Friday, December 03, 2010

Penny Thoughts: Nov. 26-Dec. 2

A Christmas Story (1983) ****
Director: Bob Clark
Writers: Jean Shepherd (also novel), Leigh Brown, Bob Clark
Starring: Peter Billingsly, Melinda Dillon, Darren McGavin, Ian Petrella, Scott Schwartz, R.D. Robb, Tedde Moore, Yano Anaya, Zack Ward

We watch “A Christmas Story” just about every holiday season, not an uncommon tradition. What is uncommon is how this movie grows with each and every viewing. Certainly everyone sees so much of his or her own Christmas childhood and school day memories depicted here, but it’s the nuclear family content that really gets me.

First of all, Ralphie and Randy are so alike my boys Jack and Jude it’s absolutely frightening. But lately, it is the mother and father relationship that has been warming my heart so much in this film. Melinda Dillon and Darren McGavin portray the ultimate couple in this film. The way they conflict with each other, the way the ignore certain things the other does, the way they just seem to bond and cohere without effort despite their differences. It’s the perfect marriage. And, they are wonderful parents, a team that all parents should strive to be.

The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) **
Director: George Stevens, David Lean (uncredited), Jean Negulesco (uncredited)
Writers: James Lee Barrett, George Stevens, Henry Denker (source writings), Fulton Oursler (book), Carl Sandburg (uncredited)
Starring: Max Von Sydow, Michael Anderson Jr., Victor Buono, Joanna Dunham, José Ferrer, Van Helfin, Charlton Heston, Martin Landau, Angela Lansbury, David McCallum, Roddy McDowall, Dorothy McGuire, Sal Mineo, Donald Pleasence, Sidney Poitier, Claude Raines, Gary Raymond, Telly Savalas, Burt Brinkerhoff, Robert Blake, John Considine, Jamie Farr, Tom Reese, Michael Tolan

With a cast of hundreds of Hollywood stars (many more than mentioned in my credits including the likes of John Wayne, Shelley Winters, and Pat Boone in walk on roles), it may be “The Greatest Story Ever Told”; but unfortunately, it’s not told greatly. Frankly, it’s a bit dull. At three hours and fifteen minutes, dull is deadly. It seems the screenwriters (another cast of hundreds) put a lot of effort to get all the famous red type lines from the Bible in there, and there are some great teachings to be found here, with visualized lessons that help send them home. But the cinema is not just a classroom.

The laconic pace set by Von Sydow’s first Hollywood role as Jesus, as it was insisted by those around him he stay in character most of the time, has an unfortunate effect on the entire production. Sydow’s performance is wonderful, but the reverence of his character should’ve been counter balanced more by the scenes not featuring Jesus. It seems, however, everyone was directed to perform with the same reverence for the word of God. With everyone as understanding as Jesus, it’s hard to see just what He was here to teach man. Everyone is so willing to learn in this take. Still, this movie gave us the greatness of Sweden’s Sydow, and Telly Savalas’s bald head. Savalas shaved his head to play Pontius Pilate and kept it that way for the remainder of his career.

Airplane! (1980) ****
Directors/Writers: Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, Jerry Zucker
Starring: Robert Hayes, Julie Haggerty, Leslie Nielsen, Lloyd Bridges, Peter Graves, Robert Stack, Kareem Abdul-Jabaar, Stephen Stucker, Lorna Patterson, Otto

We lost a great film comedian this week with the passing of Leslie Nielsen. He was a dramatic actor until his casting in this comedy classic. His deadpan style as Dr. Rumack redefined his career into that of a funny man, while the movie itself ushered in a new era of comedy for Hollywood.

With very little comedy being produced at the end of the 70s, the resounding success of this spoof of 70s disaster flicks helped to make the 80s a decade populated with comedies. It also invigorated the spoof genre, with Abrahams and the Zucker brothers proving that your name didn’t have to be Woody Allen or Mel Brooks to pull one off. Soon the spoof movie became a foregone conclusion to any overdone Hollywood trend, a tradition that continues to this day in movies like the new to DVD “Vampires Suck”.

Rarely has the movie spoof been done so well as it is with “Airplane!”. It’s jokes in repetition, oversimplification of understanding, use of bygone stars in cameo roles (Ethel Merman), lampooning of Hollywood standards, and flat out over exaggeration of stereotypes became staples of the genre. But, it’s all the little details in the comedy of “Airplane!” that allows it to become the standard bearer of the spoof genre. The background airport announcement arguments, the smoking plane ticket, the way the filmmakers never forget about the guy in the taxi whose fare is building even though his driver has completely forgotten about him, these are the elements that keep you laughing from opening to closing credits.

You Don’t Know Jack (2010) ***½
Director: Barry Levinson
Writer: Adam Mazer
Starring: Al Pacino, Brenda Vaccano, John Goodman, Susan Sarandon, Danny Huston, James Urbaniak

I remember the witnessing the retirement career of Dr. Jack Kevorkian from the distance at which the media put us. I very distinctly remember that I did not oppose his philosophy. I didn’t oppose the idea of legalized euthanasia. At that time, and even today, it makes sense to me. Yet somehow, as Kevorkian battled the legal system that prevented such sensible measures, the press still succeeded in vilifying the man in my mind. I realize that not much about the man himself was ever reported, and very little about what he was really trying to do was reported either. What dominated the headlines of the time were the views of those who opposed him, and even more so their personal views of Kevorkian himself, elements that are really beside the issue of euthanasia.

HBO’s feature movie, starring Al Pacino as Kevorkian, cuts through the media play of the time to get at the man himself and the belief he had in a better way to care for the “terminally ill”, for lack of a better term.  The movie doesn’t glorify Kevorkian as some sort of misunderstood man of good. Pacino was chosen to portray a flawed individual, whose 8-year incarceration for murder was his own fault and deserved considering his own lack of understanding of justice in the American legal system. But, it also equally portrays the reason behind his medical philosophy and points out just why, even without the help of the press in presenting a fair image of the man, so many people understood what he was trying to change and that he was right about that. He may have been dubbed “Dr. Death” by the media, but I think most of us realize he is really Dr. Mercy.

Please Give (2010) ***
Director/Writer: Nicole Holofcner
Starring: Catherine Keener, Rebecca Hall, Amanda Peet, Oliver Platt, Sarah Steele, Ann Morgan Guilbert, Lois Smith, Thomas Ian Nicholas

Nicole Holofcner’s latest study in female behavior “Please Give” gives actress Catherine Keener yet another chance to show us a side not often explored in film. This is a movie is about compassion. Keener’s character suffers from an overabundance of it, which is a nice change for Keener, who all too often plays the bitch of the bunch. As a parent she tries to be even handed with it. As a neighbor, the old woman whose apartment Keener and her husband have purchased from her in advance of her death shows an unerring lack of compassion. The neighbor’s two granddaughters that care for her are split in their compassion. Rebecca Hall is the good daughter; Amanda Peet is the one who’s inherited the grandmother’s negative outlook. But, it is with those less fortunate that Keener’s character has trouble finding balance. She gives homeless people on the street money every time she passes them. She offers her dinner leftovers to a man she mistakes as homeless but is actually just waiting for a table at a restaurant. She volunteers at a home for people in need of special care, but her pity for them makes them depressed.

“Please Give” is not the best of Holofcner’s films, nor is it her worst. “Lovely & Amazing” is perhaps her best, but this one is very good. She explores subjects that just aren’t commonly seen in popular entertainment. She makes interesting, compelling, and entertaining stories about the women in her films. That makes her work a rare commodity in Hollywood, something worth searching out.

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