Tuesday, September 09, 2008

A thousand words....


Coming to America


In a recent interview in The Onion AV Club, Steve Coogan described his reasons for adopting an American accent to play Hamlet 2's failed actor-turned-high school drama teacher Dana Marschz. Coogan said that the character had an open-armed love-me quality which, in his opinion, was not characteristic of the British. His previous roles(TV's Alan Partridge, 24 Hour Party People's Tony Wilson and Around the World in 80 Days' Phileas Fogg) all possessed a snarky, sarcastic demenor, and a firm (if sometimes ill-informed) belief that they have the upper hand in any given situation. While Marschz is just as much if not more of an egotist as his British characters, his unfailing optimism, touchy-feely self-indulgence, and wide-eyed innocence that sometimes borders on the psychotic, are all thoroughly American.

What Hamlet 2 may lack as a structured comedy it makes up for in a brilliantly broad-stroked comedic character study. Marschz is introduced to us, Tropic Thunder/Grindhouse style in the beginning of the film, by a series of commercials and clips from his acting "career" - a hilarious Herpes medication infomercial and thirty-second stint as a quickly-dispatched Red Shirt-style extra in an episode of "Xena." Now, as a drama teacher in Tuscon, Arizona, he rollerskates back and forth to work in lieu of owning a car, and puts on incredibly mediocre, biannual Max Fisher Players-style stage adaptations of movies like Erin Brockovich. When budget cuts threaten to axe the drama department, Marschz inspires his class, which consists of a loveable bunch of tough Latino gangbangers, as well as a couple of over-enthusiastic theater geeks, to perform an original work which will save the school - a ludicrously oedipal musical sequel to Shakespeare's masterwork.

The contrivances of the inspirational-teacher subgenre is first to be laid down on the satirical chopping block - surely, there are more people like Mr. Marschz in the American school system than anyone resembling Denzel Washington in The Great Debaters. Behind the facade of Marschz's gollywhillickers enthusiasm is a denial of his own failures so labyrinthine that you'd need a weed-whacker to untangle them. His marriage could at best be described as sadomasochistic (Catherine Keener, as his wife, makes her character in Being John Malkovich look positively sweet in comparison,) he can't have children, and no-one takes him remotely seriously. He also has daddy issues by the truckload - like the Great Dane, he sees the specter of his father everywhere, from the high school's gruff principal who thinks the arts are a waste of time, to the pint-sized 14-year-old drama critic for the school paper who mercilessly lambasts his directorial efforts. The play itself - a musical in which Hamlet and Jesus Christ travel back in time to save their loved ones and forgive their fathers, is in itself a form of therapy, of exorcising paternal demons. If the product of his efforts - which involves Octavius as a bicurious cowboy and the Tuscon Gay Men's Choir singing "Someone Saved My Life Tonight" - isn't quite as memorably distasteful as "Springtime for Hitler," it was only because Max Bialystock and Leo Bloom produced that play as a deliberate attempt to offend and shock. "Hamlet 2," on the other hand, is a heart-on-its-sleeve, deeply personal work according to its creator - even if everyone else quite rightly sees it as ridiculous schlock.

Marschz is a buffoon, to be sure, but thanks to Coogan, a lovable one, in spite of all his flaws. Though we laugh at him when he rollerskates into a wall or tells one of his Hispanic student's very wealthy and well-educated parents that they "can't let their ethnic small-mindedness" prevent their son from performing in the play, we are still compelled to cheer when he moonwalks across a cellophane water set made up as an admittedly rocking sexy Jesus. We want to see him succeed. Like Billy Wilder and Ernst Lubistch, Coogan has a brilliant eye for detail, satire and subtlety, which allows him both to mock and celebrate an American archetype - the new-agey, self-important, deluded schmuck with the heart of gold - from a foreigner's arm's length. Although the Bard famously said "To Thine Own Self Be True," I'd be hard pressed to think of an American actor who could play Dana Marschz with the complexity that Coogan did.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

The passing of the torch.


Legendary voiceover artist Don LaFontaine, whose gravelly voice could seemingly be heard in every single trailer made in the 80's and 90's, recently passed away of complications from the treatment of an unspecified illness. Though Mr. LaFontaine's career spanned over 40 years of radio, film promotion, television and advertising, he will be remembered as the man who made cheesy-on-paper, sensationalistic catchphrases ("only one man can stop him!") sound not only giddily awesome, but a lot of the time even more iconic than the movies themselves.

So ubiquitous were his narrations of the coming attractions, and so distinctive was his voice, that he became one of the most famous people in show business despite the fact that few people knew his name or face until he spoofed his image a Geico commercial in 2006. To moviegoers, especially young and impressionable ones like I was back then, attracted to the visceral thrill of action movies, horror pictures and thrillers, we did not care to know. LaFontaine sounded like a grizzled, completely bad-assed Old Testament God, "in a world" where Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jean-Claude Van Damme were firearm-toting Samsons and Goliaths. For more on the great Mr. Lafontaine, Ain't It Cool New's Quint wrote a nice obit with many YouTube samples of his work.

Less sad than Mr. Lafontaine's death, but still something that will come as a bummer to genre cinephiles, is the retirement of celebrated poster artist Drew Struzan. Like LaFontaine, the average man on the street did not know his name, but would have had to live under a rock to not have seen his work. They always say never to judge a book by its cover, but when I was a prepubescent kid, I found I could very safely judge a movie by its one-sheet or VHS box - if it was painted by Drew Struzan, it was probably worth my time. Many years ago I saw an exhibition of the man's original paintings at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, MA, where they had many of the works used for posters of Star Wars, The Thing, Back to the Future, Big Trouble in Little China and even Harry and the Hendersons. It really was an awe inspiring experience to be in the presence of pieces of my own personal history.

Trailers, of course, are still very much in effect today. They've got a less ballsy-sounding DonLafontaine soundalike for the action films, a more upbeat and sing-songy Don Lafontaine soundalike for the romantic comedies, and cuddlier-sounding Don Lafontaine soundalike for the children's movies. They're alright and they get the job done, but they're a pretty pale substitute for the real thing. Hand-painted movie posters, on the other hand, are sadly going very quickly the way of the dodo. Typically, a movie poster today is simply a big, bland photograph of the leading actor's head, and the only work Mr. Struzan has done in the past decade has been for films like Hellboy, The Mist, and the first couple of Harry Potter films (as well as the Star Wars prequels and Indiana Jones 4) - movies that hearken back to an old-fashioned, disbelief-suspending style of entertainment.

More than anything, having to bid farewell to these two icons of movie promotion makes me feel old. When I passed the local cineplex as a kid, the sight of a new sci-fi or fantasy film with a Struzan-illustrated poster would immediately fill me with a sense of juvenile, dorky joy. When my friends and I gathered after school with a rented video, whoever went to the kitchen to grab the microwave popcorn and 2-litre bottles of soda would yell at the rest of us not to start the tape yet, for fear of missing a really cool trailer narrated by the kickass-sounding voice dude. The world will have moved on, and these experiences will be as foreign and antiquated to our grandchildren as newsreels and double-billings are to us. The torch is passed, but to whom or what? Those of us who find poetry and magic in popular cinema will have to wait and hope.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Questions, questions.


God bless Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule's Dennis Cozzalio and his much-loved movie quizzes. His most recent, Dr. Zachary Smith's Lost in Space at the End of the Summer Movie Quiz, is online for anyone who wants to join in the fun.

1) Your favorite musical moment in a movie

At the risk of being completely unoriginal, the "Raindrops Keep Falling on my Head" sequence in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

2) Ray Milland or Dana Andrews

Milland, definitely, one of the great workmanlike actors. I'm being completely sincere when I say I think he's just as great in The Thing with Two Heads as he is in Billy Wilder's The Lost Weekend.

3) Favorite Sidney Lumet movie

Sadly, here's a great director of whose work I have seen embarrassingly little.... although I was really amazed with Before the Devil Knows You're Dead.

4) Biggest surprise of the just-past summer movie season

I was fairly certain that The Dark Knight would be a blast, but I was wholly unprepared for it being as great as it was.

5) Gene Tierney or Rita Hayworth

Smolderingly sexy and very potentially deadly Tierney all the way - the deciding factor being the canoe scene in Leave Her to Heaven. Shit gives me chills.

6) What’s the last movie you saw on DVD? In theaters?

On DVD - Before Sunrise, a long-time favorite of mine, which I watched with my girlfriend who had never seen it before. In theaters - Elevator to the Gallows, at Film Forum's recent French crime series.

7) Irwin Allen’s finest hour?

You know, I really like Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. It ain't great, but it's a nostalgic childhood favorite.

8) What were the films where you would rather see the movie promised by the poster than the one that was actually made?

The poster for the Corman-produced The Killer Shrews, which depicts a big, wormy, phallic shrew's tail squirming over a bloodied woman's shoe, is a simple and direct in its ability to illicit terror as the one-sheet for Alien. The movie itself, though, is pretty silly. Fun, but not the least bit scary.

9) Chow Yun-Fat or Tony Leung

Not really a fair contest if you ask me - Yun-Fat is a wonderfully badass, charismatic action star, but I don't think he's ever reached the level of closely guarded and complex emotion Tony Leung has in movies like Chungking Express and In the Mood for Love.

10) Most pretentious movie ever

Lady in the Water.

11) Favorite Russ Meyer movie

Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill!

12) Name the movie that you feel best reflects yourself, a movie you would recommend to an acquaintance that most accurately says, “This is me.”

Probably Rushmore.

13) Marlene Dietrich or Greta Garbo

Gotta be Dietrich.

14) Best movie snack? Most vile movie snack?

Best - turkey and swiss sandwich that I sneak in myself. Yeah, I'm bad. Worst - hard to decide between red Twizzlers and radioactive gunk-covered movie theater nachos.

15) Current movie star who would be most comfortable in the classic Hollywood studio system

I'm probably not the first person to note this, but I can very easily picture George Clooney palling around, drinking scotch, and pinching waitresses on the ass with the likes of Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin.

16) Fitzcarraldo—yes or no?

A resounding yes - my favorite Herzog film.

17) Your assignment is to book the ultimate triple bill to inaugurate your own revival theater. What three movies will we see on opening night?

Carnival of Souls, The Last Waltz, and Harry Smith's Heaven and Earth Magic, for the purely selfish reason that I've always wanted to see them on the big screen (and in the case of Heaven and Earth Magic, to see it at all, period.)

18) What’s the name of your theater?

I love romantic, old-fashioned sounding theater names like "The Ziegfeld," "The Egyptian," "The Beacon," et al, although I'd hopefully play a mix of old-time studio product and more psychotronic cult films. In honor of Kenneth Anger, I might call my theater "The Hollywood Babylon."

19) Favorite Leo McCarey movie

Duck Soup

20) Most impressive debut performance by an actor/actress.

It's a tie between Jason Schwartzman in Rushmore and Fred Tuttle in Man with a Plan.

21) Biggest disappointment of the just-past summer movie season

Without the slightest shadow of a doubt, Argento's Mother of Tears.

22) Michelle Yeoh or Maggie Cheung

Maggie Cheung fo' sho'.

23) 2008 inductee into the Academy of the Overrated

Iron Man - I enjoyed it, but seemingly not quite as much as everyone else.

24) 2008 inductee into the Academy of the Underrated

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, which I think people will remember with a lot more fondness in the next ten years.

25) Fritz the Cat—yes or no?

In terms of influence and its place in history, an enormous yes - without it we'd never has seen Bakshi's later, more fiercely personal films (of which Heavy Traffic is my favorite), and without those, we'd likely never have seen "The Simpsons," "South Park," or indeed any adult-geared animation here in the West. Having said that, though, it's not exactly a great film - a little too boorishly crass and obvious in its satire for my tastes, although there are a handful of moments of brilliance throughout.

26) Trevor Howard or Richard Todd

Trevor Howard.

27) Antonioni once said, “I began taking liberties a long time ago; now it is standard practice for most directors to ignore the rules.” What filmmaker working today most fruitfully ignores the rules? What does ignoring the rules of cinema mean in 2008?

As the great Gene Hackman once said, "There are no rules!" In all seriousness, though, I don't really think it is standard practice for most directors to ignore the rules. You look at a lot of films today of both the mainstream and indie variety and see a lot of them are the same; a checklist of cliches and second-guessed notions of what viewers want to see. What a great filmmaker realizes is that these rules are merely in place for hacks who lack the confidence to make a movie their own way - more guidelines than anything else. The films that deviate from the rules, and do it successfully, are the ones we end up remembering.

28) Favorite William Castle movie

The House on Haunted Hill.

29) Favorite ethnographically oriented movie

I'm going to say To Kill a Mockingbird, although I'm not really sure what this question means.

30) What’s the movie coming up in 2008 you’re most looking forward to? Why?

The Road - the novel left me unable to speak after I'd finished reading it, and I'd be hard pressed to think of a better filmmaker to helm it than The Proposition's John Hillcoat.

31) What deceased director would you want to resurrect in order that she/he might make one more film?


32) What director would you like to see, if not literally entombed, then at least go silent creatively?

Scott Derrickson. Preferably literally entombed, and preferably before his remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still comes out.

33) Your first movie star crush

Ariana Richards in Jurassic Park.