Saturday, April 04, 2015

80s Revisited: Good Morning, Vietnam

Good Morning, Vietnam (1987)
Directed by Barry Levinson; written by Mitch Markowitz; produced by Larry Brezner & Mark Johnson.

I've always liked this movie; this wasn't meant to be a case of re-evaluating as much as a case of "hey, I haven't seen that movie I really liked in a long time, let's watch that again." But I did end up viewing it differently as a grown man than I did as a high schooler, so I thought I'd write a short little something about it.

I was 11 when this movie came out, so I didn't see it until I saw it on ABC one night in high school. If you know me really well, you'll understand just how much I was enjoying the movie; I hate watching movies edited for broadcast television, and I've refused to do it since I was a kid. I also really won't watch a movie I've never seen before unless I can see it from the beginning. But I happened to flip past ABC during that first big Robin Williams radio montage and got caught up in it. You know I've always liked Robin Williams. Hey, I was just the right age to really love Mork & Mindy when it was originally airing: 4.

And then Robin said: "Seeing as how the V.P. is such a V.I.P., shouldn't we keep the P.C. on the Q.T.? 'Cause if it leaks to the V.C. he could end up M.I.A., and then we'd all be put on K.P." And that was it: I lost it. I needed to watch this movie, and I didn't turn away from it.

I don't remember how much was edited for TV, and besides, I very quickly rented it from Blockbuster and watched it again, but I'll never forget that moment and how big my reaction was to it. The kind of laughter that totally disarms you.

Not having seen the movie in a while, it felt fresh to me. I remembered so many of Robin Williams' lines in the DJ booth, because I had the soundtrack as a kid and a number of them are on it. (I've always been a huge fan of the oldies--my favorite radio station as a kid was Magic 104.3 and I listened to Dick Biondi, and this soundtrack and the one from The Big Chill were long in my rotation. With Williams' improvs present, the soundtrack was like the combination of my two favorite kind of records in high school--an oldies compilation and a comedy album. All it would need was some film score on it to hit the trifecta.) So, yeah, I remembered a lot of that stuff. And it's all great, and it's all masterful, but what was really a revelation to me was how it treated the Vietnam War.

Very, very loosely based on the military career of vice-chairman of the 2004 Bush-Cheney re-election campaign Adrian Cronauer, the movie takes place in South Vietnam in 1965, as the war was beginning to escalate. Barry Levinson--normally a director I don't care much for--does some interesting things with montages and with the teletype news machines to give you a sense of the escalation. At the beginning of the movie, the teletypes report that the number of American troops in Vietnam is being upped to 75,000. By the end of the movie, five months later, it's 300,000. The montage scenes show bits of American imperialism in action, the... let's say overly casual way some soldiers treated the people of their host country, and the inevitable death and destruction. By the end, America is building forts and preparing for a long military engagement. But it's a neat device to see this war ominously growing around the edges of the story, which is really about a guy caught up in a bureaucracy who feels powerless and wants to woo a girl who won't woo him back. (And that storyline is handled with a maturity and a respect for the young lady that I still find surprising today, which is kind of sad.)

The masterful comedy scenes, of course, are really a counter to the whole movie, which has funny, lighthearted moments, but which has moments of dramatic seriousness. A club bombing. Bureaucratic censorship. A couple of betrayals. You know, as a kid I never quite got that Adrian's commanding officer purposely tried to get him killed by the Viet Cong. There's some chilling stuff in here, and it depicts the comedy as less of an oasis than as a catharsis, a way to deal with a situation that is becoming maddeningly, overwhelmingly confusing.

I respect that the movie has no real answers to the complications of the Vietnam War. Adrian's Vietnamese friend betrays him, but he has reasons that are hard to argue. He's not in an ideological struggle; he just wants the colonial powers out so his friends and family stop getting murdered.

It's easy to remember this movie as a great comedy--it is. But there was a lot more to it that I found very compelling and that had somehow been drowned out of how I remember the movie. And it's an excellent movie.

Great 80s cast, by the way: Forest Whitaker, Bruno Kirby, the late JT Walsh, Arthur Edson, and the underrated Robert Wuhl. Robert Wuhl was in a few movies I really love from the time period. I still end up seeing Bull Durham every other year or so.

But Robin Williams is really astounding in this movie. This is the first movie with him that I've watched since he died, and knowing now that he struggled with depression his whole life--and having read that he seriously doubted how well he was doing with the comedy in this movie, often fearing that he was doing a terrible job--gave his performance an extra dimension for me. Because you know so much of the comedy is improvised, you can see the bits where he's worried he's messing up, or the highs where he's just letting loose. The scene where he talks to soldiers in the 1st Infantry was always touching, but seeing how genuine his reactions are, how happy he is to be making people laugh, to be getting that connection... I couldn't watch it without tearing up.

This is a great 80s Revisited for me because I went back to a movie I already liked and ended up loving it even more.

Friday, April 03, 2015

This Week in Neat-O

I sincerely wish the creative team over at ABC the best of luck trying to revive The Muppet Show. I hate to be this cynical, but, well... I'll believe it when I see it. It seems like every couple of years they're talking about it, and this won't be the first attempted Muppet pilot since I've been on this blog. And then I'll have all of the "it's not the same because I can't accept the passage of time!" comments to look forward to on the internet if the show actually does make it to air... ah, well, we'll see. It's got a lot of talented people on it, including Bill Prady, who actually used to work on The Jim Henson Hour and Muppet Babies. They'll be focusing on the Muppet family of characters, but I hope they allow for new characters and some experimentation, too. I don't want them to try too hard to do the same thing as The Muppet Show... more Muppets Most Wanted than The Muppets, please. And give Bill Barretta's characters more screen time!

Anyway, on to the neat-o.

:: Have you ever seen Warwick Davis' adorable home movies from the set of Return of the Jedi? Well, here they are; less than four minutes, and very cute.

:: 'Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles': Untold Story of the Movie "Every Studio in Hollywood" Rejected

:: SPEED RACER As Artist. Film Crit Hulk has a great take on one of his (and one of my) favorite movies.

:: I hope when Roger Moore says that he doesn't think London-born Idris Elba "isn't English enough" to play James Bond, that's not old white guy code for "too Black."

:: Hannibal Burress destroys a heckler.

:: Jurassic World TV spot. The excitement still percolates within. Also, here's another trailer for Poltergeist.

:: An Extraordinary Macro Timelapse of Aquatic Wildlife by Sandro Bocci

:: Artoo in Love is a cute Star Wars fan film featuring my favorite character. Jeez, I want my own astromech.

:: As disinterested as I am in NBC's live musicals (I never did watch Peter Pan, although I liked a couple of aspects of The Sound of Music), that's how curious I am to see what they do with The Wiz.

:: Here is a heartbreaking Canadian PSA where homeless people read mean tweets about the homeless. Those are some heartless tweets written by people who don't see other people as human beings.

And finally... Mylo the Cat, the YouTube genius who brought you Rowlf the Dog singing Biz Markie's "Just a Friend" mashes the Muppets with another, erm, rap classic from my childhood:

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

Film Week

A review of the films I've seen these past several weeks.

SLACKER (1991)
Richard Linklater's debut is an interesting flick that just follows a series of conversations around, going from one and then following a tangent to another between different people, while strange things happen in the course of the film's running time. Again, I find Linklater's interest in just watching how people reveal themselves very compelling. ***1/2

Jennifer Lopez is still being menaced by the men she sleeps with, but this time it's the high school boy next door who, the film takes great pains to make us understand, is of legal age but just got held back a few times because of some weird personal problems. It's weird how this movie really bends over backwards to make Jennifer Lopez the victim here, a teacher in the midst of a troubled breakup with her husband who is just powerless to stand against the forces of the outside world and make her own decisions. I guess they didn't think someone with poor judgment would be as sympathetic as someone who is unwittingly seduced and then punished endlessly for it because the boy is an unstable psychopath. This movie stacks the deck so hard in her favor that she basically comes across as just completely helpless yet utterly flawless. It's uncomfortable; if it had been a man in the lead role, there would have been an entire conversation about this. I would dislike this movie even if it had starred, say, Jon Hamm, because I really hate this thing in movies where the older man who should know better is somehow completely powerless to overcome the sexual advances of a teenager. But with Jennifer Lopez, it's doubly insulting, because now it's a woman completely having her agency taken away. Seriously, she can't even defend herself without a man saving her. This is the same Jennifer Lopez who used to star in movies like Enough, which were literally about not defining yourself by your trauma and finding the physical and emotional strength to fight back. Here she just gets thrown around a lot. And yet, the stupidest bit in the movie is the idea that someone could buy a first edition of the Iliad, let alone by just running into it at a yard sale. *

GOJIRA (1954)
I'd never seen the original Japanese, uncut edition of Godzilla before, and I'm really glad I did. I always hated Godzilla, King of the Monsters with Raymond Burr so much that I wasn't ever that interested in going back to it. I finally sat with and I found an entirely different film, a surprisingly serious science fiction movie about the implications of nuclear warfare and the long shadow of the atomic bomb, with quite a good performance by Takashi Shimura (as if he gave any other kind). This was really a genre film that, through serious character development and never winking too hard at its own premise, elevated itself above, well... the kind of movie that the Americanized, edited Godzilla, King of the Monsters is. That film was condescending about the Japanese culture and felt it had to explain everything to the audience, basically taking out the characters, the drama, and Japan itself. This was a real movie. ****

Unfortunately, it made me hungry to see the Japanese original of the next film, Godzilla Raids Again, rather than the American cut that was originally known as Gigantis the Fire Monster. And that's proving to be harder to find than I had hoped it would be.

I didn't know much about Hilary Knight other than that I've always loved his illustrations, but this short documentary was a very nice look at the man and the eccentric friends he's made (including with Lena Dunham, who is not as central to the film as the HBO commercials would have you believe). The heart of the film for me was the history of Knight's collaboration with Kay Thompson on the Eloise books and why it abruptly ended (and, frankly, how the Thompson estate treated Knight  when he attempted to revive the character). A lovely portrait of a man who looks to have attained the kind of happiness I value. ****

Agnes Varda's short film about the grittiness of life in a poor quarter of Paris is fascinating, juxtaposing the harsh reality of life with playful, surrealistic moments that find the moments of joy in such a life. ****

Another Varda short film, this one a sort of travel documentary about the French Riviera. I love Varda's approach to this one; rather than go black and white and all "search for truth," she uses the bright, vivid, beautiful colors of France and takes a tongue-in-cheek approach to the subject of tourism, She is a bit mocking of what tourists wear, and even suggests that, although France needs tourist money, the place is much more of a paradise when all the tourists leave. Varda does find some truth, even in her less serious approach: though she has great love for the monuments and the history and the beautiful countryside of France, most tourists will never truly look for them. ****

Agnes Varda again, this time a narrative film. I watched this last Friday, and I'm still thinking about what I think it's about. It's beautiful to look at, particularly in its use of color to differentiate country life and city life, and the two women the main character is in love with. The film stars Jean-Claude Drout and his real life wife Claire as a married couple, Francois and Therese. Their actual children play their children in the movie. Francois is a happy man, living a country life as a carpenter working for an uncle who loves him, and when he meets a woman in the city (Emilie, played by Marie-France Boyer) and falls in love with her, he considers it an addition to his happiness. He doesn't love Therese or his family any less; this happiness "all adds up" he says, and is a subtraction for no one. It all seems very reasonable to him, and Mozart's music plays on the soundtrack and the sun shines and then something happens that forces him into a decision. This all takes place in a shallow and surface way that some critics find quite unsatisfying, but the more I think about it, the more I see a subversion in it. It's a tragedy hidden inside surface beauty, and Varda challenges you to see that for yourself, without her having to comment on it. Varda raises the point that the character capable of really understanding on a deeper level may not be able to exist in this world. It's not detached at all; it challenges detachment by daring to be a film that makes you understand what's missing from more conventional romances and how cynical they really are. ****

And this is only part of it. This is what HBO can legally show after a team of (no shit) 160 lawyers went through it. There are so many more stories I've heard, so many incidents that I'm aware of, that this could have been a miniseries that would have put The Jinx to shame. But as it is, this is a chilling documentary about a scam that's been going on for too long. I couldn't make it to the end without feeling sick. Excellently made. ****

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

The Laughing Heart

A little something for today as I continue to navigate my way back to something resembling functionality.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Song of the Week: "Never There"

I mentioned Cake on yesterday's Ranking Al post, and this song jumped right into my head. This got played a lot on Chicago radio stations in 1998, when I was driving for a living and could only listen to the radio. I always liked this one, and I haven't heard it in a long, long time. Still dig it, turns out.

80s Revisited: Clue

Clue (1985)
Directed by Jonathan Lynn; screenplay by Jonathan Lynn and John Landis; produced by Debra Hill.

When I was 9 years old, I saw Clue on video. It immediately became one of those movies that my sister really liked and thus was on all the time for a few months, but I remember getting pretty sick of it. I haven't really seen it very much since then, but pieces of it are kind of stamped into my brain. So when I saw it was on Netflix (and disappearing in a few days), I thought, what the hell. Lots of people of my generation--or at least with dispositions similar to mine--seem to love Clue, so why not revisit it?

Based on the board game, the movie gathers a bunch of comic actors and puts them in a thin retread of Murder by Death. It seems like it should be something of a slam dunk premise, but the movie just doesn't work. And honestly, that might be the most fascinating thing about it.

You've got six actors with great comic timing--Martin Mull, Lesley Ann Warren, Michael McKean, Eileen Brennan, Christopher Lloyd and the great Madeline Kahn--as six strangers who are being blackmailed by the same man. They respond to mysterious letters that have them meeting at a mansion on the hill on a dark and stormy night. There's Colleen Camp as a French maid and Tim Curry as the butler, Wadsworth, and they're at a dinner to confront the man who's blackmailing them all. It's 1954 during the McCarthy Army hearings. Tension is in the air.

You've also got a truly gorgeous mansion set to do this all in. This movie is a minor triumph of set design and costuming. It's a really, really good-looking movie that has the potential to be moody and atmospheric. You've got a bunch of funny people and Tim Curry leading them all in a heroic performance that holds the whole thing together. And hell, you've even got a mystery that actually works logically, with enough twists and turns to it, and--and this really impressed me--as the bodies keep mounting up, every single one is a person who comes in from outside. Great plot device: the potential murderers don't keep getting eliminated one by one, leaving it up in the air the entire time who the real killer is instead of narrowing it down.

So why doesn't this movie work on any level?

It's all there. You have all the ingredients. But something's gone wrong in the mixing process and now the cake is flat.

This is a lifeless movie, and it's hard for me to tell what went wrong. I think there's definitely a problem with how the movie is directed and edited. Sometimes it's edited in a way that throws the timing of gag bits off, which is death to a movie like this. There's some good wordplay and some great physical gags, but a lot of them get lost in a flurry of editing and too much camera movement. Jonathan Lynn as a director doesn't seem to know when to nail the camera down and let the actors play off of one another, so the cast never really adheres into a unit, which is death to a mystery movie.

I think there's a problem with the tone, too. All of the background political stuff which starts the plot off and running is quickly forgotten, and so the movie loses all sense of time and place. I think that's wrong. You need isolation for the plot to work, but you can't ignore details that later come into the resolution, because they seem unimportant. Three times we hear "Communism was a red herring," but by then I'd forgotten the entire Communist implication that drove half of the blackmail set-up.

But the worst tone problem is the comedy. The filmmakers seem to have never decided what kind of comedy they were making. I think it could have been marvelous if they'd made a mystery movie with humorous elements that get louder and louder as the movie gets more and more frantic. Establish a mood, then gradually deconstruct that mood until you're practically in a farce. This should have been The Cat and the Canary with Bob Hope; a straight genre movie with the characters taking it less and less seriously. I think it would have really worked, too, because Tim Curry really is very good and he really is the one who holds the whole thing together.

But the filmmakers seem to have approached it as a comedy first. It's not even a parody. It's not a farce, it's not a burlesque, it's just a comedy that doesn't work as a comedy because there's too much plot to keep track of and the characters are underwritten. The actors all seem frustrated at not having much to play. Which is doubly odd, because Lynn and John Landis seem to have decided to put in suggested lines with the feeling that the actors would improvise something good.

It's a shame it just doesn't work. The actors, except for Tim Curry and Colleen Camp, are mostly wasted. But that set is just gorgeous.

Here's a personal, prurient note: this movie makes me really, really horny.

The reason I've never really forgotten this movie is obviously Colleen Camp, whose generous breasts were of extreme importance to me at the age of 9. I can see, like, five of my fetishes began with this movie and specifically with Ms. Camp and her performance. I love Colleen Camp, I think she's a really fun actor every time I see her. But I have lusted after her for the last 30 years, and, well, thank you for that, Clue. I always remembered that this movie made me bizarrely horny. Turns out it still does.


This movie is the source of my Lesley Ann Warren lust, which continues, unbroken, to this day.

Hey, like Roger Ebert once joked, I put everything into my reviews.