Thank You, Neil Simon, For Making Us Laugh

The much-honored and beloved playwright Neil Simon has passed away at the age of 91. I re-post my recommendations for two of his most entertaining movies, and gratitude for making me laugh very hard many times:

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There is an above average Jimmy Stewart movie called “No Time for Comedy“, in which he is cast as Gaylord Esterbrook. Gaylord writes hilariously funny plays yet feels he should write dramatic productions of greater weight in order to be a “serious writer”…but his effort to do so is disastrous. The movie always makes me think of Neil Simon. When he tries to be dramatic he is often manipulative, soppy, boring or pretentious. Films like “California Suite” make me ape Homer Simpson’s reaction to watching Garrison Keillor (Homer beats the idiot box yelling “Stupid TV! BE MORE FUNNY!”).

But when Simon gets over himself and just tries to be funny, he can be absolutely, rib-ticklingly, delightfully enjoyable. This week’s double feature recommendation highlights Simon at his gutbusting best in two loosely linked comedies directed by Robert Moore: Murder by Death (1976) and The Cheap Detective (1978).

Both films are affectionate parodies of fictional detectives from the movies. Nick and Nora Charles, Charlie Chan, Sam Spade, Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot are sent up in Murder by Death. The Cheap Detective focuses only on Sam Spade (renamed Lou Peckinpaugh) as he works his way through the plots of many Humphrey Bogart classics, including the Maltese Falcon, the Big Sleep and Casablanca. There is murder and intrigue in both films and a plot as well, but who cares?: The purpose is laughter and laugh you will if you have a funny bone in your body.

The cast is gold, a simply stunning array of talent (some of whom appear in both movies): Peter Falk, Eileen Brennan, James Coco, David Niven, Maggie Smith, Alec Guiness, Peter Sellers, Marsha Mason, James Cromwell, Nancy Walker, Elsa Lanchester, Sid Caesar and many more. Everyone knows what they are doing and gets every conceivable laugh out of Simon’s scripts.

My favorite bits are hard to choose from such an embarrassment of comedy riches, but I will try. In Murder by Death: The best ever update of “Who’s on First”, featuring a butler named JamesSir Bensonmum and his father Howodd Bensonmum. In the Cheap Detective: Betty DeBoop’s stage number and first encounter with Lou Peckinpaugh (“You made me swallow my gum”).

Book and Film Recommendation: In a Lonely Place

To hell with happiness. More important was excitement and power and the hot stir of lust. Those made you forget.

Dorothy Hughes’ bewitching and disturbing novel In a Lonely Place has been re-issued by New York Review of Books. It very much recalls some of Jim Thompson’s darkest works, though she’s arguably an even better writer than he was. Hughes’ stylish evocation of a psychopathic psychology is like one of those sweetened Russian cocktails that tastes wonderful going down even though you know it’s burning out your insides and will leave you full of the blackest regret in the morning. I can’t recommend the book strongly enough, though not for the faint-hearted.

Once you have read it, consider watching the unforgettable film adaptation, which I recommended some years ago and re-up below.

I was born when she kissed me. I died when she left me. I lived a few weeks while she loved me.

Amazingly, there are people who consider themselves Humphrey Bogart fans who have never seen the brooding, powerful 1950 film In a Lonely Place. In one of his greatest roles, Bogart plays bitter, hard-drinking Hollywood screenwriter Dixon Steele, whose best days seem to be behind him. After being tasked with adapting a dreadful novel for the silver screen, he asks a ditzy hat check girl who loves the book to come to his apartment and tell him the plot. The next morning, the police inform Dix that the girl has been murdered and dumped by the side of the road. As the audience, we do not know what really happened. Steele is initially alibied by sultry neighbor Laurel Gray (Gloria Grahame, all eyebrows, curves and nimbly masked emotional turmoil), who promptly yields to his romantic advances. They fall in love and Dix is able to regain his gifts as a writer. But as Laurel sees Dix continue to be volatile and aggressive, she begins to wonder, Suspicion-style, whether Dix is a murderer after all.

This movie is cynical about fame, Hollywood, and human relationships, but tantalizes us with the possibility that new love can redeem it all. The suspense emerges less from the murder mystery than from the warring internal emotions of the characters. Director Nicholas Ray knew life’s dark places and how to get actors to go there. His marriage to the volatile Grahame ended in the most sordid way imaginable while they were making this movie, and the anguish and anger on the set comes out in the electric performances of the cast. The film is also remarkable for its opening five minutes, which are a clinic in how a great director and actor can establish a character with ruthless economy (incidentally, the bar in the opening scene was modeled after Romanoff’s, Bogart’s favorite drinking hole).

There are countless movies told from the man’s point of view in which a beautiful, younger woman falls in love with the protagonist (indeed, Bogart himself made a number of such films). The women in those movies are flat characters and we aren’t told why they go for the hero. He wants her, the story needs them to fall in love, so they do. What is truly remarkable about this movie’s structure is that it follows this formula about half-way through and then flips the perspective to the woman’s point of view. Continue reading “Book and Film Recommendation: In a Lonely Place”

The 50th Anniversary of Bonnie and Clyde

Today is the 50th Anniversary of the release of an incredibly well-made, influential, and entertaining American movie, in honor of which I re-post my review from several years ago.

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Hollywood studios were in a rut in the late 1950s and early 1960s, struggling to cope with the rise of television, the loss of control of movie theaters after the Paramount case, and a widening cultural chasm between modern audience tastes and studio traditions. In desperation, the studio chiefs opened up filmmaking to a wave of young actors, directors, producers and writers who re-energized American movies, making them arguably the world’s trendsetters from the late 1960s through mid-1970s. One of the pivotal movies from this fertile period in American cinema is this week’s film recommendation: 1967’s Bonnie and Clyde.

The story opens with a bored, sexually frustrated small town girl (Faye Dunaway) meeting a charming bad boy (Warren Beatty). She questions his courage and masculinity, and he shows off by drawing a gun and committing a robbery. They flee her backwards hometown together, intoxicated by freedom, danger and each other. More daring robberies follow, and with it growing fame for Bonnie and Clyde. Soon they gather other people around them, including a slow witted ne’er do well (Michael Pollard), Clyde’s older brother Buck (Gene Hackman) and Buck’s prim, God-fearing wife Blanche (Estelle Parsons). The law of course comes after them, spurring epic gun fights and a wild cross-country chase sparked with episodes that are surreal (the mesmerizing family reunion scene, which was shot by putting a window pane in front of the camera) and comic (the best of which features Gene Wilder, in his first movie). The story’s conclusion, which I will not spoil, is justifiably one of the most famous scenes in the history of American cinema.

The sexuality and graphic violence on display here is light years apart from what Hollywood films had ever done before. This is one of the first movies to use squibs and to show bullet wounds spouting blood. The impact of the violence is further amplified through use of the choppy editing style popularized by the French New Wave. Also, in a striking reversal of the typical gender roles of films in the 1950s, the woman is the confident sexual aggressor and the man is sexually timid and indeed non-functional (in early drafts of the script, Clyde was in a gay relationship with one of the men in his gang, but in the final version he instead is impotent). The point of view of the story was also novel and in keeping with the rebellious spirit of the times: The heroes are murderers who mow down police officers without compunction.

But it is not just the sexual and violent themes that make Bonnie and Clyde a landmark American film, it is also the movie’s meditation on fame. The criminals’ exhilaration in their notoriety, their self-conscious pursuit of increased publicity and the way they are hero-worshiped by strangers highlight the absurdity of American celebrity culture in supremely effective fashion.

As for the acting, under Arthur Penn’s direction, the entire cast explodes off the screen. Parsons won an Academy Award for her performance but any of the leads and supporting players would also have been worthy choices. Last but certainly not least, Burnett Guffey’s “flat style” camerawork — a complete inversion of his remarkable work in prior RBC recommendations My Name is Julia Ross and The Sniper — is one of the lasting achievements in Hollywood cinematography. That Guffey could early in his career thrive in the deep focus, shadowy, stylized world of film noir yet later became a leading exponent of unadorned, naturalistic cinematography shows that he was truly one of the giants of his profession.

The backstory to this film has also become part of its legend. Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker were of course real-life bank robbers in Depression-Era America. The script of this film was brilliantly adapted from their exploits by David Newman and Robert Benton, with uncredited help from Robert Towne. (The latter two of these men, like so many of the people associated with the film, soon became major figures in American cinema). The writers tried unsuccessfully to recruit a French New Wave director to make the movie, but none of them were ultimately interested. Fortunately, Warren Beatty saw the potential of the story and bought production rights, eventually signing Penn as the director. As a sign of how out of touch studio executives were with 1960s audiences, the suits at Warner Brothers were so sure it would bomb that they were comfortable promising Beatty 40% of the gross receipts. They barely released and minimally promoted the picture, and were not surprised when establishment movie critics sneered at it. But it hit audiences like a thunderbolt, becoming a massive box office hit. Remarkably, some chastened film critics went so far as to publicly apologize for their dismissive reviews and to write new reviews praising the movie (except for the New York Times’ insufferable Bosley Crowther, who campaigned against the film so vigorously that his bosses finally realized that it was time to find a more discerning critic). Many years later, this initially unwanted, disregarded and disrespected film became one of the first movies selected for preservation by the National Film Registry.

p.s. If any film prefigures Bonnie and Clyde in American cinema, I think it’s Joseph Lewis’ extraordinary 1950 movie Gun Crazy. If you have time for a double feature, that’s the film to pair with this one. And if you have time for a triple feature, throw in Lewis’ My Name is Julia Ross to appreciate the incredible range of cinematographer Burnett Guffey.

Billionaire and trophy wife move into dream mansion, with sad results

Four years ago, I wrote a glowing review of a documentary, Queen of Versailles. Can’t imagine what brought this to mind.

…The second-most-astonishing aspect of this film is even sadder. I tuned in expecting to see the usual diverting reality-TV real-estate porn. Yet the wealth generated and consumed in this film just provides very little value or real enjoyment to anyone.

David Siegel runs Westgate Resorts. He made his money by selling people timeshares they really can’t afford. For a time, Westgate generates great opulence for the Siegel family. But what comes of that wealth? Unlike (say) Steve Jobs, David Siegel doesn’t create beautiful and useful innovations that make our lives noticeably better. Unlike Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, Siegel has no philanthropic vision to channel his wealth for worthy purposes.

Unlike millions of prosperous, albeit less cosmically-wealthy Americans, the Siegels don’t seem to use their wealth to make people close to them safe and happy. David Siegel’s checkered history with his adult son exemplifies things. Their relationship is strictly business. Then there is Jackie’s high school best friend. She’s a single mom who ends up in foreclosure. Jackie sends her $5,000 in an apparently unsuccessful effort to forestall the foreclosure. If I had the cash to construct a $100 million mansion, my best friend wouldn’t lose her modest home.

The Siegel family’s spiritual emptiness—I don’t know how else to say it– is rather heartbreaking. The Siegel children don’t seem to be turning out very well –except perhaps for his teenage daughter who in one scene rightly and righteously chews Siegel out for being a jerk to the rest of the family. [Heartbreaking post-script: This young woman subsequently died of an accidental drug overdose.] It’s hardly surprising that the kids are irresponsible and bratty, given their father’s narcissism and plain meanness.

Jackie Siegel is a beautiful, sweet, and vacuous trophy wife. She accumulates warehouses full of expensive junk for what is expected to be America’s biggest mansion. She has too many kids, too many toys, too many rooms, animals, too many nannies and servants. She even has too many inches on her bustline after (what I assume to be) ludicrous surgical enlargement shown off through her correspondingly ridiculous cleavage-displaying wardrobe.

Her husband treats her with blatant disrespect. When she turns forty, he jokes that he will replace her with two twenty-year-olds. Or maybe when she’s sixty he will replace her with three twenty-year-olds. He comments on camera that being married to her is like having another child.

Westgate teeters on the edge of collapse when it’s hit by the financial crisis. Both Siegel and his adult son protest that the banks got them hooked on cheap credit and are now trying to take over the jewels of their empire. Truthfully, though, everyone seems to lose in this story. The banks don’t get their principal back. The huge mansion is last seen as an unfinished and unsold construction project. Westgate teeters on the edge of ruin. Employees are laid off. Timeshare owners are foreclosed or left holding the bag for an over-valued properties.

We get to know two responsible adults in the entire film. The first is the limo driver (himself a failed real estate speculator). We also watch a heartrending interview with their Philippine nanny who relaxes in a big former playhouse of the Siegel children and who sends money back to her real family overseas.

I take it from later news that Siegel eventually landed on his feet. I guess that’s good. During the 2012 campaign, he got public attention as one of those crazy entitled CEOs who threatened to fire his workforce if Obama won reelection. In the end, Siegel didn’t go through with it.

I take it that he’s back on top again. He’s restarting construction on his 90,000 square-foot palace. It’s an old story, though. This man remains a pitiful figure.

Weekend Film Recommendation: Tarantula

It’s Sunday afternoon and the weather is bad for many of you out there, so just for fun I re-up this matinee B-movie suggestion from 5 years ago.

“Invasion of the Giant-Sized X” films were almost their own genre in the 1950s. Many of them were wretched (Attack of the 50 Foot Woman being generally considered the nadir), but some of them stand the test of time. If forced to choose my favorite giant insect film I would go with Them!, but since spiders are not insects I feel I have the right to also have a favorite giant spider movie, and it’s this week’s film recommendation: 1955’s Tarantula.

I preface this recommendation by expressing an opinion about B-movies, which is no one should be ashamed of making one as long as they know that is what they are doing. B-movies that pretend to be A-movies are typically an agony to view, but films that use a modest budget to achieve modest ambitions can be highly satisfying for the audience. The Frightened City, which I recommended a few months back, is one such worthy B-movie, and Tarantula is another. The makers’ goal was to tell an entertaining, scary monster story, and they pulled it off.

Like most of the giant critter films, this one begins with science gone awry, in the person of reclusive Professor Gerald Deemer (the wily old pro, Leo J. Carroll). He is concerned about the world’s food supply because he projects that by the year 2000, the Earth’s population will be — wait for it — 3.6 billion! Injections of a radioactive nutrient seem like a sensible alternative to traditional food: just look at how quickly Deemer’s test animals are growing. In the meantime, no one is trying the nutrient on humans, are they? Continue reading “Weekend Film Recommendation: Tarantula”

Richard Adams R.I.P: A Fine Film Adaptation of His Work

After a very long and very creative life, Richard Adams passed away on Christmas Eve. As a small tribute I am re-upping this 5-year old film recommendation, a fine adaptation of his most famous book.

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All the world will be your enemy, Prince of a Thousand enemies. And when they catch you, they will kill you. But first they must catch you; digger, listener, runner, Prince with the swift warning. Be cunning, and full of tricks, and your people will never be destroyed.

These words are uttered by an unseen narrator (well-voiced by Sir Michael Hordern) in the magical opening sequence of 1978’s Watership Down. The opening presents a creation myth centered on a god called Frith and a prince of rabbits named El-ahrairah. The movie then turns to the story of some of the descendants of the Rabbit Prince, who live in modern day Sandleford and are about to embark on a perilous journey to find a new home.

A cartoon movie about bunny rabbits doesn’t sound like the sort of thing that would hold the interest of a thoughtful adult. But give this movie a chance. Like the Richard Adams book upon which it is based, the film is dark, dramatic, and in parts, engagingly philosophical. Although older children will probably like it, Watership Down is really an animated movie for grown-ups.

The story centers on a warren in which all the rabbits seem happy and safe. Yet a rabbit named Fiver has a prophetic vision of blood and destruction. He and his older brother Hazel cannot get the local rabbit chief to believe them about the danger; indeed the warren’s police (the Owsla) try to suppress their dissent. With a group of fellow rebels, including a powerful former Owsla member named Bigwig, Fiver and Hazel fight their way out of their warren to seek a new home.

Their journey is filled with hazards and some of the rabbits come to bloody ends. They encounter different warrens with different sociologies and politics, eventually establishing their own independent warren at Watership Down, which Fiver had seen in a vision. But they soon come into conflict with another, imperialistic warren run by the menacing General Woundwart (as scary a villain as one could ask for in a movie about rabbits).

Watership Down is I think the best animated film ever produced in the UK. The rabbits’ faces are expressive and their movements realistic. The story is exciting and contains moments of serious drama. And the voice actors, especially John Hurt, are outstanding. My only complaint is the presence of a comic relief bird character voiced by Zero Mostel (it was his final film performance). I suppose that was put in to make the film more kid-friendly…I think it would have better to just go for it and target the film at adults, but YMMV. Even if you don’t like the bird, it’s a small annoyance in what is overall a very good movie.

The trailer is a bit long, but gives a flavour of the film:

p.s. to Art Garfunkel fans: The song for this film was “Bright Eyes”, which is accompanied here by an appealing animated sequence.

Christmas Viewing Suggestions

Screen Shot 2015-12-24 at 19.05.45 For laughs, winces and surprising emotional weight try The Office Christmas Special. It was described by Johann as “a beautiful, bittersweet, and downright painful final send-off to the UK version of The Office. To enjoy the Christmas special it’ll be fine if you haven’t watched the first two seasons (even though you must have been living under a rock). But everything about this powerful ending to the show plays with the investment an audience has made with each of the characters—whether out of sympathy or pity.”

For nostalgia, warmth and wry observations it would be hard to do better than A Christmas Story, which I described as a film that “charms because it pokes fun at children’s capability for silliness yet also respects their capacity for earnestness (e.g., It *is* a breach of etiquette to go straight to a triple dog dare without an intervening triple dare). Though sweetly nostalgic about childhood in some ways, the film does not overly romanticize it: A Peter and the Wolf-esque subplot features a fearsome bully named Scut Farkas.”

scrooge-2 And for a darker yet ultimately uplifting Christmas story, there’s always Dickens’ masterpiece about Ebeneezer Scrooge. Two markedly different but top notch adaptations are described here.

See Moonlight

The film Moonlight is one of the best films I’ve seen about a young man coming of age, the roots of youth violence, and what’s behind the hard mask of so many minority youth, including those who become enmeshed in the criminal justice system. A hunger for human connection, compassion, and empathy often hides behind the hardness these young men project, underneath the Raiders’ jacket, the forbidding tattoos and intimidating muscles.

One incident in Moonlight was eerily reminiscent of an episode I witnessed at age 15 as a Boy Scout. There was more than a little bullying in Boy Scouts. That was often directed at vulnerable or perceived-to-be soft or effeminate boys. For reasons that were never clear to me, I was not victimized, even though I was a tiny kid and the troop’s only Jew.

The lead bully, whom I will call Steve, regularly tormented another boy, whom I will call Tim. Steve was older and larger. There realistically wasn’t much Tim could do. The adults never did much to help, either. I suspect they expected Tim to stick up for himself.

One day he did. On one cold camp-out, deep in woods, Steve made some cutting comment in Tim’s direction. Tim suddenly grabbed a small sled and smashing it over Steve’s head. Steve’s blood poured from a gaping head wound onto the snow, as adults ran from all directions to staunch the bleeding.

This being late-1970s white suburbia, no one was arrested or locked up. That’s probably for the best. I don’t know what happened to either boy in later years. Throw an off-the-shelf handgun into the mix, and this would resemble any number of Chicago homicides. It might even be labelled gang-related.

That was my first brush with potentially lethal violence perpetrated by a cornered young man defending his honor and masculinity. Every day, in my morning newspaper, I see more.

Keith’s Weekend Film Recommendations Come to a Close

Five years ago today, I for some reason decided to recommend a classic movie (Bullitt) to RBC readers. It was fun to do and I kept on doing it, week after week except for the occasional guest reviewer. I felt my energy flagging after 150 or so movie recommendations, but then the site was blessed with Johann Koehler’s arrival, who lightened the load with his own recommendations several times a month and thereby kept me going for a time.

I know it’s a popular feature and many people have written me over the years to thank me for recommending a film that they saw and enjoyed,which is always a good feeling. I have also learned some intriguing details about movies and actors from the film buffs who read the site, and I am grateful for that.

But a few months ago, I realized it was starting to feel like a job, even at the reduced level of work made possible by Johann’s contributions, so I have decided to end my recommendations here on this fifth anniversary.

Thanks for reading, and happy movie watching. And with that, over to Porky…

Weekend Film Recommendation: 28 Days Later

It’s time to close out our month of thrills, chills, and kills in the October movie roundup for 2016. After we started with ghouls in a Western in Bone Tomahawk, Keith recommended two oldies that took us from a spooky wager in The House on Haunted Hill to the possessed Hands of Orlac. Death and un-death have occupied a central role throughout the month, and it’s no different in this week’s recommendation, Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later. Continue reading “Weekend Film Recommendation: 28 Days Later”