Friday, July 30, 2010

Life Lessons from John Hughes

"I always preferred to hang out with the outcasts, `cause they were cooler; they had better taste in music, for one thing, I guess because they had more time to develop one with the lack of social interaction they had!"

-John Hughes

Roger Ebert, while speaking about the longevity of the classic film, stated "we're living in a time when for most people cinematic history began with Star Wars." While I do agree with most of that blanket assessment, I do believe there are many other examples of film that have influenced the lives of audience members who were born after 1970 or so.

One that readily comes to mine is the cinema of John Hughes. I know I can't accurately speak for everyone, but I'm pretty confident that most anyone under 40 was touched by at least one Hughes film. Although only directing eight films, he crafted dozens of other movies by either writing them or producing them. All of his cinema had a sincerity that was instantly identifiable.
His characters, no matter how spoiled or nerdy or boorish they may outwardly appear, were all empathetic and accessible to scores of different audiences. Hughes' cinema wore its heart on its sleeve, and its soul was always on full display.

Most of his works focused on the awkwardness of the teenage years, but most all of his characters had to overcome a state of adolescence or arrested development. The films were populated by various outcasts, precisely because their stories were more relevant. For those of us who saw these movies during our own teen years, no other films felt so real. Sure, Luke Skywalker may have been fun, but watching a Hughes character was often like viewing ourselves in a mirror. We paid attention and felt for them more because we hoped they could find some answers; making the best of the life we are all dealt.

Personally, I was not a teen when Hughes hit his stride. But his films were no less influential on me. In fact, I learned plenty of life lessons from his filmography. Some are genuine, some are slightly snarky, but all left their mark. Here, I present six distinctive films from his career.

National Lampoon's Vacation

Who doesn't love this? Seriously.

This was my introduction to John Hughes (he wrote the screenplay), and it was an instant classic for me. I recall seeing it theatrically in 1983 when I was seven, and I think the only person I was aware of was Chevy Chase at the time. I don't think I had watched Saturday Night Live by then, but Chevy had been in several movies. The more adult aspects of the humor alluded me, but I still thought it was hilarious.

Little did I know, however, was how accurate the movie's depictions were until the following year, when I (as a fresh 8-year old) went with my parents to California for a Disney vacation. It was... distinctive. I will say that.

One day, when I have kids of my own and take them on a family fun trip, I'm sure Vacation will be brilliant in a whole new way. Until that day, here's what I took from it thus far.

  • Never tie a dog to the bumper while packing the car.
  • Don't ask pimps for instructions in the ghetto. On the other hand, rolling up windows is a way to bulletproof one's car!
  • Always stir Kool-Aid with proper utensils. (Admit it, the Cousin Eddie stuff is gold. That's why they kept placing them in as many of the sequels as they could).
  • Speaking of which, I guess you don't need any meat in Hamburger Helper. Wait. Yeah, you do.
  • As Audrey Griswold said herself, "don't die unless somebody's home!"
  • Enjoy the little moments between children and their parents. you never know how fast they grow up, after all (or are simply recast).
As an addendum, I should point out that there is actually a term that my family uses that is derived from this movie. You know this scene? Well, because of that very scene, whenever anyone in the family encounters a soggy sandwich (like being packed away too long, too saucy, or cold and wet) it's referred to as an "Aunt Edna sandwich." True story. Blech.

Weird Science

Not really one of my favorites. In fact, it's not very good. However, it was a seminal movie nonetheless. Even as a kid, I knew something was just... odd. Two lame dudes make a chick with their computer?? Really? Kinda like Bride of Frankenstein but without substance? When viewed through the prism of '80s cinema, where teens did wacky things and got into improbable situations, it does get a slight pass. I mean, there were no werewolves , or time travel, or crazy scavenger hunts, or any other weird things Michael J. Fox did in his movies during the decade.

All I know is that:
  • Bill Paxton's career was shaped by this very movie. I'm sure of it.
  • This movie is the template for duos where you know one guy but not the other.
    Like Wham. That had George Michael in that other guy (Andrew Ridgeley). This was Anthony Michael Hall and... some dude. I'm too lazy to even google it right now.
  • Michael Berryman is always a perfect choice to play a mutant or imbred person. Don't remember him? It's this guy.
  • Most of all, Kelly LeBrock definitely left an imprint on the 9-year old version of me. Back then, I couldn't comprehend how, but I'm pretty sure it raised expectations a tad too high for most of my dating years. After all, gym teachers NEVER looked like this.
Not that there weren't other things of note in Weird Science. This was the first time I saw Robert Downey Jr. in anything. Between this and Back to School, it's hard to believe he's now Iron Man, isn't it? And damn if Oingo Boingo's music isn't just the best in infectious '80s music. Danny Elfman's always been great.

Uncle Buck

Dude, I loved John Candy.
He's certainly one of my all-time favorite comedic actors. No matter how small of a part he played, from Stripes to National Lampoon's Vacation to Splash to Home Alone, he was always hilarious. I'll admit he consistently shined mostly in supporting roles, because the scripts he got where he played the lead usually were awful. Who even remembers crap like Who's Harry Crumb?, Summer Rental, and Delirious? I sure as heck don't, and I'm a fan of Candy.

In John Hughes' hands, though, John Candy transcended. Uncle Buck is a perfect example of a movie that shouldn't have been as good as it really was. Outcast uncle is called upon to watch his nieces and nephew in an emergency? Sounds typical on paper. But again, because of Hughes' heart and Candy's endearing personality, the combination works. Plucky children and a bitchy teenager can't even make us stop loving this movie (although the teen comes close. Mostly you just wanna slap her).

But what I came away with is:
  • Clowns are always a bad idea for a birthday party of any age.
  • Beware the lonely single neighbor.
  • Lambada dancing is never a good idea. Not dancing like that in front of the dog is just a red herring.
  • No matter how charming John Candy is, the 5-year plan on smoking does not sound like a good idea.
  • Don't test the boundaries of unbreakable china.
  • Why the hell would anyone name their kid "Bug?"
  • Bowling is awesome.
  • Flipping a toothpick around in your mouth with your tongue is not sexy. It's lame.
  • Giant pancakes look awesome! Can I get some of those at Magnolia Cafe or Kerbey Lane?
  • Always carry a hatchet in your car. You know, for drunk drivers.
  • Most importantly of all, I learned what melanoma and contempt for institutionalized education were. At the same time, no less.

The Breakfast Club

For most, this is John Hughes' signature film. It certainly is his most influential. Personally, I do like another better. But more than any other, I wish I had been in high school when I saw it the first time. I didn't see it until my college years, and I think I would've felt a lot better knowing everyone else in high school was uncomfortable in their own skin too. Regardless, it is still a modern classic.
  • Even a classic character like John Bender doesn't guarantee a film career. Ask Judd Nelson.
  • It's practically a law that any retrospective on John Hughes would have to include the term "don't you forget about me." (from the song by Simple Minds used in this film)
  • What you pack for lunch speaks volumes about you.
  • You mess with the bull, you get the horns.
  • On that note, I was exposed to some of the funniest tough-guy lines ever in this film. "Two hits. Me hitting you and you hitting the floor." "If I have to come in here again I'm cracking skulls." Ah, classic.
  • The Physics Club is sorta social. Demented and sad, but social.
  • Not all minors have fake IDs so they can score alcohol. Some do it to vote.
  • Different cliques or groups of people are more apt to bond together when they do it against yet another foe.
  • Screws just fall out all the time, the world's an imperfect place.
  • In the eyes of some, saying that you get along with your parents doesn't make you an idiot. It makes you a liar.
  • Profiling is a reaction to teens only as a last resort. It's usually because adults have no other way of identifying with the younger generations.
As a look into our society, The Breakfast Club is still invaluable. The words are just as true now, when another generation faces the same dilemmas.

On a personal note, I do hold John Hughes personally responsible for my initial disappointment in my high school experience. You see, I thought high school was going to be just like John Hughes movies. Full of Molly Ringwalds, Ally Sheedys, and the like. Even the authority figures had personality. But I quickly learned there were no such girls, and the authority figures weren't as entertaining as the Ed Rooneys or Mr. Vernons. they were just dicks.

Planes, Trains and Automobiles

This one has always been my personal favorite Hughes movie. It's referred to as his most mature work, but to me it still has that heart that signifies one of his films. Absent from here is any sense of teen angst, but the focus is still on how we treat one another as human beings. The performances are all top notch here. I actually think this is the high mark of the careers of both Steve Martin and John Candy. As Del Griffith, Candy in particular feels so lonely beneath a rosy surface. There's a sense of quiet desperation that makes his story heartbreaking, and the bond between these two different men more uplifting. Yes, it's a holiday comedy, but a bittersweet one. It's a fixture in my holiday viewing schedule year after year, and the tears flow fresh every time.

In addition to the message about goodwill towards your fellow man, there are also these gems of knowledge:

  • Thanksgiving traveling is rarely any fun.
  • Advertising executives are no fun (unless you watch "Mad Men" on AMC)
  • Kevin Bacon will always win a race.
  • Ray Charles's "Mess Around" is a fantastic song to drive to.
  • The perils of smoking convinced me to never try cigarettes. Ever. You might burn your rental car.
  • Don't place beer on a vibrating bed.
  • Never discard your rental car receipt.
  • People looove that Flintstones song.
  • Pay very close attention if someone yells at your car that you're going the wrong way.
  • A hardcore woman is she who gives birth sideways but doesn't "scream or nothin."
  • Always look before you wipe your face with a hand towel. I can not emphasize this enough. Always.
  • Be careful if you're sharing a bed with someone... those may not be pillows!!

Ferris Bueller's Day Off

Oh man, Ferris Bueller could be a textbook, or at the very least a Cliff's Notes guide to life. The movie is escapism in the purest sense of the word. I could probably write a book on life lessons from Mr. Bueller, but here are some highlights.
  • If you're gonna fake being sick, lick your palms instead of faking a fever.
  • It is possible to be adored by everyone. Everyone loved Ferris, after all. "The sportos, the motorheads, the geeks... sluts, bloods, wasteoids.... dweebies, dickheads... they all adore him. They think he's a righteous dude." Except for his sister.
  • Very few can look cool singing in the shower sporting a shampoo mohawk.
  • If you're ever lucky enough to own a fine automobile like the 1961 Ferrari 250 GT California... lock it up.
  • Fake phone calls work best if you have a partner. Watch the dead grandmother scene and the restaurant scene.
  • Which reminds me... When giving a fake name, "Abe Froman" is (in real life) a great choice. Most people will think it sounds vaguely familiar, but it shouldn't raise alarms. Unless the person you give it to is a John Hughes fan, and calls you out for not being the sausage king of Chicago.
  • Wayne Newton sounds like a little girl when he sings. You agree? Danke Schoen.
  • "Twist and Shout?" Always a good time.
  • That song by Yello? It's so '80s. Ooooooooooo yeeeeeah. Day Bow Bow.
  • Be more selective when choosing a valet parking garage.
  • Successfully breaking the fourth wall can be fun. Normally this only works for Looney Tunes characters, but Ferris does it so well throughout the film. And when Ed Rooney slowly glances at the camera during the end credits without saying a word, it's brilliance.
  • Don't follow Cameron's examples. There are better ways to break out of the mold and defy one's father.
  • Charlie Sheen has never been cooler. Ever. Although Rick "Wild Thing" Vaughn comes close.
  • And hey, something academic. I did learn about voodoo economics.
  • Most important of all, from Ferris himself. "Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it."
Well said, Ferris, well said.

My favorite sequence is easily the museum scene. There is something so beautiful and haunting about it all. The editing, the music, the silent poses and performances.

It's the last part with Cameron and the painting that gets me every time. It's important to see the uptight character losing a sense of coherence when he chooses to focus on the details instead of the big picture. Those few seconds say all you need to know about our life views. Bear that in mind, and maybe you don't need a day off from the daily grind, after all.

By the way...
I'm going to play hooky on Tuesday, August 3rd and watch Ferris Bueller's Day Off at The Paramount as we remember John Hughes a year after his untimely death.

So as I revisit all of John Hughes over the years, new lessons are learned and all the ones I've noted before become even more poignant. It really doesn't matter which Hughes film speaks the clearest to you, because the truth is there is a little of each of these characters inside all of us. That's the genius of his career and life lessons to us.

No matter if we see ourselves as a Ferris Bueller, Cameron Fry, Buck Russell, John Bender, Claire Standish, Ed Rooney, Brian Johnson, Chet, The Geek or even The Donger. We are all these outcasts and misfits in our own way.

Although associated with the 1980s, I think the cinema of John Hughes will provide answers to moviegoers for decades to come. Am I sure, you ask? Ooooooooh yeah. Day Bow Bow.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Films # 48 & 49: Boris Karloff Double feature (Jul. 23)

The Black Room
1935, 65 min.
Directed by Roy William Neill

Bride of Frankenstein
1935, 75 min.
Directed by James Whale

Argh. I was running late (again). Huffing down Congress, I walked into the theatre a few minutes after the show started. No drinks, no popcorn. In what felt like a series of only a few strides, I glided through the doors, bounded up the stairs and crept like a ninja to my seat.

Shhhhh. I hate coming in late to movies. It's a cardinal sin to a person like me. I will have to punish myself appropriately later. Luckily, it appears I mostly missed the trailers and the cartoon before the first feature. Stumbling blindly as my eyes adjusted, I was watching the screen with one eye while I tried not to trip and kill myself with the other. I'm sure I looked ridiculous taking my exaggerated steps, but oh well. I am trying to move quietly, after all...

Full writeup of the films is a work in progress...
Check back soon for the complete blog entry!

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Films # 46 & 47: High Seas Adventures! (Jul. 21)

Captain Blood
1935, 119 min.
Directed by Michael Curtiz

Mutiny on the Bounty
1935, 132 min.
Directed by Frank Lloyd

Full writeup of the films is a work in progress...
Check back soon for the complete blog entry!

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Films # 44 & 45: Trashy Double Feature! (Jul 18th)

1995, 131 min.
Directed by Paul Verhoeven

Valley of the Dolls
1967, 123 min.
Directed by Mark Robson

Oh, this was a night I was dreading and yet was looking forward to. I've been exposed to the classics thus far this summer, but tonight I was to be subjected to classic dreck. This was a shameless trashy double feature, an invite to cinematic train wrecks. Since I was a regular now at The Paramount, I was compelled to see what kind of crowd would show. It promised to be an interesting night.

But first...
There was a live show of sorts before the movies. Next door at The State Theatre, there were lessons in "Striptease Aerobics." Abel Sanchez, director of Austin City Showgirls (a Jazz-based dance company), was going to conduct the mini-course along with a couple of his dancers. A small group of eager pupils were present, and it was far more tasteful than anything I was going to see on the big screen for the rest of the evening. Actually, it was playful and good humored. But don't take my word for it. Behold!

So after the laughs were over and the people were sweaty, we all ventured next door. There were many coming through the doors, and everyone seemed to be ready for a craptastic time. Some even came dressed up...

After seriously debating whether to get an alcoholic drink or not, I opted to tackle Showgirls sober. This decision was made so that I can try and evaluate the film objectively. But oh, how I know that a drink might actually make this movie enjoyable. Nevertheless, up the stairs I went and settled into my seat.

Oh! I have a confession to make. This would not be my first time to see this movie in theaters. In fact, I saw Showgirls during its original theatrical run. Don't judge. I was an undergrad at UT Austin, and remember seeing it opening weekend at the Dobie Theater. It was one of the most uncomfortable movie experiences ever. There wasn't a single female in the sold-out theater that night. The sleazy smell of desperate testosterone hung in the air like Drakkar Noir (remember, it was 1995 after all). I wanted to place napkins on my seat before I sat down, the way some people place toilet paper on a public commode. It was the kind of event that Travis Bickle would've taken a date to.

Why did I ever go to see this, you ask? Two reasons.

1. I was a pretty big Verhoeven fan back then.
In 1987, I was just going into junior high school when I saw RoboCop for the first time (theatrically, I might add). Oh, how ratings were more relaxed back then. No one under 17 admitted without a guardian, the rules said. Oh, you have money? Come on in, good sir. And you know what? I loved it. Total Recall was also gory sci-fi fun in 1990. Oddly, to this day, I have yet to see Basic Instinct. In later years, I grew to be lukewarm towards Starship Troopers and ambivalent towards Hollow Man. But as of 1995, I was all about the Verhoeven. That crazy Dutch bastard was guaranteed to be a fun time at the cinema. Or so I thought.

2. Sheer morbid curiosity.

Remember that the NC-17 as a rating was established in 1990 for mature content films, replacing the X rating that most people came to associate with pornography. Regardless of what you name it, however, the fact remains that most media outlets won't advertise an NC-17 movie, and few video rental chains would even carry such titles. NC-17 was considered the kiss of death for films from a business standpoint. Showgirls bucked the trend by becoming the widest release of an NC-17 movie (over 1300 screens. By a major studio, no less). It was a ballsy move by MGM (who at the time was staving off bankruptcy), releasing a sexploitation movie when the likes of such cinema hadn't been made since the 1970s. It was a heck of a gamble. I felt oblligated to reward such a studio, but I was dead wrong to do so. It was a moment of reckoning, and was the single event that made sure I stayed on the straight and narrow. After that 1995 screening, I took a brutal shower (Silkwood-style) and decided then and there to not see a movie for "sheer curiosity" ever again.

Sitting there, wondering how this viewing of debauchery would unfold fifteen years later, I received one more treat before the trash. A cartoon! Daffy Duck in "Boobs in the Woods." Heh heh heh, boobs (a la Beavis & Butthead). Oh God, I'm regressing already!

The cartoon faded out, and the... um, movie... began. I will try to be succinct in my discussion and also objective.

Showgirls is pretty damn bad. However, it's distinctive from other bad movies in one significant way. It's not trying to be a good movie, but it is "made" very well. From a technical aspect, it's up there with big-budget showcases. Verhoeven is in fine form in his kitchen. All of the craftsmanship is present, but the dish is designed to be inedible. It's like if Wolfgang Puck decided to make the finest, most delectable cup of Ramen Noodles mankind has ever seen.

So what makes it bad then? What's the magic formula?
My test was this. If the sound was cut off, it could've been more palatable. One could just watch the spectacle of the production and have a mildly entertaining time doing so. But the dialogue is so atrocious and the story so stupid that the main reason for its awfulness must be... the screenplay.

Simply put, this is probably the worst script that ever got greenlit into production. Seriously, it's garbage. Wait, did Ed Wood write his own scripts? He did? Well, this is still miles worse. Writer Joe Eszterhas must have written this on a dare. That's the only excuse I can come up with as why this was created. It's so cynical and misogynistic that it defies logic. This from the man who wrote Flashdance, Basic Instinct, Sliver, and Jade. What a body of work that is, lemme tell ya. The only redeeming quality of Showgirls is that many lines are laughably bad. The dialogue has no other purpose but to make you gasp and guffaw. Most of the "best" ones I am unable to publish here (I try to keep it clean. You know, for kids.), but how about these:

"I don't know how good you are, darlin', and I don't know what it is you're good at, but if it's at the Cheetah, it's not dancing, I know that much."

"I got towels."

"Now wait a minute. Listen, just listen. Man you've got more talent when you dance than anybody I've ever seen. And I've seen a lot of dancers. I studied at New York. You burn when you dance."

"What is he? A pimp? Only people I know got pimp cars are pimps."
"He's the entertainment director."
"That's exactly what I said - he's a pimp!"

"I've had dog food."
"You have?"
"Mmm-hmmm. Long time ago. Doggy Chow. I used to love Doggy Chow."
"I used to love Doggy Chow, too!"

Perhaps it was all just a joke. Maybe Verhoeven and Eszterhas pitched the story on a whim, thinking the near-bankrupt studio would never in a million years approve such a thing. They likely went in giggling like school girls at the prospect, only to leave the meeting horrified that they actually now had to make the thing. "Good lord," they must have thought. "Who will we ever get to play the lead in this piece of crap?"

Enter Elizabeth Berkley.

I know most people my age know her from "Saved by the Bell," but not yours truly. I've never seen one episode of that show, so I only know of her because of this movie. Now, if you were an actress, would you want this to be your signature role? Didn't think so.

And yet, she's the other half of the equation in the Showgirls theorem of awful movie making. The combination of this screenplay and her acting are the very Lennon and McCartney of terribleness. It's like a binary star system incapable of sustaining life. I'm almost in awe of what I was witnessing. I can't believe a crappy combo like this will resurface for at least 80 years. This is a once-in-a-lifetime event. One doesn't have to be a genius to see how utterly bad her acting is in this. She has that "deer in the highlights" look throughout the movie, even as she [BEEPS] people or tells them to [BEEP] off.

It's sad that she appears to be the only person in the movie not in on the joke. Everything is in orbit around her in this film, yet not because of gravity or star power. It's simply because she sucks. Every other performance is tongue-in-cheek but hers. Even Kyle MacLaughlan doesn't take it too seriously, but then again he was in "Twin Peaks" already. He was used to the bizarre nature (Heh heh heh, I said "twin peaks"). Sadly, Berkley's acting is a standout in this cornucopia of crap. Perhaps a rocket scientist can explain to me why she thought this was the appropriate vehicle to launch a movie career after "Saved by the Bell." It was a foolish career move, and it didn't help that she's terrible.

So there. Screenplay + Berkley - Dignity = turd. Q.E.D.

Good lord, I've never seen so many boobies look so unsexy. There is nothing arousing at all about he film. The gratuitous nudity is boring,and the lone sex scene is just [BEEP]ing ridiculous. Literally. The only thing I gained from this movie in 1995 was a mild obsession with Gina Gershon in the 1990s. More because of Bound than this, I mean. What? You haven't seen Bound? Do yourself a favor and watch that movie instead of this one. Trust me. It's hawwwt.

I'll be honest, though. It was campy fun to watch this time. The crowd made all the difference. Everyone laughed at the sheer stupidity of it all. Hell, what more can you do?

No one in the theater waited for the credits to end before going back to the bar for refills. Next up was Valley of the Dolls, a film I had never seen before. In the lobby there was a special treat for those viewing part two of the feature. Was it a clever tie-in with the second film? Or simply a reward for surviving through the first one? Ushers were handing out pill bottles (with candy inside) to everyone with custom prescription labels on them.

Knowing the film centered on drug use, I thought these little guys were a nice touch. Actually, I thought it was très awesome. I popped a couple in my mouth. Yep, they were Good & Plenty candies. It cleansed the palette, so to speak.

Before the second part of the trashy twin bill, there was another cartoon. Yay! More Daffy Duck in "Cracked Quack."

Valley of the Dolls is bad in an entirely different way from Showgirls. This is a melodrama of the highest order, and if it's not your thing you will struggle to stay interested (like me). The first 40 minutes or so were excruciatingly boring. A few times I felt sedated myself, and wondered if that was in fact Good & Plenty licorice I consumed earlier.

The story is about three women who meet during the production of a play, then rise to fame in different ways. There's Anne Welles (Barbara Perkins), an agency's assistant who later stumbles into modeling. Oh, of course, right? Another is Jennifer North (Sharon Tate), a blonde actress who gets cast because of her body instead of her body of work. And then there's Neely O'Hara (Patty Duke) a plucky singer/actress who rises to become a star and a self-destructive ass.

This is garbage of the "trashy summer novel" variety. You know, those paperbacks you see in the checkout lane at Wal-Mart or at an airport next to the $8 bottled water. Books our moms may well have read. Do I even have to mention that this was based on a best seller? Jackie Collins and Danielle Steel wrote bestsellers also, but that doesn't speak for the quality of such work.

Valley of the Dolls is like a movie produced by the head executive at the E! television network. It's very much like watching one of those "True Hollywood Stories," only it's more dull. The first hour or so of this movie is sooooo boring, I actually felt my head fall forward from drowsiness. The knee-jerk reaction to my head nod woke me up (Inception was right, folks), yet I found my reward was only to keep watching this elongated soap opera. It was all worth it for the setup of the second half, where the campiness kicks into a higher orbit and... everything. becomes. so. damn. dramatic!

The dominoes fall fast and hard in the second half, interlaced with people barking spiteful and bitchy remarks to one another. Consider these:

"They drummed you out of Hollywood, so you come crawling back to Broadway. But Broadway doesn't go for booze and dope. Now get out of my way, I've got a man waiting for me. "

"That little whore makes me feel nine feet tall!"

"I don't need it - I don't need ANYBODY. I got talent, Edward. BIG talent. They love me."

All the catty acting is delivered with the subtlety of a Mexican soap opera. Perkins is the most restrained out of the trio, but she has the most normal character arc. Sharon Tate's character didn't get to do much but feel sorry for herself, but I kept thinking of Tate's horrific real life fate and felt sorry for her as a person. She was quite beautiful, after all. I wonder what she might have done with higher-quality material as her career would've continued. But there is no question who the "star" of Valley was. The premium scene-chomper in this picture was Patty Duke.

As Neely, Duke starts as being bubbly and cute, but by the end you want her to overdose on her precious little pills (referred to in the movie as "dolls," hence the title). Ok, I realize that just sounds cruel but her character is really that hateful, and Duke is so damn whiny and screechy you just wish for anything to shut her up. Watching this, I couldn't believe the woman has an Oscar. There really should be a law where the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences can take back an Oscar if such terrible performances taint the award's legacy. If so, I recommend Patty Duke give up the gold for starters (but I'm also looking at you, Cuba Gooding Jr.).

Everyone's lives seem to become undone by the "dolls," and the film thankfully provides bleak endings for the self-absorbed characters. I'm not one to drink of "haterade," but I'm not one to obsess over celebrity dirty laundry, be they real or fictional. I just wanted them to pay for being a part of such a crap film.

There was one shining experience about watching the movie, however. As the movie progressed, it turned into a regular Mystery Science Theater kind of affair. It was like playing a drinking game in a huge auditorium with complete strangers. Whenever a character reached for drugs, the audience started shaking their bottles of pills that were provided (like maracas). It became a chorus of rattling, and the snakes in the audience continued hissing the deplorable characters and spouting venomous laughter at their misfortunes. The enthusiasm was contagious, and made for a good time with bad cinema.

The movie finally ended (have mercy on us, amen), with such a heavy-handed and clumsy moral that one had to be stoned to miss it. The lesson, you ask? One I learned from "South Park" over a decade ago: "Drugs are bad, m'kay?" I know, it should be a no-brainer. But I can think of at least one idiot who would have benefited from watching Valley of the Dolls at a tender age... Ahem. Here's a hint. Look to the left of these words. Ha ha ha, now send her ass to prison already. Then force Ms. Lohan to remake this movie and play all the roles. She should be used to that split screen technology, it was used in The Parent Trap. You know, that movie she made when she was a plucky youngster. Before we wanted her to just go away.

Well, I survived not one, but two affronts to my cinematic tastes. Getting out of the theatre that night was like being released from jail. Time to go home and have a stiff drink. Don't get me wrong, the double feature was entertaining, but not for the films themselves. It was fun because of the camaraderie of going to the movies. Only true film lovers would've braved such a deliberately masochistic time and still come out smiling. What can we say? We love movies. All of them. For better or for worse, til death do us part.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Films # 42 & 43: Bob Fosse Double Feature (Jul 16th)

All That Jazz
1979, 123 min.
Directed by Bob Fosse

1974, 112 min.
Directed by Bob Fosse

I looked at my watch as we exited our vehicle and started to make our way to the theatre. Hustle, hustle, hustle. It had been a monkey wrench of a day, with many speed bumps holding up the progress of my Friday. Don't you hate days where you feel rushed? Where it feels a hand is pushing on the small of your back and propelling you forward; not quite of your own volition? That was my day's motif, but finally (after rushing through dinner. Ugh. Isn't that the worst?) I was ready to relax and see the double feature at The Paramount. Tonight was a Bob Fosse twin bill, and my girlfriend was pretty excited. Me? I was eager, but less energetic. A few of my friends over the years have had dance backgrounds, so Fosse was their Stanley Kubrick of theater dance and direction. Since I possess two left feet but an appreciation of theater arts, I was curious to see what the big deal was about.

The time was 6:54 p.m. "Just enough time to get there before the movie starts," I thought to myself as I walked briskly down Congress from 10th Street. My only regret was that we weren't going to see What's Tappening?, a trio of ladies who were to perform in front of the theatre from 6:30 p.m. until the movie's start time at 7 p.m. Curse you, crappy Friday. Glancing at my wrist again, our pace quickened. We got in the door and found our way upstairs just as the first movie began.

I'll start with this. I know All That Jazz is highly regarded by many people, but I found it to be more "clever" rather than "genius." Despite winning the Cannes Film Festival's Palme d'Or, it's not exactly the caliber of Fellini. Fosse co-wrote and directed the film, which is a thinly veiled auto-biographical tale. It is the tale of workaholic Joe Gideon, a director and choreographer who is putting together a Broadway production while simultaneously doing post-production work on a film he directed. The story of the descent of a man who works hard and plays harder, Jazz is a work of staggering ego, and would have been a fine love letter to Bob Fosse's career if it wasn't, you know... made by Fosse himself.

Not that the film itself is bad. The single best thing is the performance of Roy Scheider, who is excellent as Gideon (a.k.a. "Fake Fosse"). Yes, Jaws's Chief Brody is completely believable as the psuedo-Fosse. As a character, he's despicable; but Scheider makes him likable. In fact, I think this performance saves the movie from being even more over-wrought. Fosse wasn't keen on portraying this character as a saint, leaving the hedonistic tendencies on full display.

The list of Gideon's faults are legion. A womanizer, a chain-smoker, a hard drinker, a bad father, and a drug abuser, he compounds these problems with the stress of his endless work. Ironically, these vices likely arose from a need to escape the strain of his labors, but each helped to weigh him down further. Old habits may die hard, but hard habits can kill. His daily routine is frequently shown with a morning of Alka-Seltzer, Dexedrine, and Visine. Punctuated with a daily affirmation in the mirror, he starts each day with the phrase "It's show time, folks." Indeed.

For Gideon, his entire life is a production. A show unto itself. The manic energy of his lifestyle manifests itself in the vibrancy of his stage choreography and the bullheadedness of editing his film project (obviously a reference to Lenny, the film Fosse directed in 1974 about the acerbic comedian). His imagination and memory are shown in fantasy sequences that are intercut throughout the film. There, he seems to be sharing his life experiences with the angel of death, played by Jessica Lange. The audience sees it coming, but when Joe has a heart attack it seems to catch everyone by surprise. Everyone seems to care about his well-being except for Gideon himself. No matter what befalls him, the show must go on.

Despite these little moments of inspiration, the emotion is heavy-handed and many scenes (particularly in the third act) are woefully over done. Oddly, I found Jazz to fail on a technical level. First, the cinematography is very dated. The use of blue filter made many scenes look like a made-for-Cinemax movie. More sinful is the treatment of the dances in this film. After an electric opening sequence of dance auditions, it seems the choreography was then usurped by the film's editing. The choppiness of the movie's later dance sequences may have foreshadowed the smash cut editing style of the '80s (Fame, Flashdance, and videos by Michael Jackson and Paula Abdul come to mind), but I felt the film suffered, often removing me from the majesty of the choreography. It also takes away from the dancers themselves, and forces you to see the steps as Fosse wants you to see them. More than anything, I wish he would've let these sequences breathe. In a film like this, I think I was spoon-fed enough already without the editing of the dance numbers.

These musical numbers are original and entertaining, for the most part. Most are spectacle that come close to setting the screen on fire, albeit a bonfire of the vanity. It is in the third act where things careen out of control. The last 15 minutes or so feel like 50, and the dance numbers are the longest ending scenes I've witnessed since Return of the King. Those with his ex-wife, his lover, and his daughter are all very good, but the last number... when Gideon takes the stage with Ben Vereen (?!?) has to be the longest and most bizarre cover of "Bye Bye Love" ever recorded. Don't take my word for it. Look for yourself...

That's ten minutes you're not getting back.

It's an unnerving sequence, but for the wrong reasons. Early in the film, a voice over says, "To be on the wire is life. The rest is waiting." Sorry, Bob. I don't buy it. As said so eloquently in the film, "don't bullshit a bullshitter." Something dark lies behind the dances, the songs, the production of this very film itself. The fact that it is semi-autobiographical makes it all the more disturbing. A peek into a mind that may not have embraced the accolades he earned over his career, perhaps? Why else make the lead character so inaccessible? Why else repeatedly drum into the audience the five stages of grief? Would Kubrick have been so blatantly self-referential?

All that Jazz is a musical that despises show business. The message is noteworthy, but the execution left me feeling empty. It doesn't balance very well on its own high wire, so I was waiting for the film to stop being so masturbatory. The moments of brilliance are outnumbered by its self-indulgence, leaving a bitter aftertaste. Ultimately, it was too self-gratifying for me to love it. As a viewer, I felt unnecessary. The movie loves itself, whether an audience is there or not. Jazz gives you lots to ponder, but what made me caustic was its lack of heart.

A little bewildered as the movie ended, I ventured outside to get some fresh air. Many of the patrons were also outside, talking about the film. Reaction appeared to be polarized, which if nothing else leads to nice healthy discussion. After a few minutes, we went back inside. Then, popcorn and drinks in hand, we waited to see what the second film would bring.

Lenny is damn close to being a great film. It is very good. But again, the last 15 minutes or so drag it down like a diver wearing heavy chains in the ocean. In the context of stand-up comedy, Lenny Bruce was the original instigator. He broke down barriers and politicized routines that had long languished in bad one-liners and bad impersonations, paving the way for future groundbreakers like Richard Pryor, George Carlin and Bill Hicks. What could have been a legendary anti-establishment film on par with the best of Milos Forman instead made me want to swim with the fishes.

True to his theater background, Fosse opens Lenny with a stage number, but this time one from a strip club. He sure does love a spotlight, but here the black and white photography and smoky haze make the scene one of burlesque beauty, despite its sleazy location. And truth be told, that's the only real Fosse trademark on this film. It's not a musical. It doesn't have a single dance number. But Lenny is a show business film, and illustrates how inner demons devoured a seminal talent.

Technically, the film is amazing. The cinematography by Bruce Surtees is beautiful, shadowy and often elegant. Fosse's direction is very steady and confident, perfectly cutting between Bruce's story as told by his agent, his mother, and his ex-wife in a series of recreated interviews.

Dustin Hoffman is simply amazing in this. There's a real sense of ferocity and insecurity in his portrayal of Bruce. You can see the decay of his soul as the film cuts back and forth along his timeline. In his youth, we see the youth and playfulness, and in his later days we see the shell of what he once was. Like a tired boxer swinging blindly, Lenny's later years were full of tired, misdirected rage. And Hoffman nails it. If he had gained 70 pounds for this role, we'd talk of this performance the way we do De Niro's in Raging Bull.

The surprise in this film, however, belongs to Valerie Perrine as Honey. The subject of the opening burlesque number, she is a stripper who crosses paths with Lenny and eventually becomes his wife. We see their relationship as it blossoms, ripens, and then decays. Honey was both elixir and poison to her husband, but there is no mistaking that she accelerates his descent into hell. In many ways, Honey was an early Courtney Love, and yet not once does the audience hate her. We see enough of their life together to recognize the promise of their love, and look upon her choices with sorrow rather than hate. It's a restrained and sad performance. A role that makes you see Perrine as more than "Ms. Teschmacher" from the Superman movies and as a genuinely underappreciated actress.

As I said earlier, this is clearly the film referenced in All That Jazz that the director was toiling over. If Fosse worked as diligently on this as Gideon did on the fictional version, then clearly the hard work paid off. The movie moves beautifully, and brings up many valid points as Lenny fights the establishment. How can decency be a black and white issue? What social responsibility do entertainers have? Can they enlighten instead of entertain? Can't they do both?

Lenny Bruce's battles began to clear the landscape of puritanical and tyrannical values. He held up a mirror to the warped aspects of our society that is usually kept in the dark with our skeletons. Does he swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth? You betcha. Some might take issue with the emphasize the swearing, yet others more on the truth.

A flawed man combating a flawed system; it's incredible to think what we take for granted today because of him. Would there have been a South Park or a Chappelle Show without Lenny Bruce? Probably not. Hell, without him we'd be missing so many dangerous comics that brazenly speak "the truth." All we'd have is the likes of Jeff Dunham. Now that would be hell.

The tragedy of Lenny's self destruction is gut-wrenching, but Fosse handles the story with such artistry. His decision to use a single-take master shot of Lenny's last performance is brilliant, powerful, and heartbreaking. It shows rock-bottom; a man out of control. Similarly, the film begins to spiral off the tracks during the third act, venturing close to becoming repetitive. In addition, it's very hard to watch the characters we've grown fond of sink to such depths. The movie begins to parallel Lenny himself, progressing from genius to disarray to ending with a whimper. As the lights rose after the credits, the entire audience rose in shocked silence.

So what have I learned? I walked away from The Paramount with the knowledge that Bob Fosse was a talented director who had a knack for making movies that are consistently 15 minutes too long. I have yet to see Cabaret, so perhaps that will help shape my final opinion of him as a film director. His cinema may be passionate and well choreographed, but from what I saw tonight they are also self-indulgent and manipulative. Nevertheless, I appreciate that he doesn't shy away from the darkness of the entertainment industry. No one will ever mistake his musicals with those of Rodgers & Hammerstein. He gave us subjects to deliberate as well as be entertained by.

Under the marquee of the theater, I checked my watch again. 11:40 p.m. Almost midnight, and the night is still young. There's still time to enjoy the evening out on the town or back at home. The choice is ours. As we venture back to the car, I'm grateful that there is no more hustling to be done for now. That tranquility itself can make life more enjoyable. I'm grateful that I can enjoy evenings like this with the person I love. I exhale and smile to myself as I walk back down Congress. No, sir. I don't need the drama, the agony, the high wire act, or all that jazz.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Films # 40 & 41: Dark Side of Hollywood (Jul 14)

In A Lonely Place
1950, 91 min.
Directed by Nicholas Ray

Sunset Boulevard
1950, 110 min.
Directed by Billy Wilder

Full writeup of the films is a work in progress...
Check back soon for the complete blog entry!

Monday, July 12, 2010

Films # 38 & 39: Laurence Olivier Double Feature (Jul 11th)

Wuthering Heights
1939, 104 min.
Directed by William Wyler

1940, 130 min.
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Revitalized after Auntie Mame, I was eager to watch more. A triple feature? Heck, I felt I could watch movies well into the night now. Of course, neither of the two following films were going to be remotely as light as Mame. This later double feature consisted of two "haunted romance" movies featuring Laurence Olivier. Haunted romance, huh? Color me curious. I was familiar with both, and had seen most of them also. When I had originally seen Wuthering Heights during my high school days, it was simply "a book I had to read," so my enthusiasm was really lacking. I retained very little of the experience. As for Rebecca, I had seen probably during my early junior high years, but don't recall if I had ever completed it. Oh well, today's the day to finally see both!

Wuthering Heights is a period piece, a Gothic romance that is dark, moody and alluring. Based on the classic novel by Emily Bronte, it is a story about the unrequited love between a wishy-washy gal and a guy with a huge chip on his shoulder. These types of characters do not make for a happy kind of love. With all apologies to Lady Gaga, this is a bad romance...

Full writeup of the films is a work in progress...
Check back soon for the complete blog entry!

Film # 37: Auntie Mame (Jul 11th)

Auntie Mame

1958, 143 min.
Directed by Morton DaCosta

Full writeup of the films is a work in progress...
Check back soon for the complete blog entry!

Friday, July 9, 2010

Films # 35 & 36: Unions! Double Feature (Jul 8th)

Norma Rae
1979, 110 min.
Directed by Martin Ritt

1983, min.
Directed by Mike Nichols

Rain! It came down in sheets on Thursday, and wrecked havoc on my plans that day. A necessary trip to San Marcos turned into a very difficult task because the sky decided I should drive through nature's own Schlitterbahn. Needless to say, visibility was poor and it did not make for a fun day. By the time the evening came around, I was ready for some movies. A full head of steam had risen up because of San Marcos' careless and dangerous motorists, daredevil jaywalkers, and the general miserable experience that results from a trip to the Outlets. I saw that tonight's theme was a "Damn The Man" brand of anti-establishment, and I relished the opportunity to see people fight the power.

It was a wet trek from my parked car to The Paramount, but I leisurely strolled with my umbrella over my head. There was something cathartic about walking in the rain. It washed away the angst and frustration of a long day. Dare I say it was joyous? Well, it certainly wasn't sad, as that Del Shannon song would suggest...

Full writeup of the films is a work in progress...
Check back soon for the complete blog entry!

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Films # 33 & 34: Douglas Sirk Double Feature (Jul 6)

All That Heaven Allows
1955, 89 min.
Directed by Douglas Sirk

Imitation of Life
1959, 124 min.
Directed by Douglas Sirk

As a self-proclaimed movie buff, I am ashamed to admit that I had not seen a film by Douglas Sirk. Worse, I couldn't really explain why. I know they have a distinct visual style, but I think perhaps I had been put off by the inherent melodrama I came to expect from his movies. They all appeared (to me) to be heightened soap operas, and frankly it wasn't selling me on the concept. Nevertheless, I knew it was a gap in cinematic appreciation I could postpone filling no longer. Luckily for me, the evening's screenings was a twin bill of Sirkian delights. I guess if I had to see them, this is the way to do it...

Full writeup of the films is a work in progress...
Check back soon for the complete blog entry!

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Films # 31 & 32: 2010 & Alien (Jul 3rd)

1984, min.
Directed by Peter Hyams

Alien: The Director's Cut
1979, min.
Directed by Ridley Scott

Saturday movies! Holiday weekend! Air conditioning! Sci-Fi! Tonight was like heaven to a old movie dork like myself...

Full writeup of the films is a work in progress...
Check back soon for the complete blog entry!

Friday, July 2, 2010

Films # 29 & 30: Tod Browning Double Feature (Jul 1)

The Devil-Doll
1936, 78 min.
Directed by Tod Browning

1932, 64 min.
Directed by Tod Browning

I wasn't quite sure what tonight's films would be like. One was a notorious title, the other was a great big question mark. Full disclosure, I had never heard of The Devil Doll before. Any clue was based solely on the title, and that didn't give me much to work with. For some, perhaps the title evoked images of Chucky from those Child's Play movies, but not I. All I knew is that the term "devil doll" reminded me of that little demonic thing from "Trilogy of Terror," an old TV movie that for some reason scares the hell out of me. I actually don't think I ever saw that one, but perhaps I did once and it's now a repressed memory (shrug). As for the Tod Browning movie, well... that's a title I am quite familiar with but didn't ever think I would be ready to actually sit down and watch. Some of my friends who have seen Freaks have warned me that it's not an easy movie to take. But I figured, what the hell? I used to have cable. I saw an episode of Jerry Springer once. And Maury. And even Geraldo (no relation). What could be more freakish than those shows..?

Full writeup of the films is a work in progress...
Check back soon for the complete blog entry!

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Postcards! (A Paramount Vacation: 2010)

I've been asked by several people how I have the time to see all these films during the Summer Film Series at The Paramount this year. The answer to that is simple: I make the time, and it's totally worth it.

Summertime is for getting out, having fun, and making new adventures. I am all for that, and do each whenever I get a chance. But as far back as I can remember, movie going has always been a big part of my hot mid-year months. So I want to share in this joy, particularly with this blog. I want to remind people of the fun that can be had by going to the movies. Each film in the Summer Series is an adventure itself, often taking me to new lands and seeing new characters. Heck, occasionally I learn something also.

So I present to you the postcards I would've sent to my friends at The Paramount as I travel this land of ours. These are the places you can go when you let the movies take you there. A place I call... Cinemerica.

(The postcards will take you to my original write-ups if you click on them)

This, my friends, is how I've spent my summer vacation (thus far):

So as I continue to make these trips with every film I see, I hope you'll join me. Look for me at The Paramount. I'm the guy usually sitting on the balcony level with a black messenger bag. Feel free to come up and introduce yourself. I won't bite. Tell me the places movies have taken you. I'd love to hear them.

Wish you were here!