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    The statue routine has been making audiences laugh for hundreds of years.  It is amazing to see this timeless comedy business fall with a resounding thud in Sandler's newest comedy, Grown Ups 2 (2013).


    It is a great pleasure to see a classic routine done well.  In a recent documentary about the British sitcom Open All Hours, David Jason talks about his success with the mannequin leg routine.


    Admirably, Jason is still in the comedy game at the age of 73.  I enjoyed recently seeing the actor play an Inspector Clouseau-type character in the sitcom The Royal Bodyguard.  The series' writers, Mark Bussell and Justin Sbresni, are fans of classic comedy.  This is made evident by the situations of the fourth episode, "The Royal Art of Blackmail" (2012).  Jason crosses paths with a band of art thieves hiding out in an ice cream truck and unwittingly causes the refrigeration unit to explode and fill the truck with ice cream.  (See my article about the "evil ice cream truck" trope at http://anthonybalducci.blogspot.com/2011/11/evil-ice-cream-truck.html.)


    I would like to close today's post with a clip from the early days of film comedy.  Last year, I wrote about a water fountain routine performed by Lou Costello in Who Done It? (1942).  At the time, I did not remember that Roscoe Arbuckle performed a similar routine in Fatty's Chance Acquaintance (1915).  Here is that routine.



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    Carl Alstrup, the star of The Actor as Soldier (1911).
    I did research to determine the earliest military farces on film.  Two titles that I found were Twa Hieland Lads (1910) and The Actor as Soldier (1911).  Both films dealt with raw recruits bumbling through basic training.  Twa Hieland Lads spotlights two highland farm boys who think that they can improve their lives by joining the English army.  The plot summary provided by Moving Picture World reads in part: "After an examination they are accepted and placed in the awkward squad of 'Kilties.'  The Sergeant who takes them in hand becomes insane in his efforts to teach them military tactics."  The plot of The Actor as Soldier has to do with a vain actor who is unhappy about being drafted into the military.  Here is an excerpt from Moving Picture World's plot summary: "In the squad he does everything wrong.  His rifle gets on the wrong shoulder and his fingers get gambled in the barrel."  It is these films and others that the established the blueprint of the military comedy, which remains essentially the same more than one hundred years later.


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  • 01/18/14--11:47: Special Delivery
  • Transporting a cumbersome object from shop to home can present problems.  Early on, filmmakers recognized the comic possibilities of this sort of situation.  Mack Sennett has trouble transporting a long curtain pole across town in The Curtain Pole (1909).  André Deed has even worse problems getting a towering Christmas tree home in the 1911 comedy Cretinetti in vacanza (released in America as Foolshead's Holiday).  By the end of the film, Deed has accidentally set the tree ablaze and pulled down the front of his home.  Harry Watson Jr. struggles to deliver a stove in the Musty Suffer comedy Showing Some Speed (1916).  When he finds that no one is home, Musty takes it upon himself to deliver the stove through a window.  Comedy complications ensue.  A man encounters a series of difficulties carrying a new mattress to his home in the 1908 Pathé Frères comedy called Le sommier (released in the United States as The Mattress).  Here is the plot summary provided by the Moving Picture World: "[The man] attempts to get in the door with [the mattress] but is unable to do so, and finally hits upon a scheme.  He goes up to his window, fastens a pulley in the top and is soon hauling the mattress up with a rope.  It is quite near the top when the rope parts and the mattress falls on top of two police officers." 

    A direct descendent of these films, pulley and all, is Laurel and Hardy's classic The Music Box (1932).  In the expert hands of Mr. Laurel and Mr. Hardy, this comedy routine was finally able to reach the utmost height of its existence.


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  • 01/19/14--08:47: Two Dead Dogs

  • People are strangely fascinated with dead dogs, which is probably the reason that a dead dog has turned up in many popular films.  These furry corpses most often serve as a harbinger of death and mayhem.  A dead dog with stab wounds or a snapped neck will make the protagonist aware that a homicidal maniac is on the loose and his life is in danger.  This was certainly the case in Rear Window (1954), The Hills Have Eyes (1977), Halloween (1978), The Thing (1982) and, most recently, Evil Dead (2013).  Even when the dead dog isn't slaughtered by a homicidal maniac, it tends to portend death.  This thriller standard is evident in Of Mice and Men (1939), Cool Hand Luke (1967), Badlands (1973), Se7en (1995) and Cabin Fever (2002).  Dead dogs can sometimes be sad, as in Old Yeller (1957), and sometimes be funny, as in National Lampoon's Vacation (1983).  It is an example of the blackest of humor when Chevy Chase forgets he tied a dog to his car's bumper and drives off at high speed with the dog dragging behind him.  But, believe it or not, I have found two rare instances in which a dead dog allowed a filmmaker to blunt the harsh edges of a dark tale.


    The first film up for discussion is Wonder Boys, arguably the most overrated movie of 2000.  A big problem for me was that the film reminded me of a much better French film that I had seen in the late seventies.  The French movie, which was released in 1978, was called La  tortue sur le dos, which translates into English as Like a Turtle on its Back.  It had the same basic plot.  A writer enjoyed acclaim for turning out a brilliant first novel, but he subsequently came down with writer's block and wasn't been able to produce a follow-up.  He had come down with a drastic case of sophomore slump.


    The writer in Wonder Boys, played by Michael Douglas, doesn't seem to have it so bad despite his writer's block.  He's making a living as a college professor.  He's attending cocktail parties where people still tell him how great his book is and do their best to suck up to him.  His wife has left him (for reasons that the filmmakers never bother to explain), but he hardly seems to care as he is busy canoodling with the dean's wife.  In the writer's nice little world, his agent has somehow managed to remain best friends with him.  Why exactly?  The agent has every right to disown this unproductive client, especially as his failure has both damaged the agent's reputation and diminished his bank balance.  The reasons don't really matter in the end.  The bottom line is that none of this makes for an engrossing film.  Where's the crisis?  Where's the conflict?  Where's the drama?  Oh, I remember, the professor and one of his students get attacked by the dean's dog and end up shooting it.  They hide the dead dog in the trunk of the professor's car and panic at every contrived instance when someone asks to put something into the trunk or take something out of the trunk.  Toward the end of the film, people are noticing the odor of rotting flesh coming from the trunk.  This is supposed to be good for even more laughs.  Someone will mention the suspicious smell and this will give Douglas the opportunity to mug to the camera.  The movie wasn't much more sophisticated than Dude, Where's my Car?, which came out the same year.  But critics included the movie in their Top Ten lists at the end of the year and couldn't explain the reason that the general public had rejected it.  What did they expect? 

    Let's compare this with that other film about writer's block, La  tortue sur le dos.  Paul (Jean-François Stévenin), the writer of the story, is having serious financial problems.  And that should be the main problem in a story about writer's block.  If writing is your livelihood and you're not writing, then it follows that your main problem will be money.  Paul has spent a generous advance, which doesn't make him popular with his publisher.  He might as well be dead as far as his agent is concerned.  His wife had to go back to work to support them and she has come to resent her useless partner.  She has found it best for her peace of mind to simply ignore him.  It has become so painful for him to sit idly at his typewriter that he usually spends his days wandering the streets.  This empty, ineffectual man feels like a bum on his best days and a ghost on his worst days.

    One day, Paul drops into a movie theatre hoping a movie will take his mind off his troubles.  He meets a college girl, Nathalie (Virginie Thévenet).  She does more than the movie to take his mind off his troubles.  Nathalie makes him feel truly alive again.  But, then, he gets the young woman pregnant, which abruptly ends his romantic illusions about their relationship.  Nothing can be more real for a broke writer than having his gal pal tell him he's going to be a daddy.  Nathalie can tell Paul isn't happy to hear she's pregnant, which causes her to lose her temper and break up with him.  His wife finds out about Nathalie and kicks him out.  He's walking down a rainy street, homeless, penniless and friendless, when Nathalie's father catches up to him and punches him hard enough to knock him to the ground.  The father continues to beat him, leaving him off so badly that he has to be hospitalized.  This provides a lot more drama than a smelly dead dog in a car trunk.

    What was the point of the dead dog in Wonder Boys?  I could be generous and say that the dead dog symbolized the writer's creative muse, which had sputtered, collapsed and died.  So, now, the writer is feeling burdened to drag this dead thing around and having nosy people threaten to expose the putrid thing.  In the end, though, the dead dog was a silly plot device that served to mitigate the bleakness in a story about a writer who can't write.


    Now, let's look at another film that made dubious use of a dead dog.  Insomnia (2002) was the film that really made me wonder what happened to Al Pacino.  I couldn't imagine that a ham actor could stay alive sword-swallowing that much scenery.  The paint, the glue, the nails, the plasterboard… that stuff is bound to kill you.  The title Insomnia is appropriate as our star keeps shouting his lines to keep the viewer from nodding off.  Pacino has never been right since the race car drama Bobby Deerfield  (1977).  What did that film do to him exactly?  It is possible that he suffered brain damage sniffing the exhaust fumes or it could be that, by driving too fast, he rattled loose vital grey matter in his braincase.  All I know is that, ever since that film, Pacino has been permanently enrolled in the Hoo-Hah School of Overacting.

    Pacino has been useful to filmmakers looking to avoid subtly.  Insomnia was a remake of a 1997 Norwegian movie of the same name.  The original version opens with a man walking off a plane.  You have an understanding of this man as soon as you see his grim and tired face.  This is a man who's seen too much and it's taken its toll on him.  Pacino, as the same character, has to bellow how he's seen too much and it's taken its toll on him.  He makes a speech about this in the airport.  He makes another speech when he arrives at his hotel.  And, for latecomers, he makes a third speech when he has dinner at a restaurant.  This tumult could not have been more different than the original Insomnia, praised by film critic Steve Rhodes for being "lean" and "economically directed."  The Norwegian original was effective for its stoic and ambiguous characters.  That's not to say the original was a classic.  For my tastes, the film could at times be too spare and subdued.  But, still, it towered head and shoulders over something as contrived and bloated as the remake.


    When they made the original, the filmmakers didn't care if the audience liked their main character, Detective Engström (Stellan Skarsgård).  But, no, Hollywood producers weren't willing at the time to take that risk.  They would risk boring an audience, but they would never risk angering or alienating an audience.  So, scriptwriter Hillary Seitz made it a priority to develop and maintain sympathy for Pacino's detective character.

    In the original, the story takes a turn when the detective accidentally shoots his partner while in pursuit of a murderer.  The incident unhinges the detective, whose reputation as an expert detective is his one accomplishment in life.  He slowly loses his grip on both morality and sanity.  He lies to his colleagues and goes about covering up his mistake.  His first task is to find a dog that he saw in an alley earlier that day.  He beckons the dog with a treat.  The lean and hungry mutt does not hesitate to approach him.  Engström lets the dog eat the treat out of his hand before he draws back his revolver and shoots the helpless creature.  The scene is not played for shock value.  The detective acts with a ruthless efficiency.  All he cares about is digging the spent bullet out of the dog and using it to replace the bullet that killed his partner.  In the meantime, he remains on the hunt for the murderer.  Later, he becomes frustrated while interrogating a cocky teenage girl.  To get her to provide vital information, he takes to intimidating her and goes as far as thrusting his hand up her skirt.  In the end, he is even willing to conspire with the murderer to protect his dark secret.


    The detective ends the movie having in no way redeemed himself.  Another detective, Hilde Hagen (Gisken Armand), turns up evidence against him, but she hands him the evidence as he is packing to leave.  She doesn't say much, but you can tell from her face that she feels both disgust and pity for the man.  She thinks enough of his accomplishments as a detective not to arrest him, but she's disappointed in what he's done and just wants to see him leave town.  That was a lot more powerful than the maudlin way these characters resolve the same conflict in the Hollywood version.  Pacino, shot and dying, is cradled in the arms of Hillary Swank.  He has given his life to rescue her from a killer and he's expressing his regret as she drenches him in crocodile tears.  She promises, right before he dies, that she'll destroy the evidence of his cover-up.


    But Pacino has had a bunch of halos piled on his head prior to the fatal climax.  The main reason Pacino talks so much about his career in the opening act is so he can let the audience know the great things he's done.  He talks about the murderers he's caught.  He tells how he arrested a man who tortured and murdered children.  You're ready to forgive this supercop almost anything.  But that's not all.  The point is made that, if something he's done wrong discredits him, there are corrupt lawyers willing to use that mistake to discredit his past cases and possibly free all those murderers.  So, now, you have to support his cover up unless you want more little kids tortured and murdered.

    Even then, they won't let Pacino shoot a dog or molest a teenage girl.  It was laughable when a guilt-ridden Pacino stumbles blindly through an alley and conveniently finds a dead dog to shoot.  Think about this for a moment.  The filmmakers were willing to preserve sympathy for Pacino's character with a pre-dead dog.  Again, the dead dog was introduced to blunt the drama.

    The Hollywood version even had to sanitize a minor character, a hotel desk clerk.  In the original, Engström's partner Erik Vik (Sverre Anker Ousdal) is an old lecher who can't help flirting with the pretty young lady checking him into his room.  The clerk doesn't like his flirting and she lets him know it.  "Don't flirt with me," she coldly demands.  Ouch!  The next day, the clerk tells Engström she heard of his partner's death and she was sorry she treated him so harshly.  In the remake, the partner doesn't flirt with the clerk and all that the clerk tells the man is "I hope you have a good stay."  When the man dies the next day, she remarks to Pacino that she can't believe he was standing in front of her the night before.  "I hope I was nice to him," she says.  Lame. 

    I learned a lot about storytelling from these two films and I cannot think about the films without remembering those two dead dogs, who gave their lives for safe drama. 


    Additional Note

    Wonder Boys was mainly hampered in its efforts to generate dramatic tension because its lead character was healthy, happy and financially secure.  The need for money can motivate bold and desperate action in a film.  If a character in a film has more than enough money to provide for his needs, it is harder to justify him doing anything that will create drama.  Money is contentment.  Money is an antidote to drama.  This can make rich people boring protagonists.  The wealthy noblemen in Shakespeare's plays had lives that were much more complex than the lives of wealthy people today.  Petty power struggles and wanton adultery bore me. 

    Let's take, for example, This Is 40 (2012).  The film shows a couple enjoying an opulent lifestyle and then expects us to take it seriously when the couple later complains about financial problems.  In between scenes in which they complain about financial problems, they sneak off to an upscale resort for the weekend.  This undercuts the film's efforts to create dramatic tension. 

    I am also reminded of the 1963 comedy The Thrill of It All, which involves the marital problems that result when a housewife (Doris Day) sets aside her domestic duties to star in television commercials for The Happy Soap Company.  It is emphasized in the story that Day is lured into the job by a hefty paycheck.  However, Day's husband (James Garner) is a successful obstetrician and he is able to more adequately provide for his family.  The subject of the paycheck comes up in many conversations, but no plot point is introduced to make the money significant to the story.  It's not going to pay for surgery that will enable a crippled child to walk, or pay for a long overdue honeymoon, or allow the couple to buy their dream house.  It is as if the filmmakers believe that money is money and no one needs a reason to want it.  But storytelling requires specific motivations, especially when Day's job as a pitchman goes on to create so much turmoil in her life.


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    While browsing the Internet one day, I came across a heated debate about movie spoilers.  Surprisingly, many of the debaters were strong supporters of spoilers and took the position that cinephiles were entitled to spoiler information.  They protested the efforts of producer J.J. Abrams to keep plot details of Star Trek Into Darkness (2013) under wraps.  They saw it as unjust for Abrams to prevent spoilers from being leaked to the public.  It was as if they wanted Congress to draft a constitutional amendment on the issue.  As hard as I tried, I didn't understand their logic.  These film fans demanded to know the complete storyline of a film from beginning to end.  One commenter said that he found that he was able to enjoy the nuances of a film more on second viewing because he was not burdened by the need to sort through various bits of plot information.  The fact that he understood the plot meant that he could better focus on the characters, the performances, the environments, and the effects.  Why, he thought, shouldn't he have that same experience the first time that he saw a film?  This was one of many times that I wished that discussion board profiles provided the age of the user.  Usually when I read strange comments on the Internet, I assume that the author is much younger than me and our differences of opinion represents that deep divide commonly known as the generation gap. 

    I assure you that this group of spoiler supporters are not alone in their thinking.  The same points have been put forth in other forums.  One person stated that spoilers allow a person to "rest easy and enjoy the whole experience rather than worry about the end."  Another person wrote, "[W]ith Harry Potter, I would always read the end before I read the rest of the book, no matter how much I tried to resist.  For me, I feel like it made me enjoy the book more, not less.  Having the big questions answered at the outset made it easier for me to appreciate the little things along the way."  One person made the point that modern audiences are so familiar with storytelling techniques that it is impossible to create surprises.

    Those who advocate spoilers say that spoilers enhance our love of films and make our lives better.  One person wrote in a forum, "I think it is because learning about the movies or books ahead of time is fun in and of itself.  So in effect, it is a kind of prolonging the pleasure of a film. . . If I read the rumors and the spoilers I get the months of pleasure learning about it as info trickles out before I get to see the film."  The idea that spoilers are fun is something that I hear often.  Charlie Jane Anders, a critic on the io9 website, wrote, "[O]ften the speculation about what's coming is more entertaining than the reality turns out to be."  Of course, there is also the  illicit pleasure of a spoiler.  A person browsing the Internet can feel empowered coming across a spoiler.  They now possess forbidden information about a film that most other people don't have.  Still, as alleged by the pro-spoilers faction, the most powerful benefit of sharing spoilers is that it helps to build a community around movies and television shows.  But doesn't it impart too much importance to the latest film to build a community around it?

    An unbelievable twist to this phenomena is that fan reaction to spoilers has actually caused filmmakers to reshoot scenes, which is what happened in the case of Termination Salvation (2009).  Anders made the point that the Internet has made entertainment "much more interactive and audience-driven."  Those who believe that film fans should be allowed to participate in the filmmaking process are bound to see filmmakers who closely guard plot points as fascists who need to be dragged out of their castles and hung by their ankles in the town square.

    No matter what spoilers supporters say, the demand for spoiler information is impossible for me to accept.  In my mind, these people are horribly impatient.  They are restless children crying out, "I want to know what's going to happen next!"  No thought.  No surprises.  They just wanted to sit back and mindlessly immerse themselves in the action.   It reminds me when my son was four and I took him to see a James Bond movie.  The film included shoot outs and car chases.  Every few minutes, my son tugged on my sleeve and asked, "Daddy, daddy, are the bad guys going to kill James Bond?"  I kept telling him that I didn't know and we were going have to watch to find out.  That answer never seemed to satisfy him.

    Spoilers are everywhere nowadays.  The advertising campaigns for films have become reckless in the way that they deliver spoilers.  Should we learn in the trailer for The Devil's Advocate (1997) that Al Pacino's character is the actual devil?  I laughed when I read this man's complaint of the trailer for Castaway (2000): "It showed him saying goodbye to Helen Hunt, scared in the plane during the storm, first shipwrecked on the island, talking to Wilson, spearing a fish, making fire, on the plane on the way back asking who was in the coffin, and reuniting with Helen Hunt.  Literally every major plot point was covered."  Yes, he's right, that's too much information.  I found it appalling that the poster for Quarantine (2008) gave away the ending of the film.  I was astonished recently when a critic described in detail the ending of Blue Jasmine (2013).  No one cares anymore.  Last week, Jon Stewart offhandedly gave away a funny plot twist of Inside Llewyn Davis (2013) during an interview with the film's star, Oscar Isaac.


    The trailer for Her (2013) was pieced together from footage from the film's opening act, which introduced the main characters and set up the premise.  The many twists and turns that happen in the second and third acts are entirely concealed in this and other promotional material.  This made the film a rich experience for me as I watched the story unfold and never had the slightest idea what was going to happen next.  The film was scary at times because I was on a deeply emotional journey and I didn't know where it was going to take me.    

    Spoiler-free poster for Her (2013).
    If the Internet had been around throughout the last century, the endings of many classic films would have been spoiled.  A moviegoer would have bought his ticket to Citizen Kane (1941) knowing full well that Charles Foster Kane's dying word "Rosebud" had to do with his beloved childhood sled.  Before Psycho (1960) reached theatres, it would have been well known that Norman Bates was Mother.  Reimagining the past in that unpleasant way makes me shudder.

    In today's upside down world, storytelling has been turned on its head.  The relentless assault of media has rewired the brains of consumers, who haphazardly suck in as much data as they can in the hope that something will produce a visceral twinge.  I see that many people today regard linear storytelling as a boring artifact of yesteryear.  They want flashbacks and flash-forwards.  They want films that tell stories sideways and backwards.  Writers have replaced the old Smith Corona with a Cuisinart.  Plot details are jumbled together and funneled into the appropriate hemisphere of viewers' brains.  It is, indeed, a new world.


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  • 01/22/14--10:30: Escaping a Bad Movie
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    I celebrated (or at least begrudgingly accepted) my milestone 55th birthday in July.  As the years cruelly advance, I have come to realize that I am becoming less and less patient.  This lack of patience has extended to my movie-viewing habits.  For years, I somehow felt obliged to sit through a film that I wasn't enjoying.  After all, I did pay for my ticket and it would be throwing away money to leave.  Also, I felt that I needed to secure my fanny in its place out of a misplaced sense of morality.  How would it be fair for me to judge a film that I hadn't seen from beginning to end?  I couldn't leave the theatre declaring that a film was terrible unless I had actually witnessed every last frame for myself.  I could only hope that the film was going to get better and the story would reach a satisfactory resolution.  I now look at myself as having been foolish to suffer through films that were useless, irritating and hopeless.  It was unreasonable for me to sit through a cinematic disaster until the bitter end just for the unlikely chance that the film would pull out of its perilous tailspin and accomplish a breathtaking last-minute redemption. 

    The multiplex made it easy for me to reject a film as it took little effort to stumble out of the one dark theatre and slip into another dark theatre next door.  Whenever I did this, I was sure that the film being exhibited in the other theater could not be worse.  I was usually right.  But, now, I no longer feel the need to sneak, or slip, or stumble.  Now, I proudly walk out of a theatre rather than subject myself to another nauseating moment of a bad film.  It is even easier when I am watching a bad film at home and all I need to do is press the eject button on my DVD remote.  Sometimes a person needs to accept defeat and cry out, "No mas!"

    Film critic Rex Reed was widely criticized for reviewing a film even though he had walked out after the first twenty minutes.  But I have to defend Reed on this matter.  Reed made it clear in his review that he "happily deserted" the film at an early stage because he found it "unwatchable."  Fair enough.  I admitted in my review of I Saw the Devil (2010) that I didn't watch the entire film because I could no longer endure the film's relentless blood and brutality.

    I recently gave up on American Hustle (2013) after 40 minutes.  I couldn't figure out what I was watching.  True-life characters were represented by surreal comic grotesqueries.  With his conspicuous belly bulge and funny wig, Christian Bale just needed to put on a clown nose and he would have been ready to drive around a circus tent in a clown car.  With blackface, Bradley Cooper's manic, bug-eyed federal agent could have traded barbs as a dandy in a minstrel show.  Of course, you also have Jennifer Lawrence accidentally blowing up a microwave, which Bale keeps calling "a science oven."  I expected Cooper to show up and say, "You done blown up the science oven.  Yuck, Yuck, Yuck!"  I didn't make it through twenty minutes of The Bling Ring (2013), which had some of the same problems that American Hustle had.  I have long had issues with filmmakers deviating wildly from the facts of a true story.  This unfortunately diminished my appreciation of Saving Mr. Banks (2013) and Lone Survivor (2013), which were well-made films that needlessly fabricated characters (the chauffeur in Saving Mr. Banks) and events (the firefight climax of Lone Survivor).

    The one film that I most happily deserted this year was About Time (2013).  The film introduces its protagonist, Tim, as an unfortunate individual who deserves our sympathy.  In the opening narration, Tim describes himself as "too tall, too skinny, too orange."  But we soon find out that this young man is a wealthy snob who has enjoyed unending privilege throughout his life.  He really sees himself as being highly attractive.  He certainly believes himself to be better than this nice woman that he rejects.  She expects to get a kiss from him at midnight on New Year's Eve, but he simply reaches out and shakes her hand.  She turns away looking devastated. 


    He thinks that he deserves this woman.  


    This actress, Margot Robbie, is by no means an average young lady.  In the real world, Robbie is rumored to have lured Will Smith away from his wife of 16 years, threatening to destroy one of Hollywood's great power couples.  Many critics are of the opinion that Robbie uses her considerable charms to steal The Wolf of Wall Street from superstar heartthrob Leonardo DiCaprio.  In a review of The Wolf of Wall Street, Kara Warner declared Robbie "a scene-jacking breakout star."


    But this fellow who admits to being "too tall, too skinny, too orange" still doesn't think he's so bad that he cannot attract Robbie.


    The plot of About Time is set in motion when Tim's father (Bill Nighy) reveals to Tim that the men in their family have the ability to travel through time and, if he uses this power wisely, he could greatly improve his life.  I had a hard time accepting that a rich young man really needs time-traveling abilities to improve his life.  I can only dream of having the life that this person has without the time-traveling hoodoo.  Why should I waste my sympathy on him?  The insufferable problem of the film is that its writer and director, Richard Curtis, is unaware that Tim is a jerk.  He assumes that viewers will have no problem instantly falling in love with Tim and tirelessly cheer his efforts throughout the duration of the film.  It wasn't long before I ejected the DVD.


    I also value my remote's fast-forward button, which allows me to skip past irritating characters and uninteresting subplots.  Let's take, for example, The Way Way Back (2013).  The central character is a 14-year-old boy named Duncan.  Duncan vacations at a beach house with his mother and his mother's overbearing boyfriend.  Duncan is able to get away from this gloomy, dysfunctional couple by performing odd jobs at a nearby water park.  The water park is the only place where Owen is happy and the only place where I am happy to see Owen.  I fast-forwarded through the awkward and unpleasant beach house scenes and focused my attention on the warm and funny water park scenes.  This made the film half as long and twice as entertaining. 

    My message today is for film fans to march fearlessly out of a film that has fallen far short of their expectations.  Life is too short to do otherwise.


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  • 01/23/14--07:20: Beyond the Boohoo

  • I am not the biggest fan of sad movies.  I have suffered enough heartache in my own life that I don't need to pay hard-earned coin to suffer heartache over the tragedies of movie characters.  This is probably the reason that I love comedy films more than dramatic films, which are so often about death and despair.  I don't want to see old-fashioned weepies like The Champ (1931), or Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939), or Old Yeller (1957).  If I have had a hard week at work, I am not going to reach for a DVD of Sophie's Choice (1982) or Terms of Endearment (1983).

    When I was eleven years old, I was seriously bummed out after seeing They Shoot Horses, Don't They? (1969).  I saw the film at the RKO Keith's Theater in Flushing.  I had to take the 28 bus down Northern Boulevard to get home to Bayside, but the film left me in despair about life and I was tempted to step in front of the bus as it angled towards the curb.  You want to really depress me?  Remind me that the once beautiful RKO Keith's Theatre now looks like this.


    Last year, I had a big falling out with my son and we are now estranged.  It has been hard to deal with this situation.  The fact that I am living Stella Dallas makes me see no benefit in watching the actual Stella Dallas (1937).  Let me watch Buster Keaton's The Navigator (1924) instead.


    I have never seen Johnny Got His Gun (1971) and I am sure that my life is better for it.  I will not shun a film just because the story includes a tragedy, but I will shun a film if it focuses entirely on tragedy and the characters who are involved are helpless to cope with their unfortunate circumstances.  Johnny Got His Gun, which centers on a soldier who was blown apart in an artillery blast and is missing his arms, legs, eyes, ears, nose and mouth, may present more hopelessness than any other film ever made.


    Hope and fortitude separates the dispiriting film from the uplifting film.  Rabbit Hole (2010) shows a couple (Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart) working through seemingly insurmountable grief after the death of their young son.  It isn't easy for them, but they go deep within themselves to find the strength to survive.  In the end, the human spirit triumphs over tragedy.  What could more positive than that?

    Filmmakers of the Twenty-first Century are obsessed with death and despair.  Their work stimulates an audience by emphasizing the sensational aspects of life's suckiness.  So many of their films are despair porn.  Some critics blame 9/11 for this gloomy trend, but the trend started earlier than that.  The year before 9/11, we had such gloom-fests as Requiem for a Dream (2000) and Dancer in the Dark (2000).  Both of these films were highly praised by film critics and were nominated for Oscars.  People more important than me obviously like death and despair.  Of course, many of those important people can take refuge in a nice home with a heated swimming pool.  

    Recent films have delivered little joy and celebration.  David Denby recently wrote in The New Yorker, "America is in trouble (no kidding), and many of the best movies this year, intentionally or not, embodied the national unease, the sense that everyone is on his own, that communal bonds have disappeared in a war of all against all, or the indifference of all to all."  He pointed out that, in 2013, many notable films touched on loneliness.  The loneliness theme was especially obvious in Gravity, All is Lost and Her.


    Films have long examined loneliness because, frankly, much of life is about loneliness.  The death of a loved one can bring loneliness.  A time of life, including the bewildering days of childhood and the distressing days of old age, can bring loneliness.  A person can feel lonely when they become isolated in a new community.  The world is filled with disturbed or anguished loners, who are represented in a wide variety of films.  It wouldn't seem that Taxi Driver (1976) and The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939) have much in common, but both films have a central character who is a loner.  Roman Polanski's "Apartment Trilogy" (Repulsion, Rosemary's Baby and The Tenant) shows the way that loneliness and isolation can lead to distress and madness.  Loneliness is a problem for a person stranded alone on an island (Castaway) or traveling alone in outer space (Solaris).  Two lonely people can find each other (Lost in Translation, Sleeping in Seattle, and many more).  Comedians are good at expressing loneliness.  Think of Charlie Chaplin in The Gold Rush (1925), or John Candy in Trains, Planes and Automobiles (1987), or Bill Murray in Broken Flowers (2005).


    I always found A Christmas Carol (1951) to be a great film about loneliness.  But this film, as many other films about loneliness, has a happy ending.  Loneliness, though sad, does not reach the heights of tragedy.  It is just part of life.  We all have to deal with loneliness at one time or another and it is comforting to see a film character find a way to cope with these feelings.


    This year, I was tricked into watching an achingly sad film.  The film was The Spectacular Now (2013).  As I sat through the first half hour of the film, I could have gone down my official list of good film elements and ticked off every last box.  I believed in the characters and I cared deeply about them.  But then, suddenly, this delightful teen romance introduced a plot twist that completely caught me off guard and radically changed my perspective of the film.  Spoiler alert!  I advise you to read no further if you plan to see the film.  Okay, I can now get to the twist.  Our charming, affectionate and wisecracking protagonist, high school senior Sutter Keely, turns out to be an alcoholic.  Miles Teller, who portrays Sutter, is a promising young talent.  He is a cross between a Say Anything-era John Cusack and a Swingers-era Vince Vaughn.  His love interest in the film is played by the marvelously gifted Shailene Woodley.  I am unmoved by most leading ladies today.  I much prefer watching a film with Barbara Stanwyck or Jean Arthur than watching a film with Rachel McAdams or Reese Witherspoon, but I found myself completely enchanted by Woodley.  Woodley is intensely moving in the role of Aimee Finecky, a smart and sweet-natured young woman who falls in love with Sutter.  You can feel the love that she has for this young man.  This makes it difficult when Sutter's problems with alcohol come to the fore.  Sutter breaks up with Amiee because he feels that he's not good for her, but the truth is that he doesn't love Amiee as much as he loves getting drunk and feeling numb.

     
    The film is based on a novel by Tim Tharp.  The last scene in the book reveals Sutter getting drunk in a bar.  The bar scene is featured in the film, but the film continues for another ten minutes.  The writers in charge of the film adaptation, Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, tried to tack on a more hopeful ending.  It makes sense as many of the people who read the book complained about the abrupt downer ending.  So, how does the film end?  Sutter is embraced by his mother when he breaks down crying.  His mother assures him that he is a good person.  Sutter becomes committed to giving up his drunken, hedonistic, live-for-today ways and making something of himself.  He applies for admission to college and he could not be more hopeful and confident when his application is accepted.  He drives to Pennsylvania to visit Amiee at her new school.  On campus, he sees Amiee coming out of a building.  She looks like a new person.  She is clearly centered and confident.  Sutter approaches her tentatively.  The final shot of the film focuses on Amiee's face, which expresses her mixed feelings about seeing Sutter again. 

    I came away from the film feeling less than hopeful that Amiee would accept Sutter back into her life or that Sutter could control his personal demons.  The film made me feel so sad that I regretted having seen it.  Look, I admit it, I am a disgustingly sensitive guy.  You know, it has been almost forty years since I first saw Annie Hall (1977) and I am still sad about the ending.  I need to learn to let that go already.



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  • 01/24/14--09:19: Stocks, Bonds and Pratfalls

  • The Wolf of Wall Street is a drug comedy.  Forget the fact that the film involves stock fraud.  Forget the fact that the film is based on a true story.  Forget the fact that the film was directed by the legendary Martin Scorsese, who the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has nominated in its Best Director category seven times.  The Wolf of Wall Street is Cheech and Chong Rip Off Investors.  I should point out that the self-proclaimed "wolf" does not ply his sleazy practices on Wall Street, but literal titles are not important when it comes to dopey comedies.  Consider that Abbott and Costello never actually make it to Mars in Abbott and Costello Go to Mars (1953).


    There's not much to this story of crooked stockbroker Jordan Belfort, who is played with demonic glee by Leonardo DiCaprio.  Belfort defrauded investors, snorted a vast amount of cocaine, and had sex with countless prostitutes.  The film numbs viewers with relentless debauchery throughout its running time of 180 minutes.  Scorsese devotes more time to telling Belfort's story than he previously devoted to the story of Howard Hughes in The Aviator (2004).  More time is devoted to Belfort than was devoted to the story of Jesus Christ in King of Kings (1961) or the story of Abraham Lincoln's slavery-snuffing administration in Lincoln (2012).  The Wolf of Wall Street is only 11 minutes shorter than Gandhi (1982).  You know Gandhi, right?  He is just the guy who used nonviolent civil disobedience to lead India to independence.  He is just the guy who inspired a worldwide civil rights movement.  Belfort is an idiot who enjoyed snorting cocaine off a hooker's ass.  What justifies this epic of excess and stupidity?

    Interestingly, DiCaprio gets to crash an aircraft in both The Aviator and The Wolf of Wall Street.  The crash in The Aviator is gripping and tragic.  The drunken crash in The Wolf of Wall Street is nothing more than juvenile.  It makes crashing an aircraft look like fun.  Scorsese has argued against criticism that the film was made for 14-year-olds, but this scene fails to make that case for him.  

    The film reminds me of a Randy Newman song called "It's Money that I Love."  Here is a sample of the lyrics:

    They say that money
    Can't buy love in this world
    But it'll get you a half-pound of cocaine
    And a sixteen-year old girl
    And a great big long limousine
    On a hot September night
    Now that may not be love
    But it is all right

    The song provides the same message as The Wolf of Wall Street, but it does it in three minutes rather than three hours.


    FBI agent Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler) pursues Belfort and his partner, Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill), as doggedly as Sgt. Stedenko (Stacy Keach, Jr.) pursued Cheech and Chong in Up in Smoke (1978).  Belfort spent 22 months in a country club prison, where a fellow inmate persuaded him to write his Wolf of Wall Street memoir.  That fellow inmate was Tommy Chong, who knows a funny drug story when he hears it.  A big difference between a Cheech and Chong film and The Wolf of Wall Street is that cannabis joints went up smoke in the former film and people's life savings went up in smoke in the latter film.


    I have found that I am not alone in my thinking.  The A.V. Club staff called The Wolf of Wall Street"a drug comedy in financial crime drag."  This may be the reason that industry insiders do not expect the film to be taken seriously by Academy voters.

    The scene from the film that people are most talking about features DiCaprio zonked out on Quaaludes.  The timing of Quaalude episode could not be worse as DiCaprio learns that his partner is about to unknowingly give away incriminating information to a banking associate on a tapped phone line.  Though he is barely able to function in his drug-addled state, he has to speed off in his Ferrari Testarossa to stop his partner from saying something that both of them will regret.   

    This is a comedy routine that can be traced back to the early days of the British music hall.  The routine typically involved a wealthy man drunkenly stumbling home after a night of revelry.  Of course, the inevitable problem with merrymaking at a club or bar is that the person has to get home afterwards.  The most common trait of the various versions of the routine was the comedian grappling with an inanimate object.  A popular version of the sketch centered on a comedian getting tangled up with a lamppost as he put on his jacket. 

    Early film comedians made extensive use of this premise.  Bad (K)Night (1902), a comedy produced by American Mutoscope and Biograph, involves a man coming home drunk and mistaking a suit of armor for a person.  Later, similar routines were performed by a number of popular comedians, including Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, Stan Laurel, Max Linder, Roscoe Arbuckle and Lige Conley.

     
    DiCaprio grapples with a very grand inanimate object - that white 1988 Ferrari Testarossa.  The Ferrari/Quaaludes scene was named one of the best scenes of the year by the A.V. Club staff.  This was their evaluation: "The scene. . . is a go-for-broke piece of bizarre slapstick comedy, with Belfort trying to squirm and writhe his way out of a country club. . . It’s the pièce de résistance of DiCaprio’s gonzo performance.   The scene climaxes with an interminably long, unbroken shot of Belfort trying to open his car’s butterfly doors using only his feet."  Colin Covert, Star Tribune critic, tweeted, "DiCaprio opening his Ferrari door with his foot in Wolf of Wall Street is the top comic moment of 2013."  Bob Grimm, Reno News Review critic, wrote, "With this film, [DiCaprio] proves he’s a physical actor of phenomenal talent. . . DiCaprio rivals the likes of Steve Martin and Charlie Chaplin in his ability to pull off physical comedy.  What he does with a Ferrari car door and his leg must be seen to be believed." 


    So, I am not the only one to make the connection between DiCaprio and Chaplin.  Chaplin famously performed the routine in One A.M. (1916).  An intertitle introduces Chaplin as a "tipsy playboy."  Chaplin's only plan after paying a cab driver for getting him home is to enter his home, take off his suit, and climb into bed, but he finds in the process that he must contend with various objects, including a fishbowl, a grandfather's clock, a seltzer bottle, a tiger skin rug, a rotating table and a Murphy bed.  A sober man will find that these devices have been designed for convenient use, but a drunken man will get his foot caught in the fishbowl, get hit in the head by the clock's pendulum, get soaked by the seltzer bottle, get frightened by the tiger skin rug, get spun in circles atop the rotating table and get knocked to the ground by the Murphy bed.  Let's look at a clip.  Unlike DiCaprio, who has trouble getting into a car, Chaplin has trouble getting out of a car.


    Alcohol addles the brain, slows the reflexes, and upsets coordination.  Quaaludes mess up a person much worse.  These little oval-shaped white pills suppress the central nervous system, reducing muscle tension, causing motor control circuitry in the brain to malfunction, and ultimately inhibiting the body's mobility.  In other words, a person who abuses his body with this sort of intoxicant could not be a bigger fool.

    Jim Carrey performed essentially the same routine (and performed it very well) in Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls (1995).  Carrey's Ace Ventura is desperately fleeing tribesmen of the savage Watchootoo tribe, but he is struck by a number of poison darts and finds himself quickly losing muscle control.  Like DiCaprio, he finds that he is unable to move his arms or legs and he is unable to produce intelligible speech.  The poison dart chase was a spoof of a scene from Papillon (1973).  It was one of the great moments of Carrey's career.  To be frank, DiCaprio's efforts are not at all gonzo by comparison.


    The biggest problem with The Wolf of Wall Street is that it is a dumb, silly comedy about a subject that is not at all funny.  Scorsese sacrifices any sense of human decency when he makes it seem that stealing from investors is the most fun that a human being can possibly have.  It may be the most irresponsible, offensive and immoral film ever made by a major director.  Complain all that you want about The Birth of a Nation (1915), this shameless recruitment film for future Wall Street crooks is far more inflammatory.

    Films have the power to affect behavior.  Scorsese's Taxi Driver (1976) influenced John Hinkley Jr. to stalk President Ronald Reagan and fire six shots into a crowd in an attempt to assassinate our commander-in-chief.  Jordan Belfort admits that he was inspired to engage in financial shenanigans by Gordon Gekko of Oliver Stone’s Wall Street (1987).


    It is harmless fun to see Chaplin's tipsy playboy get his foot caught in a fish bowl, but nothing is harmless about the rampant stupidity depicted in The Wolf of Wall Street.


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    I have a new article at World Cinema Paradise called "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and Other Flying Cars of Cinema."  But, before you head out to read that article, I want to take this opportunity to briefly acknowledge the flying cars of television, which played an important role in children's fantasy series of the 1960s and 1970s.

    The flying cars of the period were put forth to amuse the many baby boomers transfixed in front of their televisions.  The trend started with Supercar, a series that debuted on British television in January of 1961.  The multipurpose Supercar, which could travel in the air, on land or beneath the sea, was no doubt influenced by Jules Verne's infamous Terror machine.  Gerry Anderson, the creator and producer of Supercar, went on to feature flying cars in many of his later series, including Joe 90, Thunderbirds Are Go and Space Precinct.


    Children who witnessed the premiere of The Jetsons in 1962 were enchanted by the futuristic utopia presented by the series.  The robots, the holograms and the various push-button conveniences made the Jetsons' daily life look like great fun, but nothing in the family's possession drew more envy from the series' fans than the aerocar.


    Other flying cars followed.  The Fantasticar debuted in the third issue of The Fantastic Four, which arrived on newsstands in March of 1963.  The Fantasticar made its earliest appearances on television on an animated Fantastic Four series that aired on ABC from 1967 to 1970.

     
    The Flying Sub, which looked and functioned much like a flying car, was introduced on Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea in 1965.


    Doctor Who obtained his own flying car in a 1974 Doctor Who episode called "Invasion of the Dinosaurs."


    It was inevitable that Sid and Marty Krofft would produce a live-action children's series starring a flying car.  The series, which debuted on ABC in 1976, was Wonderbug.



    Additional Note

    I came across an interesting shot comparison in my research of this article.  You can find it at http://shotcontext.blogspot.com/2010/07/landing.html.



    Edit Note

    Doug Krentzlin, one of my fellow writers at World Cinema Paradise, was kind to point out to me that a flying car was introduced in the S.H.I.E.L.D. comic book in the 1960s.  This car is significant in that its folding tires concept was later adopted by the folks who designed the flying DeLorean for Back to the Future (1985).  The S.H.I.E.L.D. car was created by legendary illustrator Jack Kirby, who previously came up with the Fantastic Four's flying Fantasticar.  Kirby modeled the car after a Porsche 904. 


    But Kirby did not bring the first flying car to comic books.  That credit goes to another comic book legend - Jerry Siegel, the co-creator of Superman.  Siegel's car, the Star Rocket Racer, belonged to a superhero named the Star Spangled Kid, who was an obvious imitation of Kirby and Joe Simon's Captain America.  Yes, the creative community is indeed incestuous.  The Star Rocket Racer debuted in Star-Spangled Comics # 1, which was released to newsstands in October of 1941.  The artist who came up with the actual bubble-top design for the car was Hal Sherman.


    The Star Rocket Racer made its live-action television debut in a 2010 Smallville episode called "Absolute Justice, Part 1." 


    The S.H.I.E.L.D. car made its live-action television debut in the premiere episode of ABC Television's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.  Series creator Joss Whedon decided to name the car Lola.


    Now that we have gotten that out of the way, I need to relight my pipe and get back to reading Great Expectations.


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    Not long ago, I talked to a young man about my love of Abbott and Costello. The young man had never seen an Abbott and Costello film and I offered to loan him a DVD of Hold That Ghost (1941).  I must have been persuasive in my praise of the comedy team because my friend didn't wait long after I gave him the film to bring it home and pop it into his DVD player.  He flashed me a big grin when I saw him the next day, which let me know that he did enjoy the film.  Then, he told me something that caught me by surprise.  He revealed to me that he suffered from Tourette syndrome and he said that he was particularly amused by Costello because the comedian expressed a variety of phonic tics that are commonly associated with Tourette syndrome.  Most common of the repetitive sounds that Costello uttered in his comic performance were wheezing, whistling and humming.  I found it intriguing that the way in which a high-energy comedian used vocal sounds to punctuate a line or express an emotion (usually fear, lust or frustration) could make him relatable to a person who suffer from a neurological disorder.  Motor tics, which are also caused by Tourette syndrome, are something that can be seen in the work of  many comedians.  These tics can include facial grimacing, eye blinking, shoulder shrugging and head jerking.  Abnormalities in the nervous system cause exaggerated reactions, which can mirror the exaggerated reactions that we see in comedy performances. 

    Below is a compilation of Costello's funny vocalizations in Hold That Ghost.


    Mel Blanc emphasized Costello's whistling tic when he parodied the comedian for a 1942 Warner Brother's cartoon, A Tale of Two Kitties.


    I recommend a new book on Abbott and Costello's Buck Privates (1941), which was written by Abbott and Costello authority Ron Palumbo.



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    Television critics often refer to the trendsetting romance of Sam and Diane from the 1980s sitcom Cheers.  Sam and Diane (Ted Danson and Shelley Long) were sexually attracted to one another, but they never stopped fighting long enough to get together.  Just when it looked liked they might hook up, the volatile couple would have an argument that would again keep them apart.  Fans of the series got caught up in the "will they or won't they? relationship, rooting for the characters to finally settle their differences and break the sexual tension between them.  Author David LaRocca called this the "delayed romance strategy." 

     

    But the same idea was used decades earlier in Mr. Peepers, which ran on NBC from 1952 to 1955.  It sparked the interest of television viewers when high school science teacher Robinson J. Peepers (Wally Cox) fumbled in his efforts to approach pretty music teacher Nancy Remington (Patricia Benoit).  People tuned into the show hoping that Peepers and Remington would finally get together.  In those days, though, the question of "will they or won't they?" did not relate directly to sex as it did with Sam and Diane.  It related to courtship and marriage, which of course meant a honeymoon and a lusty roll in the sheets.  Peepers and Remington got married in a 1954 episode.  Wikipedia referred to the episode as a "blockbuster ratings event."  Unfortunately, though, ratings for the series declined afterwards.  Bob Costello, the series' production manager, discussed the show's downfall after the wedding in an interview with the Television Academy Foundation.


    The delayed romance strategy was also adopted for the Jackie Cooper sitcom Hennesey, which ran on CBS from 1959 to 1962.  At the start of the series, romantic feelings developed between a Navy physician  Lt. Charles Hennesey (Cooper) and his yeoman nurse Lt. Martha Hale (Abby Dalton), but Hennesey believed that it would be unprofessional for them to pursue a personal relationship.  The series focused on Hale's continuing interest in Hennesey and it also focused on the gradual manner in which Hennesey finally warmed up to his beautiful young nurse.  The series ended with an episode in which the couple finally married.

    The very next year, a similar plot device was employed for an ABC sitcom, The Farmer's Daughter.  This time, a widowed U.S. Congressman (William Windom) and his lovely Swedish housekeeper (Inger Stevens) develop romantic feelings for one another, but the two are hesitant to admit their feelings due to their professional relationship.  It took 71 episodes for the couple to come to terms with their feelings and become engaged.  Ratings for the series declined once the couple became married in a third season episode called "To Have and to Hold" (1965).


    Additional Note
    I wrote recently about what I called "stuck" routines.  I forgot about an episode of Mr. Peepers in which Wally Cox spends most of the story stuck in a basketball hoop. 



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    It has been a long time since the Commedia dell'arte routine “Lazzo of the Hands Behind the Back” was featured on a television series.  It was almost forty-five years ago that Don Adams and Don Rickles performed the routine on an episode of Get Smart called "The Little Black Book" (1968). 


    Sitcoms have changed a lot since that time.  Modern-day comedy writers no longer see a use for such old-fashioned silliness.  Yet, the routine recently turned up as a party game on an episode of Broad City called "Hurricane Wanda."



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  • 03/10/14--15:40: Ja, Neil Simon!

  • The comedy of American playwright Neil Simon has translated well overseas.  Numerous versions of The Sunshine Boys have been produced in Germany.  The still that appears at the start of this article is from a 1974 version of the play staged in Munich.  The actors are Paul Verhoeven (right) and Heinz Rühmann (left).  Here are stills from other productions.


    Next is a YouTube clip from a 1999 television adaptation that starred Otto Schenk and Helmut Lohner.


    YouTube also provided me with a film clip from a version of The Odd Couple produced at the Borras Theater in Barcelona from 1994 to 1999.  The actors, who remained in the play for the full five-year run, are Paco Morán and Juan Pera.


    The simple fact is that character comedy is universal.


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  • 03/10/14--15:56: Wanna Play Hide and Clap?

  • The "Wanna Play Hide and Clap?" scene from The Conjuring (2013) has elicited screams and gasps from millions of people.  But this scene is nothing new to fans of classic comedy.
     
    The Conjuring (2013)


    An eerie clapping thoroughly frightened Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy as they visited a graveyard in Habeas Corpus (1928).


    Hands emerge suddenly out of the darkness in many spooky house comedies.  Here is an example from Abbott and Costello's Hold that Ghost (1941).



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    What do the trailers of Hollywood's upcoming slate of comedy films tell us about the state of American comedy?  Unfortunately, today's filmmakers depend largely on raunchy comedy and shock comedy, both of which appeal mostly to the feeble-minded and the infantile.  The trailer for Bad Words includes a raunchy turn on one of the oldest gags in film history.  Let me provide background on the gag before I reveal the way in which this funny business has been reduced to an off-putting bathroom joke.

    In 1903's Catch of Hard Shell Crabs, a mischievous boy empties a bucket of crabs into an old man's bed.  The old man no sooner settles into bed then he jumps up with crabs clinging to various parts of his body.  In the real world, a crab uses its pincers to seize and subdue prey, break open a mollusc's shell, fight foes, and signal other crabs.  But, in the comedy world, a crab uses its pincers solely to latch onto the assorted body parts of an unwary man.  Another marine crustacean, the lobster, also gets into the action at times.  Crustaceans could be expected to turn up whenever a comedian got close to an ocean.  In the 1913 Pathé Frères comedy Boireau à la pêche, André Deed is yanked into the ocean by a powerful fish struggling at the end of his fishing line.  Other fishermen promptly pull Deed out of the water, but by then a lobster has attached itself to our sad hero's backside.  Arthur Cunningham is swimming in the ocean when a crab snatches onto his big toe in the 1915 Falstaff comedy A Massive Movie Mermaid.


    This trend continued for decades. The gag remained virtually the same except that the lobster or crab grabbed onto a different body part from film to film.  A comedian might have a crab hanging from their ear like an exotic earring or have their nose squeezed indelicately between a pair of pincers.  In Waiting (1925), Lloyd Hamilton expresses exquisite pain when he reaches into an icebox and comes out with a crab locked onto his finger.  Let's look at other examples.

    Billy Bevan in Galloping Bungalows (1924)



    Curly Howard in Matri-Phony (1942)



    Lou Costello in Lost in Alaska (1952) 


     Come on, Shemp, show them how it's done.


    Of course, tastes have changed.  We now live in a permissive and enlightened world, which I have been told is nearly utopian.  Bringing this timeless gag into our great new world now means having a marine crustacean latch its claws onto a new body part - a man's testicles.


    Is this progress?  I managed, by exercising my utopian free will, not to laugh at this. 

    The Bridesmaids influence continues, bringing us films in which women get drunk and act foolishly.  The trailer for The Other Woman features Leslie Mann getting drunk and vomiting into her purse.


    Female comedians acting as stupidly as male comedians is supposed to be a form of female empowerment.  Who am I to argue?  Fine, go for it.  When the drunken woman passes out, Cameron Diaz carries her out to her car to get her home.  This allows Mann and Diaz to take on a routine that has been performed by venerable film comedians for close to a hundred years.


    Walk of Shame presents yet another drunken women.  The plot is simple.  Following a boozy one-night stand, a woman (Elizabeth Banks) finds herself stranded in downtown Los Angeles without her phone or wallet and has only eight hours to get to an important job interview.


    Last year, Banks argued on her blog that a sexy woman can be funny as a goofy man.  This film will put her theory to test as the shapely actress wears a tight, skimpy yellow dress throughout her trek across Los Angeles.  At one point, she tries to borrow a bicycle from a small boy, but the boy is a horny little operator and he is only willing to part with his bicycle in exchange for a peek at Banks' bare breasts.

      
    Bad Words looks to be dependent wholly on shock comedy.

     
    This film goes a step further than Walk of Shame by featuring a scene in which a small boy asks for and receives a peek at a streetwalker's breasts.


    Better Living Through Chemistry tries to elicit laughs from shameless acts of adultery and drug abuse.  Yes, more sex and intoxicants.


    Neighbors introduces us to fledgling parents Mac and Kelly Radner (Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne).  In the trailer, the Radners do not come across as being as wise or responsible as we would expect parents to be.


    Oh, here's a comedy stunt achieved through CGI.  Not very funny.


    The most nauseating part of the trailer is the couple discovering their baby teething on a frat boy's used condom.


    Am I supposed to be laughing uproariously as the couple rushes the baby to an emergency room out of fear that he has contracted a sexually transmitted disease?  Ho-ho, an infant has an STD scare.  I suppose that this is meant to please the creepy little degenerate that lives inside us all.  But, to be honest, I don't get it.  Why is it funny to drag infants and small children into the adult world of prostitution, condoms and slutty little yellow dresses?


    These days, it would probably be best for Woody Allen's image for the comedian to play a celibate monk in a film.  But, unfortunately, Allen appears as a leering pimp in Fading Gigolo.


    Are any of these trailers free of sex, drugs and alcohol?  I found three, Blended, The Budapest Hotel and A Haunted House 2Blended looks to get laughs from Adam Sandler riding a CGI ostrich.


    Wes Anderson's The Budapest Hotel looks to be a film that focuses more on color, composition and whimsy than story and character.  But, hopefully, the trailer serves the same purpose as an eye-catching book cover, using color and design to draw the public to a rich and satisfying story contained within.


    The highlight of the trailer for A Haunted House 2 is Marlon Wayans and Gabriel Iglesias killing a possessed chicken and then frying up the creature for two heaping plates of chicken and waffles.


    Possessed chicken?  Chicken and waffles?  This is somewhat outside of my frame of reference.  I have never let my waffles get near a chicken, whether broiled, baked or fried, and the idea of a possessed chicken strikes me as more strange than funny.  More remarkable, though, is the execrable way in which Wayans mugs his way through the trailer.


    I am sorry, we are not amused.  Better luck next year, Hollywood.



    Additional Film Clip

    The Three Stooges in A Pain In The Pullman (1936)



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    A new YouTube channel, the host of which calls himself Johnny Flattire, is furnishing the general public with the sound films of Harry Langdon.  The sound and picture quality is not the best, but it was a thrill for me to have access to many films that I had never seen before.  I have decided today to select a number of scenes for discussion.       

    Director Arvid Gillstrom did well with Langdon in two of these films, The Big Flash (1932) and Tired Feet (1933).  The Big Flash includes a series of vignettes.  At one point, Harry does his best to avoid falling into the embrace of a vamp.  This was a preoccupation for Harry in his silent films.  


    Later, Harry has trouble operating a machine gun, which is reminiscent of a scene from Langdon's Soldier Man (1926).


    Langdon continues to fall back on old material when he recreates a Long Pants routine in which he has to distract a police officer.

     
    I like this scene in which Harry gets caught in the middle of a shoot out.  The joke is that Harry's hat flies into the air each time that the cop or robber fire their gun.  The scene also includes a sidewalk elevator gag that was used often in silent films.


    I wrote about the classic water pump routine here and here.  Langdon biographers Chuck Harter and Michael J Hayde found that Langdon made use of this routine in his vaudeville act, Johnny's New Car.  Langdon performed variations of the routine in two of his sound shorts.  First, he puzzles over an uncooperative water faucet in Tired Feet.


    Nine years later, an older and wiser Harry struggles to best a tricky water faucet in Tireman, Spare My Tires (1942).


    These two scenes reveal the major changes that Langdon made to his comic persona during his Columbia series, which ran from 1934 to 1945.  Pre-Columbia Harry tries to make peace with the faucet, giving it a friendly pat, and eventually walks away resigned and befuddled.  Columbia-era Harry, who functions as a more conventional character, engages in a prolonged battle with the faucet and walks away frustrated and wet.

    The climax of Tired Feet involves Vernon Dent forcing Harry to dress as a woman in a scheme to rid their camp of tramps.


    Langdon opens Sue My Lawyer (1938) with an amusing bit in which he accidentally mistakes a ball of rubber bands for an apple and tries to take a bite out of it.  It isn't as funny as Stan Laurel eating a wax apple in Sons of the Desert (1933), but it got me to laugh nonetheless.


    Unfortunately, I cannot offer praise for much of what follows the rubber band scene.  The problem is that Columbia producer Jules White didn't allow Langdon to do what Langdon did best.  Langdon had his own distinctive style, but you see little of his style in his Columbia series.  It often looks as if Langdon wandered in off the street and got caught up in a Three Stooges comedy.  Buster Keaton had the same problem at Columbia.  Don't get me wrong, I love the Stooges.  But it was wrong for the Stooges' style to become the house style of Columbia's short comedies.


    Midway through Sue My Lawyer, Langdon recreates his classic Strong Man routine in which he carries an unconscious woman up a flight of stairs.  New to the routine is a dime-store corkscrew, which has been introduced to enliven the action.  The corkscrew pokes through Harry's coat pocket and it jabs the woman in the backside every time that Harry lifts his left leg to ascend the stairs.  This sort of comic mayhem, though suitable for the Stooges, only succeeds in distracting attention from Langdon's pantomime actions and emotional expression, which is what made the routine funny in the first place.  The fact is that the corkscrew gets more screen time than Langdon.


    But, still, the scene is subtle compared to the comedy found in many other Columbia shorts.  The next time that Langdon grappled with an unconscious woman for Columbia, writers Monte Collins and Elwood Ullman made the point to enhance the comic action with an explosive current of electricity.

    To Heir is Human (1944)


    This is a familiar Commedia dell'arte routine used in Sue My Lawyer.


    In the long history of comedy, no actor ever worked his forehead as vigorously as Monte Collins works his forehead in this scene. 

    This film provided one other routine that I enjoyed.


    This cracking walnuts routine had been used by other comedians in the past.  Lloyd Hamilton and Dick Sutherland performed the routine in a 1924 Educational comedy, Good Morning.

    In Cold Turkey (1940), Langdon furnished the mirror routine in reverse.  Instead of mistaking another person for his reflection, he mistakes his reflection for another person.


    This is the strangest version of Langdon's classic balloon routine.


    Langdon performed a slightly better version of the routine a year later when he starred in the PRC feature Double Trouble (1941).


    Later in Cold Turkey, Harry is looking to slaughter the turkey for dinner, but Monte Collins gets the mistaken impression that Harry is an axe murderer out to slaughter him.


    The first gag of A Blitz on the Fritz (1943) has Harry getting stuck in a tire. Believe it or not, this gag is as funny as the film gets.


    The scriptwriter, Clyde Bruckman, borrowed the film's climax from a 1919 Harold Lloyd comedy, From Hand to Mouth.  The scene worked well with Lloyd but was hardly suitable for Langdon.


    Langdon was paired with British comedian Charley Rogers in a low-rent attempt by PRC to create their own version of Abbott and Costello.


    PRC's House of Errors (1942) starts out with Harry struggling with mechanical devices, including a car horn and a vacuum cleaner.


    Later, a criminal tries to use a fishing line to snatch a set of keys away from Harry.  He snags onto several items apart from the keys, reeling in a pocket handkerchief, a rug and Harry's hat.  Seeing these objects move across the floor or float into the air leads Harry to believe that he is being plagued by a poltergeist.  The scene reflects a direct Abbott and Costello influence.  Lou Costello was spooked by a moving candle in Hold that Ghost (1941) and now Langdon is spooked by a moving rug.


    Comedy stalwarts Monte Collins and Vernon Dent help out in a scene set in a flophouse.  The scene starts out with Harry acting opposite Collins, who plays the proprietor of a flea circus.


    Next, Harry runs into problems with Dent, who falls asleep on his hand.


    Here is an amusing routine performed by Langdon in another PRC feature, Double Trouble (1941).


    Blonde and Groom (1943), which was written by Langdon, has a morbidly bizarre ending in which Harry is injected with a giant hypodermic needle and drained of more blood corpuscles than he can spare.  Harry is so anemic that, when his wife hugs him, he crumbles to dust.  The fact that the scene drags on for close to 3 minutes makes it especially gruesome.


    I recently wrote an article for a Tim Greer's Harry Langdon fan site, Feet of Mud.  The article can be found at http://feetofmud.com/2014/02/03/death-lust-betrayal-and-long-pants/.  I strongly recommend that you also take a look at the site's excellently illustrated filmography.



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    I found an interesting quote from Roscoe Arbuckle in a Moving Picture World article titled "How Fatty Arbuckle Makes 'Love'" (March 8, 1919).  Arbuckle expressed his disappointment at Keaton leaving his comedy troupe to join a military unit in France.  "It is utterly impossible to replace him," he said.  "To my mind, Buster is the coming comedian of the movies and will be a very successful star."  Arbuckle was not likely surprised by Keaton's comedy supremacy of the 1920s.


    Arbuckle said in the same interview, "I'll wager [Buster] is a great favorite with his company.  He can entertain them, all right!  By the way, he had a funny experience, or rather his drill squad did, when Buster first joined the army.  He was eager and anxious to learn but knew just about as little about handling a gun and about military tactics as the rest of the rookies.  In going through the drill, he unconsciously put in some of the funny steps and movements with which he was accustomed to [from] burlesque military exercises.  Everyone knew who he was and nothing but military discipline kept him from breaking up the show. When off duty, he was the best entertainer in camp, with his ukulele solos and his stock of natural comedy."  Keaton was later inspired by his experiences in France to make The Doughboys (1930).



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  • 05/31/14--19:41: Merry Jerry
  •  

    George Ovey starred as "Merry Jerry" in more than 100 Cub Comedies from 1915 to 1917.  He stood with both of his feet pointed inwards just like a later Jerry. 

     

    Here is a few production stills, ads and articles for the series.
     
     





     

     










    An Oriental Spasm (1915)
     


     Jerry's Busy Day (1915)

     

    The Hold-up (1915)



    Taking a Chance (1915)



    Jerry in the Movies (1916)



    Jerry's Big Game (1916)



    Jerry's Millions (1916)



    Be Sure You're Right (1917)



    Jerry's Brilliant Scheme (1917)


    As clever reveal gag opens an unidentified Ovey comedy from 1917.


    This is an older and wiser Ovey in a Three Stooges comedy.



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  • 06/01/14--07:30: Funny Tidbits for June

  • Allow me take care of some miscellaneous business today.

    Here is a Charley Chase performing the "trying on hats" routine in At First Sight (1924).

     
     

    This is Buster Keaton performing an early version of his "unconscious woman" routine in The Navigator (1924).

     

    A folding bed gets the best of Jerry Lewis in You're Never Too Young (1955).

      
    Charlie Chaplin is still running afoul of his old nemesis, the dress dummy, in Monsieur Verdoux (1952).

     

    Here are three brats from The Band Wagon (1953).

      
    The Three Stooges perform the three-man human pyramid gag in Healthy, Wealthy and Dumb (1938).

     

    I have written much about Karno's "Mumming Birds" sketch in the past.  I just recently learned Max Linder starred in an unauthorized film adaptation of "Mumming Birds" in 1907.  The film was called Au music-hall, which translates as At the Music Hall.
     
    These stock comedy bits are further proof to me that comedians never tire of a good routine.


     
    One last silly clip

     


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