them and the NAT Club and Ali's mysterious older man just because some crazy little girl who couldn't lift 10 pounds said she was A, makes them all look incredibly stupid. And I can't root for stupid people. Because it was obvious Mona wasn't the real A, and if they had just bothered to ask themselves a single critical question about how Mona could have pulled off her seeming omnipotence all by herself, they'd realize they were maybe letting themselves off too easy. Yeah, it's supposed to be that there's been no A messages for a few months and they've been lulled into a sense of safety, but it's just handled so artlessly for the sake of plot devices.

That said, Lucy Hale looks fantastic this season.

Oh, Duh: Idris Elba Is Already in the Avengers Universe

Becca went and dashed my hopes this morning by reminding me that Idris Elba is already in the Avengers universe. In my excited imaginings of Elba as the Black Panther, I had overlooked that he's Heimdall in Thor (and, as he's already spoken about, Thor 2). So Marvel probably won't want to cast the same actor in two roles. (And I already thought about how Chris Evans was Captain America and the Human Torch, but it's not the same movie universe.)

Well... alright, then. It was fun while it lasted. I do like Djimon Hounsou. I haven't heard a lot of other names that I like for it, but then again, we're not even sure the movie's actually happening. Still, it's a fantastic idea to make this part of the Avengers series. Fantastic.

Thursday, June 07, 2012

A Possible Game of Thrones Spoiler

Okay, I can't be the only one thinking this.

I've been one of the many people theorizing for some time that Coldhands is actually Benjen Stark... and the season finale of Game of Thrones certainly seems to possibly, you know, maybe confirm that the long-missing Benjen is a White Walker now... What do you think? Do they look alike? And could the Walker on the horse be Coldhands? Are we finally getting a clue that the Benjen Stark-is-Coldhands theory is the correct one, or is this just a tease?

A Black Panther Movie in 2014?

A lot of movie and comic book news sites are speculating heavily that one of the next Marvel Studios films may star the Black Panther. Latino Review claims to have it from four different sources that Marvel is going for a Black Panther movie in 2014. Mark Bailey was hired last year to write a screenplay, and we know that Marvel has two secret projects going that fit into the Avengers series, so this could easily be one of them. Latino Review even points out that a shot in Iron Man 2 showed Wakanda on the map.

If it's true, this is a fantastic idea. Black Panther is a character never attempted on screen before, and with the way Marvel Studios has been approaching these movies in a modular fashion, there's every reason to expect that they can make a fun standalone movie as well as something that fits in to Avengers continuity (your in being, of course, that vibranium--the substance Captain America's shield is made from--is mined in Wakanda).

Everyone's got their dream casting up already, too, I see. Djimon Hounsou's name is going around a lot, which is a great idea, but I think I'm firmly in the Idris Elba camp.

I really hope this happens. It would be great if Marvel were putting this together and Edgar Wright's Ant-Man movie as their two secret projects, just because I'd love to see Black Panther and Ant-Man (and the Wasp) involved in the second Avengers movie. This is the golden age of superhero movies, and I don't want it to end, man.

And if this is happening, it would certainly offset this week's announcement that Captain America 2 will be made by the guys who made, um, You, Me and Dupree. Why couldn't we have Joe Johnston back again?

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Film Week

A review of the films I've seen this past week.

TINY FURNITURE (2010)
I don't really feel like going into all of the depressingly misogynist criticism of Lena Dunham's HBO series Girls--the show whose humor you apparently can't criticize without talking about whether Lena Dunham is physically attractive--but I've really been enjoying it very much. I decided to take a look at a feature Dunham wrote, directed and starred in that's sort of a "proto-Girls." I'm just going to be honest: I've been sitting here for a while now trying to delineate my feelings about this movie, but instead I'm just going to direct you to read this great essay about the film, because it says everything I'm feeling about it. ***

THE LONGEST YARD (1974)
So, it's a comedy, or...? **

HALF BAKED ALASKA (1965)
A Chilly Willy cartoon. It suffers from the lack of money that was being given to animation in those days, but I do love the sight of Chilly Willy eating flapjacks. **

SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN (2012)
This one frustrated me, if only because there's so much in here that's so good and so much in here that's so ordinary and unfocused. This latest version of the Snow White tale remembers that its origins lie in old Northern folklore and darkness, but it also manages to find a comfortable balance between its bloody, symbolic origins and its Disneyfied, fairy tale aspects. At its best moments, Snow White and the Huntsman recalls epic fantasy and creates perfect scenes of fatalistic beauty (even when it's borrowing heavily from Miyazaki or 80s fantasy flicks). It doesn't get lost in a silly love triangle, but instead tells a story of survival, honor, and strength as a contest between two women who represent only slightly different ideas of power. Charlize Theron plays Queen Ravenna, whose magic keeps her young and who believes that a woman's strength comes from an almost weaponized beauty. Kristen Stewart, as Snow White, is the one destined to overthrow her. One of the things I liked is the commentary itself on notions of beauty; that though Queen Ravenna is physically beautiful, Snow White's heart is what will overpower her--that it's not about Snow White being physically fairer than her, but about her strength, her kindness, her bravery, and her ability to inspire others. What's unfortunate about the film is that it takes moments of great beauty, great special effects, great subtlety, and puts them in the hands of filmmakers who seem uncertain of what they want their film to be. What could have been a great epic is all too often happy with the ordinary. When Snow White gives a speech that inspires men to follow her into battle, it's dull and thudding. The following battle is by the numbers. The third act should be a culmination of the extraordinary second act, and instead it's mostly a letdown. The final battle between Snow White and Ravenna is arbitrary, except for one great moment of character as the two regard each other, when the artifice is all stripped away and genuine emotions are on the surface--there's a personal cost to Snow White here, and the film sort of ignores it for an ending that feels more like the whole enterprise just stopped. It's maddening. There's a real potential fantasy masterpiece in here, but it gets lost. Chris Hemsworth brings a lot of necessary liveliness to it (and just when the film threatens to become unrelenting), while Charlize Theron does what she can with a role that requires more gravitas and a director who seems to not be interested in achieving it. For what it's worth, I think Kristen Stewart is perfectly cast (she's willing to take a lot of shit physically in movies that aren't as one-dimensional as Twilight), but the movie isn't confident enough to just let her be a quiet, thoughtful, three-dimensional character (which she is in her best moments); too often, it feels like her agency has to come with the price of making her less complex. Really, the movie's entire problem is that it sets up a story that seems much more deep and thoughtful than it's ultimately interested in being. Like I said, frustrated. ***, because it gets so much right. But oh, what might have been...

Ray Bradbury 1920-2012

Ray Bradbury scared the hell out of me when I was a kid and I've been affected by it my entire life. I saw his story "The Veldt" on an episode of Ray Bradbury Theater and it scared me to death. I read the story, thinking maybe it would exorcise that fear, and it compounded it. And now, at the age of 35, I'm still far too terrified with my overactive imagination to walk down the halls of animal dioramas at the Field Museum. Can't do it. No way. Even thinking about it now is making my breathing speed up and my heart start to palpitate. And that's all your fault, Mr. Bradbury.

Well, he was just that good a writer.

I've always thought so. As I've said many times, my Mom got me into science fiction at an early age, and one of her favorite books was The Martian Chronicles, so he was one of my earliest exposures to the literary side of skiffy. And, like a lot of sophomores in high school, reading Fahrenheit 451 changed the way I thought about literature itself.

I'm sorry to see he's passed on, though I think he lived longer (nearly 92 years) than I can expect to. He leaves behind a great body of work that has always been rewarding to me. In a way, I thought of him as the last living Grand Old Man of science fiction. His death may mark the end of an era. And if I may say so from the point of view of someone who was born too late to be there, what an era it was.

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

I Think This Card Series Went On a Little Too Long

The original Star Wars trading card series went through five sets (with blue, red, yellow, green and orange borders) and 330 cards. And while I'm all for movie marketing and used to love trading cards, I think this series really went on long past the point of quality control.

I was looking at scans of the series the other day and noticed that by the time the green series came in, the makers were getting a little desperate to keep stretching this thing out. For example, look at these two cards:

Okay, this sort of makes sense, although I find it jarring that the two cards are in reverse order. They've taken the two furthest sides of the same frame, but they've put the right side as card number 248 and the left side as card 249.

Now here's card 250:

So, that's three cards in a row, and one image, just in different proportions. So... I don't know, it just feels like someone is getting really tired of making these things and just doesn't care about his work anymore. Someone's phoning it in.

Here are the next two cards:

I'm just kind of amazed there's not another card with the Luke and Leia half of the still image.

Then, a few cards later, we get a close-up and, immediately after, a mid-shot of the exact same frame of film:

There's Luke, fighting impossible odds and challenging the evil Empire all at once! (Depending on your proximity to Luke, I guess.)

These are all within 10 cards of each other.

I mean, I know it doesn't matter or anything, but it just makes me laugh. All I hear is Lisa Simpson asking "Do you remember when you lost your passion for this work?" I'm sure making these gets tedious, but wow. Just 70 cards left to go, man.

Monday, June 04, 2012

TV Report: Game of Thrones

With last night's episode, the second series of Game of Thrones has come to its end, and I found myself much more wrapped up in it than the first. Even with some of the things I wish they had done better, I think they've really turned Westeros into a place that feels real and immediate, and not just like a bunch of sets and gorgeous locations.

Some observations, and I'll attempt to not get to into the spoilers, but I'm sure I won't be successful.

First, what I didn't like:

:: As is the problem with a lot of book to film adaptations, there is just a surplus of characters. We still have characters from the first season who have yet to really make a lasting impression, in my opinion--particularly Ser Gregor Clegane (the Mountain)--and then we're introduced to almost an entire new cast that, in its way, doesn't seem to have much to do. I know the books themselves are a long, long game where pieces only come into it when it's time for them to be played, but television drama moves at a faster pace, and some of the interesting new characters--and I'm thinking specifically of Melisandre and Davos Seaworth--make an early impression only to be mostly sidelined for the bulk of the series.

:: Daenerys' storyline. I understand the importance of it--we're seeing just how in over her head Dany really is, and how unrealistic she's being about the people of Westeros clamoring for her return (though I can hardly blame her for that, since that's what she's been fed her whole life)--and there was an excellent payoff at the end as she finally discovered her strength, but I feel like it's also been a less interesting repetition of what happened to her in the first season: she lives her little fantasy, then reality intrudes, and she discovers she has to be ruthless in order to claim her own power. It's an arc that makes sense in some ways, but several episodes of "My dragons! Give me my dragons!" takes a lot of the spark out of it.

:: The city of Qarth. It looked beautiful--the reveal of the doors opening and suddenly seeing this magnificent city in the midst of nothing but wasteland was one of my favorite moments this season--but the story taking place there felt muted (despite some great over-the-top acting from Nicholas Blane as the Spice King).

:: Ygritte. I never liked her character much in the books--she never rises above fantasy no-nonsense tomboy girlfriend who is fascinating because the author says she is--but I like her on TV even less. I get why she's there and what she does for the Jon Snow character, but I keep reading reviews talking about how clever and refreshing she is, but I just find her obnoxious and annoying. She's the Mike Teavee of Westeros. That said, you know, honestly, I couldn't care less about what's happening at the Wall or beyond it. That's the least interesting aspect of the entire story for me, in book and on television. Jon Snow is the same duty-driven boor his father is, too bound by his own principles to be an interesting character, and Kit Harington just sort of stares at everything as if he's going to burst into tears every moment. It just doesn't hold my interest (although the land beyond the Wall looks very beautiful; they really found some great locations so that it's not monotonous to look at).

:: Not enough Varys. Never enough Varys.

:: Also, not enough of Salladhor Saan. One great scene that left me immediately wanting more.

:: The Greyjoys. I don't know, I just pictured more intensity and danger when I read about them in the book. That seems like more of a nitpick to me, because maybe the show's writers just didn't picture them the same way, or more likely there just isn't time in the narrative they're shaping to spend with the Greyjoys, but I considered them more like the hardy, angry, violence-loving Vikings they boast about being. I didn't find them particularly different or memorable here, and I particularly was hoping for a more dynamic Asha/Yara than we got, but it's not like it ruins the show for me when there's so much they're doing right.

Speaking of, here are things I loved about this season:

:: Above all, the willingness to go off-book. I tire immensely of reading reviews and blog posts about the show that are 90% "they're not doing the book anymore, why aren't they doing the book anymore, I don't understand, I can't watch it." This season, the creators were less worried about adapting everything in (which seemed to hold the story back in places in the first season) and more worried about creating compelling narratives and exploring certain themes. One of my favorite recurring themes this season is the idea of power: who deserves it, how will they compromise themselves to get it, how will they wield it if they do, what is the responsibility of having it, and is having power more important than personal happiness. The finale in particular got at that last one, with Daenerys making (in my opinion) a much more personal choice than in the previous finale, and Tyrion coming to a very interesting revelation.

Being off-book also allowed for some of the series' best scenes and plotlines. In the first season, there were some fantastic scenes with Littlefinger and Varys that didn't come from the book, and here we get more like that, and they're very strong. The novels are of course told in point-of-view chapters, so much of what we get is reacting to things that happen offstage, as it were, or in the aftermath of decisions made by others. Here we see more of the characters humanized and their decisions become much less arbitrary and more driven by this constant question of power. So we see already that Margaery is much more cunning and pragmatic than on the page, and we will see in the future just how badly Cersei underestimates her. We get more time with Renly so that when he dies, it's a death that stings instead of just something that happens to move the plot along. Even Catelyn's reaction to being given her husband's bones is a more intimate and emotional moment than any she had with a living Sean Bean in the first season.

But the chief joy of these invented scenes are several episode's worth of Arya Stark, pretending to be a Northern mason's lost daughter, getting to know Tywin Lannister. In a number of excellent scenes, they guardedly match wits and come to a brief mutual respect for one another. She can't reveal her true identity, but there's often the sense that he already knows who she is and is simply keeping the information to himself. And it's complex characterization for Arya to see her not just constantly in danger, as she was in the book, but instead seeing the man who heads the family responsible for the death of her father and trying to kill her brother, and finding times when she respects and even likes him. The series has done an exemplary job with Tywin, who was a remote, imperious villain figure in the novels, and here is a driven but deeply human man whom we can understand even if we don't sympathize with him.

:: The courtship of Robb and Talisa. This is something I like much better than in the novels. In the novels, Robb goes off to fight while we follow Catelyn back to her childhood home so she can continue to be a snob and watch her father die endlessly. When Robb appears again at the end, he's suddenly got a wife with him (Jeyne Westerling, the daughter of a minor noble house) and has just made the biggest mistake of his campaign: destroying a key alliance. It mostly happens off the page, and just makes Robb seem like a petulant, stupid kid instead of the young and capable King in the North who's been winning battle after battle. Because we only see the decision and the horrific aftermath, we're mystified as to how Robb could make such a stupid mistake.

By subbing in a new character who serves as a battlefield nurse, we get to watch their attraction grow and flower organically because we get more time for Robb to develop as a character. By the end of the season, you can't think of this couple not getting married. She's humanized Robb and come to represent everything he wants to live for; his decision becomes much easier to understand, even as we know (especially if we've read the books) that it will cause the dissolution of a powerful alliance and that repercussions will follow. Instead of seeing a boy making a rash and stupid mistake, we see a young man who thought he might never stop mourning seizing what may be his only chance at real happiness. And it's one of this season's themes about power: do you have to sacrifice your own happiness in order to achieve it? Robb's hoping the answer is no.

Over at the AV Club, they've been wondering what the point is of replacing Jeyne Westerling with a new character, and I think the answer is pretty obvious. By making Talisa a noblewoman from the Free Cities, we have someone who can move with impunity through a battlefield of wounded (she's beholden to none of the Westerosi banners), someone who can talk to Robb on his own level, and someone who has experienced (per her backstory) a noble upbringing but has sympathy for what nobility does to the ordinary folk caught up in the power struggles of the rich (another theme I wish this show would explore a bit more). It also gives Robb the illusion that he can make this decision free of any political fallout, which will prove to be not true. But in the end, Jeyen Westerling is a plot device, and Talisa is a full-blooded character, so I'm not losing sleep over the change.

:: Bronn. Because Bronn is just awesome. And, in reference to Joffrey's sadism, he had one of the best lines of the entire series: "There's no cure for being a cunt." Jerome Flynn has just been knocking it out of the park as Bronn. (Another fantastic supporting performance I should mention, especially since he and Flynn had that great scene together in the Blackwater episode, is Rory McCann as the Hound.)

:: The Battle of Blackwater. Smaller than I pictured it (TV budget and all that), but no less powerful. The House of the Undying was the same; I think if they'd given us the same visions Dany experiences in the novel, it might have spoiled a lot of upcoming revelations, but substituting the vision with Khal Drogo was unexpected and maybe much more powerful, giving Dany her agency back.

:: That final shot of the White Walkers made them look far cooler than they are in the books. That guy on the horse (Coldhands? That would be cool.) was amazing.

:: Natalia Tena and Natalie Dormer nude on the same season of television... oh, thank you so much.

:: Gwendoline Christie just so perfectly looks the part of Brienne. She's so tall. I'm really looking forward to next season, when she really gets to flex her muscles as a character, though her scene in the finale was a nice preview of things to come.

My favorite new character this season, though, was easily Jaqen H'ghar, and I loved how Tom Wlaschiha played him as this sort of easygoing mystery. It'll be some time before we see Arya in Braavos, but I'm already excited for it.

Overall, this was just a fantastic season of television, and I'm glad as hell to see the producers were much more confident this time around. They had the courage to drop bits, reshuffle others, and create a compelling narrative instead of just drably adapting chunks of the story to please fans who get crazy about needing to see every little bit of it. This is excellent television, and I'm counting the 10 months until I can see more of it.

Sunday, June 03, 2012

Song of the Week: "Drift Away"

Okay, this just blows my mind.

I've always been a fan of John Denver, and I've always been a fan of Paul Williams. And here they are together, in 1973, on John Denver's BBC series, singing the tune Dobie Gray made famous but that Paul Williams' brother wrote (something I didn't know at all before now). These guys were constant figures in my childhood--John Denver through my mother and through the Muppets, and Paul Williams through his songs for the Muppets and later through his own music--and to see them together and singing this great song... like I said, it just blows my mind and makes me feel weirdly emotional. I just love it.

And even if you're not a fan of Denver or Williams, I promise you it's still better than hearing Uncle Kracker sing it.

80s Revisited: The Toy

The Toy (1982)
Directed by Richard Donner; written by Carol Sobieski; produced by Phil Feldman & Ray Stark

And then there was the time that a white Louisiana millionaire bought his son a black man as a pet.

Just think about that for a minute. In its heart, this movie thinks it's a heartwarming comedy about how a man reconnects with his distant son, brought together in an unbreakable bond by a man who comes into their lives and teaches them both about the value of familial love. But the way it does this is by forcing the viewer through a truly idiotic plot where this cranky old white guy basically rents the presence of a black man for the amusement of his own kid, who apparently never learned about slavery and the 13th Amendment in all of his fancy schools.

I don't know, is it me being oversensitive? I don't really think it is. I mean, sure, it's just a Richard Pryor vehicle with questionable taste--and it's 1982, there are a lot of movies of questionable taste. But the setting, the fact that there's a minor subplot involving the local Ku Klux Klan, and the near-constant appearance of Confederate flags lead me to believe that everyone working on this film knew the racial subtext was going to be obvious, but no one really cared all that much.

But what's even more depressing here (to me) is the way this comedy vehicle took Richard Pryor and turned him into a hapless dope, an overly-afro-sheened plot device, flailing about, bereft of any dignity or edge, complicit in his own cynical exploitation. It begins even before he's rented as a living puppet for the benefit of the world's most irritating overprivileged brat, when he desperately accepts a job as a maid and is made to wear a skirted maid's outfit because, hey, why not get the emasculation train running early? It also has the effect of rendering the movie's rich white men as hopelessly uncaring about things like basic humanity, making it that much harder to root for Jackie Gleason as he stares and wonders how it all came to this: breaking WC Fields's rule about working with children and wearing a hairpiece so distracting that the movie constantly surrounds him with people with far worse, more obvious hairpieces just so his will look more natural in comparison.

This is the kind of movie, too, where I didn't really sit through it thinking Oh, this is stupid or Ouch, my brain is trying to kill itself in self-defense, but instead I was just thinking about what kind of desperation would have made Richard Pryor sign on to a film that treats him so terribly. Why become a willing partner in your own degradation? It's not like Richard Pryor couldn't act. Have you ever seen Blue Collar? That is an Oscar-worthy performance, my friends. Stir Crazy is classic comedy. It's not like Richard Pryor was incapable of making great films. It's just that, sometimes, you really get the sense that he didn't bother trying very hard. He seems tired through a lot of this movie. In scenes where he stops and talks seriously with the rich kid, he seems grateful to sit down. (The kid is, of course, Scotty Schwartz, who appeared in A Christmas Story the next year and who famously did a porno with Juli Ashton that was predicated on the bizarre and frankly untrue notion that anyone would care that Scotty Schwartz ended up in porn; it's a celebrity stunt with a very loose notion of what celebrity means, and since then his appearances in adult films have caused people to call him a "child star turned porn star," which is a loose definition of the word "star." As the AV Club once pointed out, Clint Howard's in a lot of movies, but no one calls him a movie star.)

So, yeah, the plot. Richard Pryor prostitutes his dignity for the sake of entertainment. So does the character he plays, agreeing to act as a toy for a spoiled rich kid. Nothing happens organically, it just goes from scene to scene, inserting character growth here and there, suddenly giving the kid integrity that he hasn't earned just to shame the adults into learning something important, and then there's a happy ending and Gleason and Pryor both notch another terrible movie under their belts. Richard Pryor is funny, but without any context it's mostly flailing and overreacting. Gleason, in contrast, plays it tighter, going for slow burns and angry explosions. I think it's probably less embarrassing for both men than Superman III and Smokey and the Bandit, Part III, respectively, but that's not saying anything, is it?

One of the few things I liked in the movie, though? Teresa Ganzel. Remember Teresa Ganzel?

That ditzy blonde bimbo thing really came back hard as a comedy type in the late seventies and early eighties, and Teresa Ganzel did it extremely well. I remember seeing her in other movies and on TV (she memorably played Greedy Gretchen on Three's Company), and, well, come on, I was a little kid. Of course, at 35 I still had the same reaction... Women like this explain a lot about me and my sensibilities today, I think. If you're going to make me sit through a movie where a rich white guy is so desperate for his son's acceptance that he buys him a slave in fricking 1982, then the least you can give me is the occasional joy of Teresa Ganzel playing a breathy-voiced sexpot named Fancy.

Sorry, I just... hey, at least there was something for me to enjoy in this crappy movie. My interest always perked up when she would walk in on screen, bouncy and effervescent, breasts heaving, mane of hair completely unmoving, cliched "va-va-voom" music playing on the soundtrack. Ms. Ganzel was a lovely distraction from my main emotions watching the movie, which were total irritation (both at the flailing and the running time--this flick needs to be an hour and 52 minutes long??) and just feeling sorry for Richard Pryor.

And at least sometimes he got to enjoy the movie, too.

Unf. You and me both, pal.

A couple of interesting bits of trivia. First, this movie is written by the same woman who wrote the script for the film adaptation of Annie, which came out the same year. Apparently she tapped gold with the whole children and rich guys thing.. (Although when I did Annie as an 80s Revisited, I was surprised to find that I really enjoyed it, much more than I remembered.) Second, this movie is an American remake of a French comedy by Francis Veber, who has had several movies remade in American versions (including The Man with One Red Shoe, Three Fugitives, Buddy Buddy, Quick ChangeFathers' Day, Pure Luck, and Dinner for Schmucks). Veber was also one of the screenwriters of the original film adaptation (and one of my favorite movies) of La Cage aux Folles. That's just... weird. But somehow reassuring to know that all of those movies came from the mind of one guy.

Sunday Hottie 383

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