Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Requiem for a Heavyweight - 1962

Just watched one of my all-time favs - "Requiem for a Heavyweight" starring Jackie Gleason (manager Maish Rennick) and Anthony Quinn (boxer Louis "Mountain" Rivera) , with a fine supporting role by Mickey Rooney (trainer Army).

Beginning as a screenplay for TV in 1956 (written by Rod Searling) with several European versions, this dramatic story comes to life here in the states in 1962 under the direction of Ralph Nelson.

I have always loved prize fighting, and this terrific b&w noire film captures the fight game for a man at the end of the road (after a 7th round knockout by Cassius Clay; warmed by the Boxing Commission's doctor to never fight again for risk of blindness or worse) and his manager, at the end of his own road, too - having bet against his own fighter in this last bout ("won't last 4 rounds") and lost; now in serious debt to a small-time mobster called Mom (Madame Spivey) who will have her goons hurt him if the money isn't there soon.

Another remarkable actor, Julie Harris (Grace Miller), portrays a compassionate employment counselor who arranges a job interview for Mountain as an athletic director for a summer boys camp, but Maish, who needs Mountain now to wrestle (the bottom of the heap for a former boxer once ranked #5). The night of the interview, Maish gets Mountain drunk, so when he shows up for the interview, he stumbles over a cart of dishes in the hotel, Miller hears the crash, looks into the hallway to see Mountain fleeing into the elevator.

Mountain decides to wrestle - to be the winner one night, the loser the next - for Maish. We see Mountain entering the ring dressed in American Indian garb, a wig with long pigtails and rawhide vest - in one fine moment of cinematography, Mountain's back to the camera in the dressing room; he puts on from the front an Indian headdress. In that moment, we know that he's sacrificed himself for Maish. He climbs into the ring, looks around - a crazy crowd - and begins a war chant and dances around the ring. In this moment of utter humiliation, Mountain saves Maish.

If you're a Jackie Gleason fan, as I am, you'll be moved by this fine dramatic performance. Awarded an Oscar for best supporting actor in "The Hustler" (1961), Gleason was, in my judgment, a fine actor, but like fat men anywhere, rarely recognized (I think of John Candy).

This is a must-see for anyone who enjoys classic films.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

The House Bunny

The previews looked good ... but would I have gone on the strength of those alone?

Hard to say, but when my daughter said, "Let's go," I thought, "Why not?" We were both in the mood for something light.

I invited my son along, and his reply, "What? House Bunny?"

Well, the three of us laughed long and hard - excellent script (Karen McCullah Lutz; Kirsten Smith), balanced and genuinely creative.

Anna Faris is comedically brilliant, playing the dumb blond with a whimsical innocence that reveals an accomplished actor. It takes a lot of smarts to play a dummy.

In their pre-makeover guise, Plain Janes for sure - nerds, geeks, super-shy and essentially unpleasant to look at - in danger of losing their sorority house charter for want of pledges. It seems the sorority up the street - rich bitches all - are on the dean's case to cancel Zeta Alpha Zeta's charter so they can acquire the property.

Well, Shelley shows up, looking for a "home."

First an orphan, then a bunny in the Mansion with Huge Heffner (who has a good cameo here), she's perpetually bubbly and optimistic, hoping to be the November centerfold, her ultimate dream.

Through the conniving, however, of another bunny, she's believes Heffner has dismissed her, so off she goes, in the junker she arrived in, with a driver's door so squeeky, that, when opened, it awakens dogs and sets off security alarms. Seeing a sorority house, she thinks of home. One things leads to another, and she becomes Zeta Alpha Zeta's house mother, determined to transform the girls into eye-candy, up the party factor and transform them into a popular sorority, saving the house.

The make-over is fun to watch - and, indeed, all the girls become remarkably attractive, in their own way. This part of the story was handled well, bringing out the beauty of each girl, several of whom were not what I would call "natural beauties." Hats off to the director for choosing a variety of girls of varying looks and body styles.

To make a long story short, the "bunny" learns a few hard lessons along the way - that life isn't all about being eye-candy, sexy and stupid.

The girls, transformed, suddenly see that they've become just like all the other snotty sororities on campus.

Here's where the story takes us to a good place. It's about being our best, balanced, between appearance and character.

Tom Hank's son, Colin Hanks, is terrific portraying a young manager of a nursing home attracted to Shelley, and through him, Shelley learns something more about being a woman.

When they first meet, and she learns that he manages a nursing home, Shelley says convincingly, "It's nice that you provide a place where nurses can live."

One of the laughable moments - when the girls show up at the nursing home as part of their philanthropy (Shelley can't pronounce the word, and it's a laugh every time she tries), the girls, now made-over, set off heart monitor alarms all over the nursing home!

A marvelous young cast, great script - story moved along well - with good editing.

A date flic for sure- plenty of eye-candy for the guys, without being salacious. Yet appealing to women, too - what with sisterhood and secret longings to be beautiful.

Worth seeing?

For sure!

Monday, August 11, 2008

Pineapple Express

I wouldn't ordinarily have spent my money on this movie, but I'm glad I went

A clever, well-crafted story/script, with tremendous acting. Seth Rogan and James Franco are without peer. A couple of potheads, Rogan the buyer, a process server who specializes in costumes to get to the servee, and the dealer, Franco, who's high all the time.

In a love/hate relationship, these two stoners form a relationship that finally proves redemptive for both.
A story that combines humor and tragedy, sorrow and silliness, the film brings it off surprisingly well. Most such efforts fail for lack of being one or the other, and rarely both or more. But curiously, this one wins on all counts.

At first, I thought: Okay, just another stupid story about stupid people doing drugs, thinking how cool they are when, in fact, they're idiots.

But ultimately, the message came through loud and clear from both of them - doing drugs and being high all the time is pure idiocy, and it's time for them to be real friends with a real purpose.

They get involved in all sorts of high jinks, beginning when Rogan witnesses a crooked cop (Rosie Perez) and a drug kingpin (Gary Cole), on whom he was going to serve a subpoena, murder a competitor. He flees to the one friend he has: the drug dealer (Franco), who knows the murderer. As you might guess, the bad guys figure out who the guy in the car (Franco) was, and the chase begins. There's car chases - really funny - mayhem, shooting and death. There's a price to be paid for such living, and pay, they do.

But friendship emerges ... and that's the nub of the story: friendship, through thick and thin - sticking by one another, and learning that friendship trumps most everything else.

I found it interesting to note what the audience laughed at. I'm 64, and the audience was clearly younger, but I was grateful they were there. More than just another stoner film, this movie had a message.

Did folks get it?

Who knows, but I was impressed with the story and the fine acting.

I think this one is definitely worth seeing. Be prepared to laugh a lot. But who knows, you might find yourself thinking pretty deeply about doing or not doing drugs, and in a social environment that practices utilitarian relationships, thinking about real friendship.

The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor

Brendan Frasier (explorer Rick O'Connell) back in the saddle, so to speak, after a misadventure in Journey to the Center of the Earth.

Loaded with special effects, it's a great adventure, ironically coming on the heels of the Olympics opening in China.

The story goes like this: a white witch puts a spell on a great Chinese emperor two millenia ago, changing him and his vast army into stone, sort of like the famed Terracotta Army discovered in China in 1974.

Rick's son, college drop-out Alex (Luke Ford) is doing some exploring of his own and discovers the entrance to the Emperor's tomb, and, of course, we all what happens - the curse is broken and the Emperor returns to life, though terribly incomplete, and sets out to discover Shangri La and the waters of eternal life, to return him fully to life and awaken his army, and then, if he can cross the Great Wall of China, he and his soldiers will possess untold power to dominate the world ... unless, of course, the O'Connells can stop him with the help of the white which, still alive, of course, and her ageless daughter who ultimately surrenders her immortality to defeat the bad guys.

Alex's father and mother (played fetchingly by Maria Bello) soon join their son in another mummy adventure - with plenty of hair-raising danger, and enough tongue-in-cheek humor to keep it from taking itself too seriously.

All-in-all, a great fun-filled film. Take the family and enjoy. Parents will especially appreciate Rick and Evelyn's interaction with their son - family dynamics and all, parents always remain parents, even as children grow up and cease being children.

As for the fight scenes, of which there are plenty, it's great to see two remarkable Asian stars: Jet Li (the evil Emperor Han) and the ever-beautiful Michelle Yeoh (the white witch Zi Juan).

Isabella Leong, Zi Juan's daughter Lin, becomes Alex's love interest. At one point, she refuses his love, for fear of having to watch him grow old. He wisely observes - "I do it every day with my parents." In the end, she loses her immortality to defeat the Emperor, and so they're likely to live happily ever-after, or at least into next installment, because "mummies have been discovered in Peru."

A great Saturday afternoon entertainment.

Friday, August 8, 2008

American Teen

A documentary totally entertaining ... centered around five students, their families and their friends, from Warsaw High School in Indiana.

This remarkable experience was produced from 1200 hours of video filtered and condensed into a 90-minute slice of life.

I saw it at the ArcLight in LA (Sunset Blvd) - afterward, four of the five students were there for Q&A. Hannah The Rebel was missing. Later, on my way out of the theater, she was at the display table - seems Hannah had been shopping at Amoeba Music just up the street.

Now, two years after filming, they confirmed the accuracy and veracity of the documentary. Would they change anything? They all agreed: the reality and "drama" of their senior year and family life was accurately portrayed. Only Mitch (The Heartthrob) would change one item - not the film, but the story - he broke up with Hannah by TM - a callous deed that haunts him.

Hannah, by the way, after making her way out to San Francisco, discovered it was too expensive and realized that she's an East Coast gal and is now studying film at SUNY.

"Everyone had a mic on at one time or other" - a large high school in the heartland of America - none of the five knew at the time they'd be the featured personalities, and all of them got used to the camera's presence.

For me, a parent, the disturbing elements were the parents. At one point, I said to my wife, "Shoot the parents." They were loving and supportive, but for the Princess and the Jock, the subtle but persistent pressure to excel was intense. It was hard to watch, and I found myself reflecting on how my wife and I had done with our children, now adults themselves. When Megan and Colin were asked about it, they both agreed: their folks, while pressuring them, were hugely supportive and loving.

Having spent most of my life in and around the Midwest, I appreciated the restraint shown by Nanette Burstein in portraying the Midwest, too often the butt of mindless East or West Coast jokes.

The Midwest is real people, real families, real students, with all the hopes and dreams, fears and frustrations, felt by by human beings everywhere.

Like all of us in high school, the five represent the archetypes: The Princess (Megan), The Jock (Colin), The Heartthrob (Mitch), The Geek (Jake) and The Rebel (Hannah).

I use the word "archetype" to underscore the fundamental character of these personalities - they just are, and in high school, they're raw and pure. Even in maturity, they persist, though refined and more balanced. Though we all know the exceptions - the 55-year old Princess, the aging Heartthrob and the pot-bellied Jock living his memories. Usually, The Rebel and The Geek get it together in adulthood - although the current Anthrax story, sort of like Michael Douglas' "Falling Down," reveal a Geek who only went deeper into the dark corners of the mind.

None of the four students knew Jake in high school. Geeks aren't on anyone's radar screen, but as a result of this experience and now traveling the country for screenings, they've become friends, though Jake, slumped in his director's chair, has dropped out of school, trying to figure things out.

My son, who saw the film with me, didn't like the animation sequences - he saw them as an overly aggressive attempt by the film-maker to "portray" some of the inner thoughts of the Princess and the Geek. Megan's imagination of Notre Dame - a beautiful place where everyone holds hands. Jake, always the gamer, is a heroic knight on his way to save the fair damsel.

As for me, I was satisfied, though the story would have been fine without it - yet I agree with my son on one piece - Jake battled a serious complexion issue, and in the animation portion, where he's the hero, his skin problem is included. I would have thought that in his ideal world of prowess and victory, the complexion would be clear. Oh well.... During the course of the film, Jake's complexion improved (I was told by a reliable source - how about that? - that the director gave Jake a lot of help to clear it up) - though this leads to a slight editing problem - Jake's complexion varies from scene to scene.

If anyone wants an insight into teen life today, this is it, along with the stresses and love of being a parent. Though the school staff plays a small role, they're portrayed honestly - without either demonizing or lionizing them.

Don't bother watching some over-rated TV drama, go see American Teen ... see it several times.

Hats off to the film-makers, but especially to Paramount Vantage for seeing this work at Sundance and making it available. This kind of work deserves serious support.

And with the exception of Jake, it looks like everyone is on their way. Colin is playing basketball on scholarship, Megan is pre-med at Notre Dame (the school of her dreams), Mitch is pre-med also and Hannah's at SUNY studying film. Life has a way of working out.