Thursday, May 24, 2018

Crazy Stupid Love

Written at the time of the film's release...which is why there is absolutely no mention of La La Land.

"Love Sucks (A Cautionary Tale)"
"It Takes a Village (To Make a Divorce)"

The sad thing about romantic-comedies, circa the 21st Century, is their dependence on formula: Boy Meets Girl/Boy Loses Girl/Complications Ensue/Boy Wises Up/Happy Ending; or Girl Meets Boy/Girl Loses Boy/Girl's Self-Worth Depends on Boy/Romantic Rival Meets Terrible Demise/Happy Ending (of a sorts). The last few I've seen of the genre have depended on hitting these plot-points, no matter what city, what occupation, or what sex the film centers around. Even Bridesmaids, for all its wit and wildness, still ended with the assumption that everything will be alright if "the girl" gets "a man." The "by-the numbers" dance steps that most rom-coms boogie to have the ability to regress me back to the five-year old boy I was who hated "kissing scenes;" the final rosy fade-out inevitably spoils the most romantic of comedies for me, failing to warm the cockles of my heart or make me feel all-gooey-fuzzy. Instead, I walk away cheerlessly cynical. Been there. Done that. A fish needs a bicycle.

So, it's a nice surprise, bordering on the revolutionary, when a romantic-comedy turns the formula on its ear enough that I enjoy it. Don't get me wrong, Crazy, Stupid, Love* has a "happy ending," but there is also a nice glowing lack of resolution. This is a movie that dares to say that Love is hard work, and, yeah, it sucks, but it could be worth it, because, like Life, it beats the alternative.
This is not where it starts, but where it starts to get interesting: Chick-magnet Jacob (Ryan Gosling,** he has a nicely subtle double-take for comedy) is in a bar in mid-closer with his latest fling when he takes the time to call over a half-stewed Cal Weaver (Steve Carell, showing exactly why he deserves to be out of TV and in films, something that doesn't happen nearly enough). The reason?  Cal's moaning is throwing off Jacob's technique. Cal's been doing that a lot lately (at the office he's told: "Amy heard you crying in the bathroom - we all thought it was cancer.") No, it's not cancer. After 25 years of marriage, Cal's wife (Julianne Mooreshe's great) has revealed she wants a divorce AND she's slept with another man (Kevin Bacon, he's also great). This offends Jacob's self-absorbed sensibilities: "Seriously, I don't know whether to help you or euthanize you."
So, Jacob helps Cal to "man up"a younger "Obi-Wan" to the elder's bowl-cut Luke with credit cards as lightsabers—and this, if not turning Cal's life around, at least makes it busierAnd complicated.
Running parallel to the story is Hannah's (Emma Stone, big-eyed waif) relationship problems ("You're life is so PG-13!" says her token-Asian friend, Liz). That's because she wants to be engaged to office co-worker Richard (Josh Grobanrather risky of him to look so bad in this movie) and is focused on that, so much so that she plays ignorant to Jacob's innuendos when he approaches her while trolling in a bar.
And, at this point, to say anything more would be saying too much, spoiling the fun and sending the whole Jenga-construction of the film crashing to the rec-room floor (In fact, I've probably said too much already). Just when you think everything is going as smooth as satin sheets, the film-makers throw you an extra wrinkle, and it's been a long, long while since a rom-com has done that.  The dialogue is fresh though the situations seem familiar—everyone's conceptions of Love and Romance seem to be based on The Movies and directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa *** and writer Dan Fogelman **** are only too happy to skewer them, while paying some respect—the complications teetering on the sit-comish, then resolving with the most graceless of dismounts. Applaud anyway because if they're not the best of executions (the performances help here), there are extra points for "artistic" and "difficulty."
Adding to the fray are the effects all this confusion have on "the kids" (Jonah Bobo, Joey King) and the friends (John Carroll Lynchhe's becoming one of my favorite character actors—and Analeigh Tipton). It, after all, takes a village to make a divorce...very uncomfortable. And special mention should be made to the movies' best utility player, Marisa Tomei, who surprises with just about every performance these days (Okay, okay, Marisa, you DESERVED that Oscar, okay?).
Highly enjoyable.  Bravo.

* Yes, it has the superfluous comma, you English Majors, but if you see the title as a list rather than "adverb, adjective, subject," it makes a bit of sense, and the film actually earns the charity for considering the possibility. 

** Gosling is an odd bird.  It's taken awhile for me to warm to him (I'm one of the few people to have seen his awful work in Fracture, but he has a nice laid-back dead-pan style of comedy—as displayed in Lars and the Real Girl—that hews closely to his dramatic work.  Just a nudge, either way determines comedy or tragedy.  He's dangerously good.

*** Okay, this is scary, but hear me out: Ficarra and Requa have written such films as the remake of Bad News Bears, Cats & Dogs, Bad Santa (a bit raw, but actually rather sweet) and...wrote and directed the little seen gay romance, I Love You Phillip Morris—as subversive and weirdly sweet a movie to be seen in a long time.  Forgive the early credits—these guys are good.

**** Okay, now REALLY hear me out: Fogelman wrote the screenplay for Cars and the screen-story for Cars 2, wrote Fred Claus...but did fine work on both Bolt and Tangled for Disney.  Seems he can write for real people, too, and not just 'toons.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

The Man Who Would Be King

The Man Who Would Be King (John Huston, 1975) The obsessive quest. The lust for riches and the good life it will bring. The realization that the journey may be more important than the rewards. Laughter. Two ne'er-do-wells cross into unknown territory for riches and are undone by their own greed and discord.John Huston made this story before--a couple times, in fact. The closest might be The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, which The Man Who Would Be King resembles. But it could also be The Maltese Falcon, from the villains' perspective. Both films deal with wealth evading their questers' grasp, and both quests end with some laughter. In The Man Who Would Be King, that laughter comes earlier, and provides the miracle that leads the adventurers to achieving their hearts' desires. And gaining wisdom.

Although in each film someone always has to take "the fall."

The story is by Rudyard Kipling, and story-teller Huston provides the conceit that might have led to the writing of the tale, as Kipling is featured prominently in the film, portrayed with genial bonhomie and a writer's intrigued fascination at the train-wreck-sure-to-happen by Christopher Plummer. The story, of two confidence men/ex-British militiamen--Daniel Dravot (Sean Connery) and P.T. "Peachey" Carnahan (Michael Caine)--who brave the impossible journey through the Himalayas to find the fabled city of Kafiristan to set themselves up as "kings" held echoes of themes featured prominently throughout the work of John Huston. When he realized his dream of making this film, he was nearly 70 and suffering from emphysema, but the travel and the foreign locations did not dim his enthusiasm at such an age. He said it was one of his favorite "shoots" in his long-storied career. And one of the easiest.

And it was all due to the casting.

Huston had wanted to make the film in the 50's with Clark Gable as Danny and Humphrey Bogart as Peachey, then, later, with Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas, then, later still, with Paul Newman and Robert Redford.
It was Newman who suggested Connery and Caine. The two old friends had never worked together before and seized on the opportunity. Evenings during filming the two would go over the next day's scenes and work out little bits of well-coordinated business that would indicate the relationship between the two con-men, like old vaudevillians who had shared many a stage...and those routines would delight the wolfish Huston when presented with the ideas the next morning.
"'Ditriments!' 'Ditrimints' yew call us?"
One wonders what Huston would have made of the film earlier in his career with those other teams of actors. Lighter, perhaps. More comedy. Maybe not so hard on the message of the exploitation of conquered nations. But, with Connery and Caine there is a maturity as these two "soldiers for fortune" go about their business robbing the various "-istan's" "three ways from Sunday."
Would it have ended as it does now, with the grisly but apt ending, and the story-teller becoming so engaged in the telling of the tale, that he is no longer a part of it? Would it have resonated so?
In the end, the point is so moot as to be laughable in itself. The Man Who Would Be King is a classic motion picture of any era--a dream project from a master director who had thirty years to perfect it, many chances to get it right, and, unlike his protagonists, the grace and wisdom to appreciate the luck he'd been given and let it live on its own when it was in his grasp.
Not even emphysema could have stopped his laughter at that.

* "The Asphalt Jungle" also has a similar ending...but its low-level crooks do not possess the self-knowledge--or the grace--to laugh at the Cosmic Joke played at their expense.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Deadpool 2

Mucking Up the Timeline
"Too Far? I Went Too Far."

Deadpool 2 begins with a bang. "The Merc with a Mouth" (Ryan Reynolds) is alone in his apartment—in full uniform (does he do that a lot or just special occasions?)—kvetching about Wolverine again and how not only Logan was riding his coattails with an "R" Rating, but how the stupid "snickter" one-upped him by dying in that movie. And so he makes himself a couple of Hot Pockets in the micro-wave, turns on the gas on his oven and lies down on top of a few convenient drums of gasoline, lights a cigarette and blows himself to bits.

Okay. Everybody go home. 

Well, there is a movie after that and it's good in fits and starts with the occasional laugh-out-loud line ("Who came up with that? Probably some guy who can't draw feet"), but if you're discriminating and want to keep the rosy-blood-red glow of the original in your mind, you might want to skip this one. Yes, it has Josh Brolin as Cable, Zazie Beets as Domino, an appearance by Juggernaut and even the formation of an "X-Force". (Big Spoiler: They almost all die. Nyuck-nyuck).

In fact, a lot of people die. Important people in the narrative. 

And then, within the movie, they fix everything and everything turns out all right.* 

Less "nyuck" than "yuck." There are no stakes in Deadpool all (curiously, you did in the first one, even though it has the same air of larky nihilism). It's what happens when you throw in a time-travel ability into a comedy. Hit the chrono-switch and fix everything that might be risky...and it gives you a chance to repeat some jokes. As Deadpool says at one point "Now that's just lazy writing."

Actually, he says that a couple times. That really IS some lazy writing.
"Derivative? NO, it's satrirical!"
Anyway, after Deadpool blows himself up—without killing his roommate Blind Al (Leslie Uggams)—well, I'll let the 20th Century Fox Plot Synopsis tell the story:
After surviving a near fatal bovine attack, a disfigured cafeteria chef (Wade Wilson) struggles to fulfill his dream of becoming Mayberry's hottest bartender while also learning to cope with his lost sense of taste. Searching to regain his spice for life, as well as a flux capacitor, Wade must battle ninjas, the Yakuza, and a pack of sexually aggressive canines, as he journeys around the world to discover the importance of family, friendship, and flavor - finding a new taste for adventure and earning the coveted coffee mug title of World's Best Lover.
No. No, that's not the story at all...
Anyway, in the movie I saw, DP blows himself up after something depressing happens—it's mocked in the Bondian opening credits, which ends with the tag "directed by one of the guys who killed the dog in John Wick—and X-Man Colossus puts DP's parts in a Glad-Bag and drags him to Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters to try and pull himself together. He even offers him a membership in the X-Man ("trainee" everybody has to add). Deadpool isn't buying it. "I'm not 'X-Men' material: first off, I'm not a virgin." Nor does he want to be (as he puts it later) "a dated metaphor for racism in the 60's." Good points, all.
But, Colossus and Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand) drag him to a "Mutant Re-education Center" on the X-jet where one of the students, Russell Collins (Julian Dennison, the kid from Hunt for the Wilderpeople), who calls himself "Firefist" us having a literal melt-down, meaning he wants to melt the orphanage down and kill the administrator and a couple of the orderlies for good measure. The other X-people want to try and corral him, but Wade wants to talk to the kid and try and calm him down that way. How well does that go? The movie's only 30 minutes old, so you tell me.
No, it does not go well and Firefist and Deadpool are sent to the Icebox—a prison for mutants—wearing those Universal Power Dampeners that seem to work on everybody despite them having wildly different powers. There, Cable (Brolin) enters the scene because he's come back in time to kill the kid because he'll cause something devastating in the future and blah blah "killing Hitler as a child" blah. So, it's up to our titular hero to save the kid he barely knows, even if he does become a fiery Hitler, because...plot.
It's here that I kinda checked out except for a few meta-chuckles along the way (sorry, "meta" is DC) because as much as I like nihilism in movies, I don't like my sociopaths to be warm and fuzzy ones (maybe that's why I didn't find John Wick funny or worthy of attention). I prefer Deadpool to be an outlier and an unhinged cannon who's not much of a "joiner" so much as a blaster-aparterer. If the character works, it's because he succeeds despite himself...and because, basically, you can't kill him, you can only kill his box-office. So, the whole "team-up" thing doesn't work for me with him.
Nor does the whole idea that he can do anybody any good except if they need to be perforated. He's a berserker, nothing less and nothing more, and the fact that he's a super-expositionist and meta-commentator makes him even more so. I mean, no fourth wall is safe around him, be it by mayhem or malarkey. It will crumble like the second weekend receipts for a DC movie.
This is a problem. Not, of course, if you're just there to guffaw at the more obvious jokes or the clumps of celebrity cameo's (and, of course, Matt Damon is one of them because he's in everything) if one cares. Truth is Deadpool 2 is full of material that has a very brief shelf-life without shoring it up with anything that might resonate or push the franchise further. It's merely a placeholder where nothing much matters, doesn't expand the Deadpool character or his story-arc. On top of the that, the fights are sloppy—the whole thing's kind of sloppy.

The most repeated line—besides "trainee"—is "Family is an "F" word.

But, so is "Facetious". And "Fragile". And..."Failure".

Actually, that happens in the "credits" scenes, so stick around for that. You can fix and fore-shadow anything in post-credit scenes.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Don't Make a Scene: Star Wars

We've talked about Star Wars before:  Here, here and here.  This week marks the 41st Anniversary of the opening (no, it wasn't May the 4th it was the 25th of May) of George Lucas' highly influential (and influenced) space-fantasy that, for good or ill, altered our movie-going landscape forever.

The Story:  Back-story. It was all-important in Star Wars (as it was known back then, before it became Star Wars: Episode IV—A New Hope). It's what made the movie really interesting, and ultimately locked it into a course from which it couldn't move past, and cemented it as if if had been frozen in carbonite.

And, with the budget had—a relatively paltry 10 million dollars (the same budget 2001: A Space Odyssey had ten years previously)—all George Lucas could do was talk about it.

So, this scene did a lot of duty in a short period of time. While we were learning about the cruelty of Darth Vader and Grand Moff Tarkin on a parallel time-track, Luke had a mystery to solve involving two fugitive "droids", and it's all solved...and made much more this scene, having found the man he and the droids's are after, "Old Ben" Kenobi.

The story goes that, originally in the script, Ben was supposed to seem a little crazy at first, appearing a bit sun-scorched after so many years on Tatooine, but Alec Guinness didn't want to play it that way—this was at a time when Lucas could be overruled—and Lucas let the veteran actor play it his way—dignified and a little unscrupulous (the "crazy" aspect would be transferred to Yoda, when Luke first meets him in The Empire Strikes Back).

And it paid off in spades, producing a pivotal moment—"a happy accident"—that Lucas took advantage of in deepening the story: the weighty hesitation that Kenobi has before telling Luke the fate of his father—the spinning of the tale that it was Darth Vader who killed his father, true "from a certain point of view."

Or was it "a happy accident?"

An issue of Psychology Today,* that came out quickly once Star Wars became a cultural phenomenon, drew parallels with The Wizard of Oz, and noted that "Darth Vader" was a Germanic distillation of "dark father," making the Old Sith-heel an apposite father-figure in Luke's life-journey. Two years before the revelations of Empire, they hit it on the nose of the wheezing face-plate.

Bear in mind that, even though we know nothing of Obi-Wan except what he tells us, we don't know what he knows. And he knows everything. He knows who Luke is, who his father is, and the whole sordid story, and has been biding his time until this moment of connection. This is what he's been waiting for, hiding out, for the last 20 years. So, he's a little pushy, manipulating Luke in the direction of His Destiny, smiling as Luke falls right into the inquiry about "The Force," applying "The Guilt" when necessary, and using psychology rather than a "Jedi mind-trick."

At the time of the first movie, all this past was in the future, and this was just a pause for exposition.  In retrospect, it's a heady scene. Did Lucas know all this when the scene was written and shot?

Does it matter?

The Set-Up:  Young Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) has had the entire Universe fall from the sky into his care.  Two droids have crashed on the planet Tatooine, that have information that could prove the undoing of the Galactic Empire's most vicious weapon, the marauding planet-killer, The Death Star.  By chance, the droids, with the enigmatic holographic message from an unknown dignitary (Carrie Fisher), have made their way to him, and he has followed them to their intended receiver, General Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness), who has resided for many years on the planet as "a crazy old hermit."  But, soon, the answers—and many more questions—will be revealed on Skywalker's Hero Quest.



The small, spartan hovel is cluttered with desert junk but still manages to radiate an air of time-worn comfort and security. Luke is in one corner repairing Threepio's arm, as old Ben sits thinking.
LUKE: No, my father didn't fight in the wars. He was a navigator on a spice freighter.
BEN: That's what your uncle told you. He didn't hold with your father's ideals. Thought he should have stayed here and not gotten involved.
LUKE: You fought in the Clone Wars?
BEN: Yes...
BEN: I was once a Jedi Knight the same as your father.
LUKE: I wish I'd known him.
BEN: He was the best star-pilot in the galaxy...
BEN:...and a cunning warrior. 
BEN: I understand you've... 
BEN: ...become quite a good pilot yourself.
BEN: And he was a good friend. 
BEN:Which reminds me...

Ben gets up and goes to a chest where he rummages around. As Luke finishes repairing Threepio and starts to fit the restraining bolt back on, Threepio looks at him nervously. Luke thinks about the bolt for a moment then puts it on the table. Ben shuffles up and presents Luke with a short handle with several electronic gadgets attached to it.
BEN: I have something here for you.
BEN: Your father wanted you to have this when you were old enough...
BEN: ...but your uncle wouldn't allow it. 
BEN: He feared you might follow old Obi-Wan...
BEN: ...on some damned-fool crusade like your father did.
THREEPIO: Sir, if you'll not be needing me, I'll close down for awhile.
LUKE: Sure, go ahead.
Ben hands Luke the saber.
LUKE: What is it?
BEN: Your father's lightsaber. This is the weapon of a Jedi Knight.
BEN: Not as clumsy or as random as a blaster.
Luke pushes a button on the handle. A long beam shoots out about four feet and flickers there. The light plays across the ceiling.
BEN: An elegant weapon for a more civilized time. 
BEN: For over a thousand generations the Jedi Knights were the guardians of peace and justice in the Old Republic. 
BEN: Before the dark times, before the Empire.
Luke hasn't really been listening.
LUKE: How did my father die?
BEN: A young Jedi named Darth Vader, who was a pupil of mine until he turned to evil...
BEN:...helped the Empire hunt down and destroy the Jedi Knights. 
BEN: He betrayed and murdered your father. 
BEN: Now the Jedi are all but extinct.
BEN: Vader was seduced by the dark side of the Force.
LUKE: The Force?
BEN: Well, the Force is what gives a Jedi his power. 
BEN: It's an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us. 
BEN: It binds the galaxy together.
Artoo makes beeping sounds.
BEN: Now, let's see...
BEN: ...if we can't figure out what you are, my little friend. 
BEN: ...And where you come from.
LUKE: I saw part of the message he was...

Luke is cut short as the recorded image of the beautiful young Rebel princess is projected from Artoo's face.
BEN: I seem to have found it.

Luke stops his work as the lovely girl's image flickers before his eyes.
LEIA: General Kenobi...
LEIA: ...years ago you served my father in the Clone Wars. 
LEIA: Now he begs you to help him in his struggle against the Empire.  I regret that I am unable to present my father's request to you in person... 
LEIA: ...but my ship has fallen under attack and I'm afraid my mission to bring you to Alderaan has failed. 
LEIA: I have placed information vital to the survival of the Rebellion into the memory systems... 
LEIA: ...of this R2 unit. 
LEIA: My father will know how to retrieve it. 
LEIA: You must see this droid safely delivered to him on Alderaan. This is our most desperate hour.
LEIA: Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi, you're my only hope.
There is a little static and the transmission is cut short. 
Old Ben leans back and scratches his head. He silently puffs on a tarnished chrome water pipe. Luke has stars in his eyes.
BEN: You must learn the ways of the Force if you're to come with me to Alderaan.
LUKE: (laughing) Alderaan? 
LUKE: I'm not going to Alderaan. I've got to go home. 
LUKE: It's late, I'm in for it as it is.
BEN: I need your help, Luke. She needs your help. 
BEN: I'm getting too old for this sort of thing.
LUKE: I can't get involved! I've got work to do! 
LUKE: It's not that I like the Empire. I hate it! 
LUKE: But there's nothing I can do about it right now. 
LUKE: It's such a long way from here.
BEN: That's your uncle talking.
LUKE: (sighing) Oh, God, my uncle. 
LUKE: How am I ever going to explain this?
BEN: Learn about the Force, Luke.
LUKE: Look, I can take you as far as Anchorhead. 
LUKE: You can get a transport there to Mos Eisley or wherever you're going.
BEN: You must do what you feel is right, of course.


Words by George Lucas 

Pictures by Gilbert Taylor and George Lucas

Star Wars: Episode IV—A New Hope is available on DVD (in all sorts of versions) on 20th Century Fox Home Video.

* This shot is taken from the "Special Edition" version of A New Hope. The original looked like this.

** I still have a copy of that Psychology Today in storage, but I went looking for the original article on their web-site and...there were 734 article returns on the search term "Star Wars 1977." Been a lot of easy thesis writing in 40 years...