Some Movies I Saw in April

5060964d19b5f54aec7b1a3c41d389c0Here’s some films I’ve either revisited or have seen for the first time in April.

Stripes: I remember seeing this movie long ago back when video stores existed. Bill Murray excels as a slacker who basically joins the army because he’s all out of options. He opts to drag his best friend played by Harold Ramis reluctantly along. “Stripes” goes along the same anarchic, anti-authoritarian vibe that came with fellow classics  like”Animal House” and “Caddyshack” which were made by some of the same people. Murray plays the type of character that made people fall in love with him, his unique comic persona has never been matched. The film doesn’t really know when to quit at over two hours, and some jokes seem dated but with this kind of talent in front of and behind the camera, it’s a must for comedy fans. 3 stars out of 4

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles: I’ve never really joined the cult of John Hughes with his famed 80s high school movies. They are good for what they are worth, but I’ve never felt the need to revisit them in any special way. However the one exception for me is this sentimental comedy classic where Hughes left high school and hit the road with Steve Martin and John Candy. The film starts as sort of an odd couple pairing with uptight Martin trying to make it home to thanksgiving with lovable slob Candy. However this isn’t really a one joke premise, it does go deeper and by the end, you realize why for some people this has become a holiday classic. Martin and Candy are perfectly cast in their respective roles, and this film seems to have aged well 4 stars out of 4

Bowfinger: Written by Steve Martin and starring him and Eddie Murphy who in my mind has never been funnier. This  gentle satire on Hollywood filmmaking has Martin playing an Ed Wood type filmmaker who tries to get the biggest star in the world in his little science fiction film entitled “Chubby Rain” to be in it. Murphy plays the star but also a nerdy guy named Jiff who plays his stand in. Murphy shines in every moment he’s in, but I can’t really say he walks away with the movie as the people who make up Martin’s rag tag filmmaking team each get their moment to shine. “Bowfinger” came out at the tale end of the 1990s it didn’t make much of an impact, but it’s worth revisiting if you’re a fan of either Martin or Murphy. 3 and a half stars out of 4

The 3 Amigos: I was on a bit of a Steve Martin run this month, this one film, a favorite of mine as a child starts him along with Chevy Chase and Martin Short as dimwitted silent western stars who unbeknownst to them become saviors of a small Mexican town that is terrorized by an evil land baron, they just think they are putting on a show for the town. This is just a really fun movie, with wonderful gags that are at times surreal, my favorite being the campfire sing-a-long. It’s one of those films that remains sophisticated even though its main protagonists are dumb as a post. 3 and a half stars out of 4

Jason and the Argonauts: A rollicking fantasy adventure based on the legend of Jason and his Argonauts search for the golden fleece. What makes this film so special is the stop motion animation of all the mythical creatures provided by the legendary Ray Harryhousen. For those of you unfamiliar with Harryhousen, he had a wonderful imagination of creatures that he brought life to, influencing everyone from George Lucas to Tim Burton. The story itself is rather bland and ends abruptly after a stirring battle with some stop motion skeletons that is the film’s centerpiece, however the magic of Harryhousen’s unique brand of special effects is timeless. 3 stars out of 4

The Jungle Book (2016): By far the best film I saw in the theatre this month was this impressive retelling of the Disney animated film. With the exception of the young boy who plays the man cub Mowgli in a very impressive performance, this “Jungle Book” is entirely computer animated bringing a jungle that looks authentic, along with all the endearing animal characters voiced by the likes of Bill Murray, Ben Kingsley, Idris Elba, Scarlett Johansson, and Christopher Walken to name of few. Director John Favreau creates a wonderful adventure story that captures an energy and tone that feels right to the spirit of the original but also updating it for the this new generation. 4 stars out of 4

Zootopia: After hearing good word of mouth, I decided to see this new Disney animated feature. An impressive and surprisingly subversive animated film that has a pretty good mystery at its core, but also a moral about real prejudice. I have to say I had one of the best moments I ever experienced in a movie theatre when in one specific scene in “Zootopia” where a young Fox is being shunned by some other animals for being different, I heard a little boy in front of me tell his dad that “Those guys are bullies”. You can tell a movie is really onto something when you hear that kind of reaction from its target audience. 3 and a half stars out of 4

Batman Vs Superman: Dawn of Justice: A hot mess of a movie, and one I can’t say I enjoyed. What is this movie doing? What is it trying to say? Where is it going? I don’t remember the last time I felt I was pulled in so many directions the movie wanted to take me to. Look Zach Snyder has some visually compelling ideas, and this is probably more cinematically dynamic than most movies churned out by Marvel who usually opts for flat visuals to keep their films looking more consistent. However, the visuals turn incoherent and repetitive after awhile. Its main heroes, if you want to call them that look mostly like jacked up testosterone fueled pro-wrestlers. Some have argued this film is like a deconstruction of super hero movies, by making  the two most iconic super heroes in history into self-absorbed misfits each with a chip on their shoulders big enough not to realize they are being manipulated into a fight that feels very unmotivated. There isn’t much heroism going on here with the brief of exception of Wonder Woman who is the only one who seems to crack a smile as she seems to be only one who realizes she’s in a super hero movie. Suffice it to say if this is the Batman and Superman for this generation, I’ll take comfort in my old school Christopher Reeve and Michael Keaton movies thank you very much. 2 stars out of 4

 

Important Scenes: The Picture Show in “Sullivan’s Travels”

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It’s probably the universal opinion by most people that comedy doesn’t get much respect, I suppose it was never set up like that. Comedies are usually built on a foundation that consists of going for the laugh, they’re entertainments meant to please the audience. A comedy or a comedian in general can live or die on their jokes, it’s a high wire act that doesn’t always pay off, but when it does, and the laughter comes in all its boisterous glory, it can be something that could reach a certain transcendence.

In the history of movies, no scene captures this type of transcendence better than the most famous moment in Preston Sturges’ “Sullivan’s Travels”. In it John L. Sullivan, a famous movie director is on a quest to experience human suffering as research for a “serious” film he wants to make rather than the light silly comedies and musicals he’s known for. In the film’s climax, Sullivan is mugged, left unconscious, loses his identity, proclaimed dead in the newspapers, and is sentenced to a chain gang for seven years. While in the chain gang, he is smacked in the face, whipped by the warden, and sent to the hot box for talking out of turn. But pretty soon he gets a reprieve in the form of a picture show the chain gang gets to see at a local church. The film turns out to be a Mickey Mouse cartoon, and we see the audience of church goers, convicted felons, and their captors come together in a communal fit of hysterical laughter. Sullivan, the last one to start laughing in the group is even astonished at what he’s doing, a man who, in a bit of irony has everything taken away from him to learn what real suffering is all about, finds a moment of grace by getting the chance to laugh.

I first saw “Sullivan’s Travel’s” many years ago in my high school days when video stores were still a thing. I remember coming to the scene I described above, and feeling a certain kinship with its message and how Sturges, one of the great comedy writers and directors conveys it simply and directly. I couldn’t help but identify with the character of Sullivan, an artist who wants to be taken seriously, who wants to make great and important work, but feels pigeonholed in his comedy wheel house. Yet this scene is an awakening for him, it shows that what he does has merit, and being in the world of comedy gives him an artistic purpose, he accepts who he is and what he does, and instead of making the great social commentary film he set out to do, he decides to make a comedy.

There is so much to take from “Sullivan’s Travel’s” which is truly one of the great, and special films ever to be made, but I wanted to spend some time on this particular scene because for me it was a moment that I could honestly say changed my whole trajectory on life. I grew up wanting to be an actor and a writer, there wasn’t really much else I wanted to do. I was a shy kid in school, and I found out very early in life, acting was a way I could express myself. Writing would also come into the fold, and I found an even greater love for that. I’ve always admired comedians, and comic writers maybe above anyone else, and in school my teachers would let me do some comedy skits to entertain the class that I would write and perform myself. It was really my only way to gain acceptance with my school mates who for the most part didn’t give me much notice because of my quiet way. Later as I went to school for my acting, I could be cast in dramas every now and then, but I never felt one hundred percent convincing in them, because I guess maybe deep down in my gut there was this inner clown in me wanting to emerge.

A few years ago I fell into a group of actors and improvisers, and to this day we put on monthly, even weekly comedy and improv shows at our local theatre, and even though its hard work, and the laughs don’t always come, I can honestly say it’s the most fulfilling experience I have ever had as an artist. When I do comedy, I usually go to “Sullivan’s Travels” as a bit of a mantra, a lot of our audience members who come to our shows are usually just looking for a laugh, or maybe some sort of relief, and I have to say I feel overjoyed when we are able to provide that for them.

I suppose comedy doesn’t come with that sense of importance as the great social dramas of our time do. These are the films that win all those accolades and awards, and can sometimes be seen as super self-serious in their tone. What “Sullivan’s Travels” is able to do in such a sweet and direct way without becoming too serious is show how comedy is important, how it can raise our spirits and forget our troubles even if for a short time. In our worst days, we can only hope for a laugh, and sometimes it doesn’t come, but if it does how grateful are we to get it?

Mad Men

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For those of you unaware, “Mad Men” finished its run almost a year ago, yet I have been playing catch up re-watching it from the beginning to its finale to get the full Don Draper experience. I can say without a doubt “Mad Men” may be the richest television show I have ever seen, although keep in mind, I have missed the boat on some of the most acclaimed shows in this newly anointed golden age of ours.

I chose to watch “Mad Men” because it sounded right up my alley, I love period pieces, and the stylish look of the show caught my eye right away. Maybe it’s a fault of mine, but I’ve been reluctant to fall into the binge watching craze of our current zeitgeist, it took me awhile to warm up to the idea. “Mad Men” seemed like the kind of show for me where I could dip my toes in and see how I would like it.

I started on season one which took me some getting used to, the show itself set a certain pace that didn’t feel like the norm. I suppose dramas like “24” and “Lost” which could be considered more plot driven, set a standard for how binge watching shows should be done, the idea was to leave the viewer hanging with some sort of a cliffhanger in order for them to tune into the next episode. “Mad Men” wasn’t like that, it played to the beat of a different drum, it had a strong focus on character, relationships, tone, and atmosphere. There was an arc to the show but it was not based on a certain plot, it became more organic which brought out a fullness to its world. Once I got into season two, I eased into this type of story telling  and nuanced characterizations and was hooked, I was a “Mad Men” fanatic.

The main story arc of “Mad Men” concerns the character of Don Draper played to perfection by Jon Hamm, although it can be said it is an ensemble piece. This, I think is the show’s main strength, although Don is the link to everything, you never minded it when other characters stole focus. The show left time open for other intriguing people like Elizabeth Moss’ Peggy Olsen, Christina Hendrick’s Joan Harris/Halloway, January Jones’ Betty Draper/Frances, Vincent Kartheiser’s Pete Campbell, or John Slattery’s Roger Sterling.

The show was also aware of the passage of time, the characters got older, sometimes changing with the times, sometimes being  out of touch with it. The ensemble grew as well with Jessica Pare bringing in Megan Draper, Jared Harris as Lane Price, and Kiernan Shipka as Sally Draper.

Being set in the 1960s, the show was a doorway into probably the most fascinating time in modern American history often being the backdrop for political assassinations, civil rights movements, early feminism, and Vietnam. At times the show felt like a portrait of the changing of the guard from Don’s older generation, to the more youthful generation represented by people like Peggy who becomes Don’s mentor.

Throughout its run “Mad Men” wasn’t the sunniest show on television, it usually wallowed in the self pity of Don Draper who was a womanizing, hard drinking ad executive with a very dark past. Don joined the ranks of Tony Soprano and Walter White as the typical anti-hero you were supposed to love to hate, or hate to love, or just hate, or just love. I think throughout the show, I never hated Don, if anything I guess I felt sorry for him. He was a self-loathing, self-hating sociopath, he did terrible things, but all the while I was hoping for him to find some peace.

By the time I got to the show’s finale, I felt there was a change with the tone of the entire show. “Mad Men” did become a bit sunnier in its portrait of Don, as if he was coming out of a long dark tunnel. The final image of the show is something I won’t spoil for people who still have yet to see it, and although there have been write-ups about what it’s all supposed to mean, to me I left it with a feeling of hope which is something I never thought I would feel at the end of a show of this type.

“Mad Men” was created by Matthew Weiner who wrote for “The Sopranos”. You can tell he has a love for his characters. Everyone on “Mad Men” is no saint, and there are a lot of despicable things that go on throughout the run of the show, but by the end Weiner seems to be telling us that everyone has reasons for who they are and what they do. The finale itself deals with this idea of empathy and being able feel for someone else, it’s a fitting message for a show full of a bunch of screwed up individuals trying to find their way in this world the best they can.

“Mad Men” ends in a way I always love, and that’s imagining these characters carrying on, with a life that we’ll never see but can only imagine, the show may be over, but their story continues. If Weiner wanted to, I’m sure “Mad Men” could have continued with more seasons if he left us with an endless mine open to be dug.

I’m sure enough has already been written about “Mad Men”, I just wanted to add my two cents even though it’s about a year too late. In years to come, I’ll probably want to revisit the show again. I’ll want to see what’s up with Don, Peggy, Joan, or Roger, even though it’ll all be familiar to me. But it’s what makes a favorite show like this so special, you want to return to it to spend time with these people, even if they’re not perfect,  but then again nobody is.