Saturday, July 22, 2006

My Bodyguard

Directed by Tony Bill
Written by Alan Ormsby
Starring Chris Makepeace, Matt Dillon, Adam Baldwin, Martin Mull, Ruth Gordon, John Houseman.
IMDB  Entry

The issues of school bullying are now a big social issue.  But, of course, the problem has been around for ages.  My Bodyguard starts out with a unique solution, and ends up being one excellent film.

Chris Makepeace is Clifford Peache, who has just moved to Chicago, where his father managed a hotel. With a last name like that, you know he's going to be a target, and he soon is targeted by the confident and cruel Moody (played by Matt Dillon).  In desperation, he goes to Ricky Linderman, a dark and moody giant of a boy who is reputed to have murdered his own brother.  Peache offers to pay Linderman to be his bodyguard and protect him from Moody.

Linderman is played by Adam Baldwin in his first film role.  You used to have to say that he wasn't one of the Long Island Baldwin brothers; but Adam now has now gotten a bit of cult fame in the role of Jayne in Firefly and Serenity.  I hadn't made the connection until Serenity came out and went back to look at Baldwin's earlier roles.  When I saw My Bodyguard on the list of his credits, it was a classic "That was him!" moment.

Adam Baldwin, Matt Dillion, Chris MakepeaceAnd Baldwin is great as Linderman, portraying an air of menace that clearly hides a deeper pain.  He was only 18 at the time, but his acting captures the character perfectly.

But even better than Baldwin is Matt Dillon as Moody. Moody is loud, likeable, cruel, and totally sure of himself.  Even his walk is that of someone who knows he's in charge.  He takes over the screen every moment he's shown.  I've been a fan of Dillon ever since this film, and was gratified to see his Oscar nomination in Crash

The film is uneven.  There's a romance between Ruth Gordon and John Houseman that pretty much just pads out the screen time.  But the scenes with Baldwin and Dillon are all just perfect.  It really captures the issues of being a victim in the dog-eat-dog world of school.

Director Tony Bill has stuck most to TV and appearing as an actor since this.  I'd love to see him do something else, since his touch with actors is so great.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Movie Movie

Movie Movie(1978)
Directed by Stanley Donen
Written by Larry Gelbart, Sheldon Keller
Starring George C. Scott, Red Buttons, Barry Bostwick, Trish Van Devere, Eli Wallach, Harry Hamelin, Ann Reinking, and Art Carney
IMDB Entry

Stanley Donen should be high on the list of overlooked directors.  For instance, he directed a film that now, 50 years later, still makes critics top ten lists (and my #1 favorite) Singin' in the Rain.  True, Gene Kelly co-directed, but it's unusual that the director of such a well-known film is so unknown himself.  Other hits of his were On the Town (also with Kelly), Royal Wedding (Fred Astaire dancing on the ceiling), Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, The Pajama Game, and the original Bedazzled.  He did two first-class Hitchcockian thrillers, Charade and Arabesque, and the two-person drama Two for the Road.  Of course, being a director of musicals probably is a drawback, since musicals are out of favor, but it's a shame that his reputation seems to be in eclipse.

Movie Movie was one of his later films. It is clearly a labor of love, a pastiche of 30s films.  What is a pastiche?  Well, a parody pokes fun at a film or genre; a pastiche shows loving admiration for it.  Written by Larry Gelbert, best known as the writer/creator of the TV version of M*A*S*H, Movie Movie is exactly what the title says it is:  two movies in one, the equivalent of a double feature (complete with coming attractions) in the 1930s. 

The first film, "Dynamite Hands," is a pastiche of the old boxing dramas of the 30s -- in black and white (at least, originally; I've heard some versions have it in color).  Harry Hamlin plays a young boxer who really would rather be a lawyer; George C. Scott is his crusty old trainer, Gloves Malloy.  The entire story is a loving cliché (the boxer was asked to throw a bout, of course, since that scene was in every boxing film of the time) and is filled with funny lines and other silliness.

The second film, "Baxter's Beauties," is a full-color old-fashioned 30s musical. Barry Bostwick -- channeling James Stewart with a touch of Dick Powell-- is the writer/star of the latest do-or-die production by crusty old producer Spats Baxter (Scott again).  Bostwick is perfect.  And the plot is straight out of 42nd Street.  Bostwick is a heck of a talent, and would have probably been a big star if musicals had still been in fashion.

Everyone here has a lot of fun.  Many were reliving the films they saw as kids, and know that the best way to be funny is to play things straight.

The biggest problem is trying see it.  There isn't a DVD, and it hasn't been on tape in years.  You may have to haunt eBay to find it, but it'll be well worth the effort.

Sunday, July 9, 2006


Written and Directed
by Menno Meyjes
Starring John Cusak and Noah Taylor
IMDB Entry

There are some subjects that may be too controversial to film.  Max takes one of these on, and does it brilliantly.  But the subject matter -- understandably -- angers people.  It is a film where one of the characters is Adolph Hitler, and -- worse -- Hitler is not an out-and-out villain.

The movie is based on a wonderful conceit:  that Hitler, penniless in Vienna after World War I, actually had some talent as an artist.  And Jewish art dealer Max Rothman (you can see why I had to see the film) recognizes this and encourages it.

Max is played by John Cusak, who has made a career of edgy films and characters.  He is a World War I veteran, losing an arm in the conflict, and begins to make friends with Hitler (Noah Taylor).  It is, to say the least, an unusual relationship.  Max actually keeps Hitler grounded, ignoring his rants and acting as a voice of reason against his oncoming madness.  He sees Hitler's art, encourages him to do better.

Portraying Hitler -- in any other way than the epitome of evil -- is a difficult proposition.  Noah Taylor is excellent in the role.  His Hitler does have some good qualities and Max is able to keep his bad qualities in check -- in the beginning.  Max does become friends with Hitler (saying, "You're an awfully hard man to like, Hitler, but I'm gonna try.") because Max believes, ultimately, that everyone is worth of respect.  Hitler thrives (in a good way) under his tutelage. 

The story isn't meant to be history.  It sees Hitler's career as a metaphor:  politics as an art and way of expression much like painting.  Hitler's speeches are theater, and they allow him to break loose and express himself (unfortunately). 

Ultimately, the film asks "What if?" and says "If Only."  It's wishful thinking (and has a tragic ending), but it's a fascinating way of looking at one of history's greatest villains.

Thursday, July 6, 2006

The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T

The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T(1953)
Directed by Roy Roland
Written by Dr. Seuss & Allan Scott
Starring Hans Conreid, Tommy Rettig, Peter Lind Hayes, and Mary Healy
IMDB Entry

If there ever was a film ahead of its time, it's this one.  Not due to the story, but due to art direction, costume design, and wordplay.  It's a bit dated now, too, but four words would make it a hit today:

Live action Dr. Seuss.

And this isn't the adapted Dr. Seuss they've been cranking out lately:  Seuss wrote the story and screenplay, and the design was clearly his influence.  You can look at most scenes and see they were taking his drawings and bringing them to life.  It's filled with surrealist images and visual jokes, and, unlike the live action versions of How the Grinch Stole Christmas and The Cat in the Hat, this has enough story to fill out an entire film.

Tommy Rettig (the original owner of TV's Lassie), plays Bart Collins, a kid under the thumb of his fanatical piano teacher, Dr. Terwilliker.  Tired of being force to practice, he falls asleep and dreams he's trapped in Dr. T's school, forced to be one of 500 boys playing on Dr. T's enormous piano.

Terwilliker is played by the delightful Hans Conreid, a busy TV actor with a distinctive voice (Disney used him a lot, and he was the voice of Snidley Whiplash in Dudley Do-Right).  Conreid is a fine comic villain, megalomaniacal, vain, untrustworthy, and just plain fun to watch.

Bart discovers Terwilliker's plot and with the help of the plumber Mr. Zabladowski (Peter Lind Hayes) tries to foil it.

There's some amazing stuff here.  There a musical number in the dungeon that could be taken right out of anything Seuss illustrated -- the long, curved horns, the odd musical instruments.  It is truly a delight.

Peter Lind Hayes and his wife Mary Healy (who plays Bart's mother in the film) were a pretty active couple in early TV, headlining a couple of shows.  Hayes reminds me a bit like Robert Cummings -- charming, a little flustered -- and he definitely is enjoying his role as Zabladowski.  He has a way of throwing off funny lines as though they're normal dialog -- an impression of ease and confidence that makes him even funnier and more charming.

The movie was a massive flop when it first came out.  Dr. Seuss was not yet the institution he became, and I think the surreal Seuss imagery could have scared children and confused their parents.  It might be worthy of a remake — but keep Jim Carrey or Mike Meyer's far away.  But, if Tim Burton and Johnny Depp got together a la Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, it could be a wonder.

Wednesday, July 5, 2006

Jean de Florette/Manon of the Spring

image(Both 1986)
Directed by Claude Berri
Written by Claude Berri and Gerard Brach from a novel by Marcel Pagnol
Jean de Florette stars Gerard Depardieu, Yves Montand, Daniel Auteuil
Manon of the Spring stars Emmanuelle Béart, Yves Montand, Daniel Auteuil
Jean de Florette at the IMDB
Manon of the Spring at the IMDB

People misunderstand tragedy.  They think it involved something bad (like death) happening to the main characters at the end of the film.  But true tragedy, involves a character who is fatally flawed.  The death at the end becomes inevitable due to the character's own problems. 

Jean de Florette/Manon of the Spring (Manon des Sources) is tragedy on the grand scale.  It is really one movie, telling one story in two parts, and moves along to a tragic conclusion that makes you see the characters differently.

Cesar (Yves Montand) and his nephew Ugolin (Daniel Auteuil) are farmers in rural France.  Auteuil concocts a plan to raise carnations.  But carnations need a lot of water, and the nearest source is on the land adjoining theirs.  Before they can buy the land, it is sold to hunchbacked Jean de Florette (Gerard Depardieu*) along with his wife and young daughter, Manon.  So Cesar, who don't see how a hunchback can run a farm, dams up the spring, hoping to discourage Jean and buy the land cheap from him.  But Jean is not one to become discouraged by anything.

Depardieu, as usual, is a marvel; his Jean is a man who is willing to work as hard as possible to get the farm to work, taking on the Sisyphean  task of carrying the water he need to survive.

I can't really discuss Manon of the Spring without spoiling Jean de Florette.  It continues the story several years later, and leads to a conclusion that resonates across both films.  I'd suggest renting Jean the Florette and not even look at the box for Manon until after you've seen it.

(I will say that Emmanuelle Béart is wonderful at Manon, Jean's daughter.)

Not a cheery film, of course.  But if you're in a mood for tragedy at its best, well worth the time to watch.

*France's greatest actor of the 80s

Sunday, July 2, 2006

Little Voice

Little Voice(1998)
Directed by Mark Herman
Written by Mark Herman, from a play by Jim Cartwright.
Starring Jane Horrocks, Ewan McGregor, Michael Caine, Jim Broadbent, and Brenda Blethyn.
IMDB Entry

Like Brassed Off, Little Voice is about the redemptive power of music. But Jane Horrocks's LV has her own, much more personal, reasons for hers.

Horrocks is best known in the US for the role of "Bubbles" and "Katy Grin" in Absolutely Fabulous.  She was also great as the voice of Babs in Chicken Run.  But Little Voice shows a truly astounding talent.  If the movie musical were in full swing (instead of limping along), she would have been a major star.

Horrocks plays LV -- also know as Little Voice -- a young woman who has the talent to imitate -- no, become -- some of the great singers of the past:  Judy Garland, Marilyn Monroe, and others. (Horrocks actually does all her own singing -- this was originally a stage play.)  But LV is terminally shy and has no interest in performing on stage.

Enter Michael Caine as Ray Say, a sleezy agent down on his luck.  He hears LV and knows this his ticket back to the big time.  But LV doesn't want to perform.

The cast is stellar.  Jim Broadbent is there, and I'm beginning to think he has never appeared in a bad film.  Broadbent was (and still is) one of the busiest actors in films.  Wait a minute . . . Yes, much of what I said about Pete Postlethwaite also applies to Broadbent.  Take a look at his credits, which include The Crying Game, Widow's Peak, Bullets Over Broadway, Richard III, Topsy Turvy, Bridget Jones's Diary, Iris, Gangs of New York, Moulin Rouge, and The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Here, he plays Mr. Boo, who runs the night club where LV is going to make her debut.

Ewan McGregor once again shows the charm that had made him a major star as LV's love interest, and Brenda Blethyn plays her mother. The film is charming and a lot of fun, and Horrock's performance -- both as acting and as a singer -- make it well worth seeing.

Brassed Off

Brassed Off(1996)
Written and Directed by Mark Herman
Starring Pete Postlethwaite, Tara Fitzgerald, Ewan McGregor
IMDB Entry

Brassed Off bears some similarity to another British film that is far from obscure:  The Full Monty.  In both, people are struggling against unemployment and are looking for wash to cope.  The Full Monty(released a year later) has nudity as a selling point, which, of course, made it a big hit. Pete Postletwaite

Pete Postlethwaite was for a time, one of the busiest actors in films.  In the 90s, he seemed to be showing up everywhere.  You probably don't remember his name, but you certainly remember him in his most famous role, Mr. Kobyashi in The Usual Suspects.  He also appeared in Romeo + Juliet, The Last of the Mohicans, Amistad, Alien3,and Dragonheart, with memorable supporting parts.  He was certainly not leading man material, but always putting in a memorable performance.

Brassed Off is about music (so is Little Voice) and how important it can be in the life of a community.

The radiant Tara Fitzgerald (see Hear My Song) is an efficiency expert (and flugelhorn player) named Gloria, who comes to the mining town of Grimley to see if their colliery (a type of coal mine) can be made viable into the 21st centure.  Postlethwaite plays Danny, the leader of the Grimley Colliery Band, a group of brass-playing miners that has been a fixture in the town for over a century.

Gloria joins the band, the first woman ever, falls in love with Ewan McGregor (who did several very good small British films before being picked to be young Obi-Wan), and comes to take on the mission of trying to save the mine, the band, and the village.  Danny, whose life is the band, makes it his mission to compete in the national championships.

The main difference between this and The Full Monty is one of tone.  Monty is playful about its subject (like Andy Hardy, "Let's all get together and put on a show!" is the solution to the issues).  Brassed Off is . . . well, brassed off -- a British phrase meaning angry as hell.  The final scene is giving the finger to the greed that may have killed the band, not just making the best of things.

Saturday, July 1, 2006

Hear My Song

Directed by
Peter Chelsom
Written by Peter Chelsom, Adrian Dunbar
Starring Adrian Dunbar, Tara Fitzgerald, Ned Beatty, David McCallum
IMDB Entry

An irresistible English comedy-drama.  Adrian Dunbar plays Mickey O'Neill, a concert promoter down on his luck (with acts such as Franc Cinatra), who vows to bring the legendary Irish tenor Josef Locke (Beatty) back to England for a concert.  The catch is that Locke is a tax exile and will go to jail as soon as he set foot in the UK (and David McCallum is out to catch him after Locke made him look the fool).

First, O'Neill tries a scam, but, when that falls apart, he is off to Ireland to track down Locke and win the heart of Nancy Doyle, played by Tara Fitzgerald.  Fitzgerald is just a radiant actress.  I'm reminded of the description in a Theodore Sturgeon story I read, about how a woman in it looked ordinary until she smiled -- and they you would do anything to see her smile again.  Tara Fitzgerald's smile is like that.  She has had several impressive roles in a couple of films I plan to write about (Brassed Off and The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill and Came Down a Mountain), and is best known in the US for her role in Sirens, but she doesn't like Hollywood, and her work stayed on the UK side of the ocean.

Of course, finding Locke is only the beginning:  how can they give the concert without McCallum catching him?

Ned Beatty is billed as the star of the film, but it's really more a supporting role.  It's also one of his best.

The movie is a small triumph.  Chelsom never made much of a splash afterwards (though his Shall We Dance is badly underrated).  But in this film, he had created a real gem.