Burt Kennedy | Luis Mandoki | Dennis Dugan | Carl Reiner | Rob Reiner | Malcom Mowbray | Arthur Hiller

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Suburban Commando (Burt Kennedy)

It is good to see Burt Kennedy back. This film is a minor but most pleasant comedy. Hulk Hogan stars in a comic version of the Terminator type films, where an alien good guy and bad guy chase each other around modern Earth. Here the Hulkster is an alien bounty hunter staying with a "typical" suburban family. Since the parents are played by Christopher Lloyd and Shelley Duvall, you know they are nutty as hell! Hulk Hogan is still not a great actor, but he is much better playing comedy here (and elsewhere) than in his last attempt at serious drama (!!?!). He has a genuine flair for this sort of silliness, and of course Lloyd is full tilt. My favorite scene shows the Hulkster trying to learn how to skateboard.

I have some reservations about the film's emphasis on Lloyd becoming "Manly" by learning to take risks with his career, and by learning to fight. Men are under so much pressure to succeed in our society, in very tough times, that they don't need any of these macho strictures. Proving one's masculinity is a poor way to succeed as a human being. By contrast, I enjoyed the early scenes of the Hulkster having a stress problem. Stress has gotten so bad that it has even reached outer space! These scenes are unusual in action pictures, whose clichés normally show men being able to handle the most outrageous problems without turning a hair. This realism is both welcome and unusual.

Born Yesterday (Luis Mandoki)

Luis Mandoki is a Mexico-based director whose rose to a certain degree of prominence in the English language cinema with his Gaby. Gaby is the true life story of a paraplegic, who overcame her difficulties and became a writer. It is a very absorbing movie, and one of the best of the films made about handicapped people in the last few years. It antedated, and perhaps influenced, My Left Foot, a much inferior but better known film, that won an Oscar for its stars. There are many similarities in the plots of the two films, but where Gaby seems inspirational, My Left Foot seems morbid.

Now Mandoki has returned with his first big budget, Hollywood production. Relatively big budget that is; by Hollywood standards it is a modest movie, a little comedy with three stars and no action sequences or special effects. It is charming and delightful. Mandoki is a people-oriented director: his characters and their development are what interest him most. Both of his films are woman-centered, and focus on social outsiders who are trying to make friends and penetrate into society, often with great difficulty. Both protagonists are also desperately, determinedly eager to get an education, which they believe will allow them to make a meaningful contribution to society.

The film Mandoki made between Gaby and Born Yesterday, White Palace, is not as good, but it has thematic similarities. Once again, we have the story of an uneducated woman trying to break into society, but handled much less well. Among other problems, this movie is much less pro-education; it seems to imply that the man should just accept the woman the way she is. This might be true, but it doesn't leave the plot of the movie any place to go. Similarly, the man's well to do friends are characterized as simple relentless snobs. Is this really realistic?

Brain Donors (Dennis Dugan)

Blake Edwards is still working the slapstick vein, but hardly anyone else is. More's the pity, because slapstick is an important, delightful branch of film art that should not be allowed to die out. Here is a fascinating exception. Brain Donors (1992) is an attempt to make a modern day film in the exact style of a Marx Brothers movie. The plot, characters, rapid fire volley of nonsensical gags and corny jokes, all directly imitate those of a Marx Brothers film. This sort of conscious imitation of a style of an earlier era (The Marx Brothers flourished especially in the years 1929 - 1937) seems quite unusual in modern film.

It is a loose remake of A Night at the Opera, wherein the Marx's sabotaged an opera performance. Here the plot similarly centers around ballet. The two leads, John Turturro in the Groucho role, and Nancy Marchand in the Margaret Dumont role, are remarkably good at recreating the acting styles of their predecessors and role models. (The phrase "role model" is so often used in a sociological sense that it seems oddly strange to apply it to someone on whom an actor is modeling their role!)

This film is remarkably detailed and imaginative, and is clearly in some sense a labor of love by its creators. The gag-laden dialogue is often slightly off color, in the tradition of the Marx Brothers, but it seems very funny, at least to me (taste in humor is so personal.)

Sibling Rivalry (Carl Reiner)

This old fashioned farce is the work of Carl Reiner, best known for his work on Your Show of Shows (1953-58), creating and writing the best episodes of the original Dick Van Dyke Show (1960-1967), and for his film comedies with Steve Martin, such as The Jerk (1979) and Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid (1982). A good cast of mixed TV and film comics helps make this a funny film. Everybody gets to play a little bit against type. Jamie Gertz, who usually plays sophisticates, gets to go blue collar; Bill Pullman, who usually plays macho dudes, gets to play a nerd; and Ed O'Neill, famed as super-slob Al Bundy, gets a good guy role as a clean cut cop. Despite the title, most of the siblings in the plot are supportive of each other. The plot concentrates more on that old fashioned farce staple, adultery, which of course goes awry in the most comically disastrous ways possible before the happy ending.

Alex and Emma (Rob Reiner)

Alex and Emma (Rob Reiner, 2003) is a charming romantic comedy. It deals with a writer (Luke Wilson) who faced with a brief deadline for finishing his latest romance novel, hires a stenographer (Kate Hudson). Predictably but pleasantly, romance ensues. What is unusual about the film is that we see both the real life of the characters, and scenes from the novel. The characters in the novel are based on real people the writer knows, himself included. The same actors appear are their "inspired by" characters in the book, as in real life. The whole set-up recalls Providence (Alain Resnais, 1977), one of the masterpieces of film history. Alex and Emma is not on the same level, but it is a lot of fun all the same. The possibilities of this premise are so intriguing, that one wonders why there is not a whole sub-genre of films in this mode. Reiner's previous The Princess Bride also contrasted a frame story showing reality, with a fairy tale dramatized within, but there was no cross-over between the characters of the two stories, as there is in Alex and Emma.

Just as Providence owes a lot to screen writer David Mercer, so too does Alex and Emma show the signs of its screenwriter Jeremy Leven. Leven was responsible for the romantic extravagances of Don Juan DeMarco (1995). His characters tend to be far more interested in love, and in expressing their flamboyant and romantic inner personalities, than in any monetary goals. They are inner-directed people, who are resistant to pressure from the outside world, instead trying to make their own feelings influence events.

A filmed interview with Reiner exists, in which he talks about carefully coaching Tom Cruise for his role in A Few Good Men (1992). Cruise had never made a comedy film before, and Reiner built Cruise's whole performance from the ground up, training him in comedy acting and timing. Reiner was influenced by his years of comedy experience on All In the Family, and elsewhere (my favorite Rob Reiner performance is as a ferocious looking but actually gentle and sweet biker who develops a crush on Laurie in The Partridge Family). Both Wilson and Hudson here show a lightness and deftness of playing that seems Reineresque. Both their contemporary scenes, and the romance novel sections, recall traditional stage drawing room comedies.

The writer here is a gambling addict, one of the mainsprings of the plot. The film commendably shows the dark side of gambling. It always leads the hero to disaster. This realistic view is a welcome contrast to the glamorization of Vegas and gambling seen in many movies today. Despite its increase in social respectability since 1950, gambling is still a huge tragedy that ruins countless lives. But the film does not confront the hero's need for therapy and/or a twelve step program to counterbalance his problem. At the end, he just swears gambling off - a good thing, but inadequate. Perhaps the filmmakers did not want to darken the romantic comedy mood of the film too much. This is always a dilemma when any real life problems enter the world of a comedy. One wants to tread a fine line between a serious realistic look at the problem, and a desire to give an entertaining story to viewers.

When first seen, the hero is wearing a T shirt. I confess I cringed. Is this how far movie glamour has fallen, that leading men play films in T shirts and jeans? However, when the historical novel sections of the film kick in, the characters start wearing glamorous costumes. There is perhaps a lesson here, in that even Hollywood sees modern day America as a land without any sort of style. People have got to start dressing a little bit better. In Billy Bitzer's brief documentary Westinghouse Works (1904), we see the workers leaving the factory. Everyone is wearing a suit, and is neatly groomed. If factory workers in 1904 can all wear suits and look decent, people in the far more affluent America of 2004 can do the same!

The reputation of both Reiner and films like Alex and Emma probably suffer from today's anti-Hollywood sentiment. Many cinephiles today have written off Hollywood entirely, feeling disgust for its endless war propaganda movies and shameful glorification of violence. Hollywood has worked overtime to earn this disgust - if it makes one more ultra-violent, war-and-killing-are-fun movie we will all scream. However, innocent films like Alex and Emma get caught up in this problem. It is a good movie, even if it did come from Hollywood.

Don't Tell Her Its Me (Malcom Mowbray)

This sparkling romantic comedy also fell into critical oblivion, despite a great cast and a very literate script. The characters in this film are far more intellectual than those in many American movies: three are professional writers, and the hero is a highbrow cartoonist. With Shelley Long along as the deus ex machina of the plot, convincing intellectuality reigns supreme, whether she is discoursing on the evolution of the romance novel, or instructing her tiny daughter on the consequences of eating electric cords.

The film benefits from the location filming in Charleston, South Carolina. As filmed by cinematographer Reed Smutley (The Long Hot Summer, Gleaming the Cube), a specialist in glowing, sun-drenched, exterior scenes, Charleston's historic architecture and summertime fertility casts a beautiful glow over the proceedings. Even among today's virtuosic color cameramen, Smutley's work is distinctive. His interiors are not bad either, with their bright lighting and rich colors.

Taking Care of Business (Arthur Hiller)

Hiller is a veteran of the Golden Age of television in the 1950's. His theatrical career has mixed serious drama with comedy, often with a satirical edge. While his dramas tend to be rather less than first rate, his comedies have included such artistic successes as Teachers (1984) and Outrageous Fortune (1987). Here he's hit pay dirt again, with a comedy that gets in some sharp jabs at the yuppie lifestyle and the business world.

Pretty Woman (Gary Marshall)

Marshall had a long career as a TV comedy writer (The Dick Van Dyke Show) and producer (Happy Days, Laverne and Shirley, the latter series making his sister, Penny Marshall, into a star.) He has made five theatrical films as director, Young Doctors in Love, The Flamingo Kid, Nothing in Common, Beaches, and Pretty Woman. The middle two films centered on father-son conflicts, and seem morbid and obsessive. Much better was his first film, Young Doctors in Love. This enthusiastic spoof of medical soap operas featured a talented cast, and is quite funny. The original script of the movie, by Elias and Eustis (Head of the Class TV show creators and producers) was published as the movie paperback tie-in; an unusual procedure in the publishing industry, which prefers to put out "novelizations" of films by hack writers. Eustis' & Elias' script reads as well as the film plays, and it seems hard to see Marshall's contribution, although the comedy timing is good and the movie has good performances, something for which Marshall can take considerable credit. I would enjoy reading more screenplays of Hollywood films.

Pretty Woman marks Marshall's return to successful comedy. It is a very uneven film. It has been much criticized in the press for reviving the "Cinderella myth", in which a poor woman finds all her problems solved by marrying a rich man. This criticism usually focuses on the sexism and lack of respect for woman's abilities inherent in this plot. But I can also testify from first hand that it is hard on the men in the audience, too, who have to wonder how they can ever measure up to the success level of the men in the film. Or even like being reminded of the difficulty and anxiety of making it in the business world. I had similar trouble enjoying Mr. Destiny's look at men's success fantasies, too.

If the overall structure of Pretty Woman offers difficulties as a picture of men's and women's lives, many individual scenes offer considerable charm. It is good to see Elinor Donahue (Father Knows Best) gainfully employed, even in a small role. The hero's social confusion and puzzlement on his place in the world and relations to other people is very interesting, and a welcome relief from the endless smirking social confidence exuded by screen heroes. Even with all of his money and "success", the hero does not really know how to relate to other people, and his job as corporate raider is immoral. Both the man and the woman in this film are social outsiders, and their struggle to find a meaningful and moral relationship with society is the emotional core of the film.

Junior (Ivan Reitman)

This film is much better than I thought it would be. It has a well crafted script, with a great deal about biological engineering in it. The film is both intelligent from a technological point of view, and as an exploration of the moral and emotional aspects of its subject matter. It is what a good science fiction film should be like - although this film is not being marketed as sf, it is. This film has the same stars (DeVito and Schwarzenegger), same director, and similar subject matter (bioengineering) as Twins (1988). It has less comedy and more sentiment than the previous film, but it shares its high quality. Comedies and science fiction are the two kinds of film mainstream Hollywood does best today.

Schwarzenegger is very gentle throughout most of the movie, unlike the more aggressive characters he usually plays. His violence is only unleashed once in the film, and then to make a remarkable statement. This scene is one of the great coups de theatre of the modern film, and shows remarkable strategic planning.

Jingle All the Way (Brian Levant)

Levant's work shows a consistent interest in fantasy. He began in television, on the Happy Days show, and worked on the spin-off Mork and Mindy. He wrote a memorable 1983 pilot-like episode on Happy Days in which cousin Roger becomes principal of a tough school. Levant has directed four family comedies in the 1990's.