Sunday, July 20, 2008

a little more hope

"Family Guy" may be less a show than it is a reward for pop culture junkies who have accumulated a great deal of useless knowledge, but it should be noted that this animated series often references arcane source material with high regard and intellect.

Creator Seth MacFarlane has a peculiar affinity for the song and dance antics of vaudeville and the cinema it inspired. The demise of yuksters Vern and Johnny (pictured below), shot down by Stewie in Season 5, Episode 4, may indicate that a fair number of viewers were perplexed by McFarlane's frequent homages to vaudeville. This is only conjecture, but I can't shake the feeling that negative audience feedback on internet message boards may have influenced the writers' decision to retire these obscure gags.

On the other hand, the three "Road" episodes, which playfully recreate the formula of the old Hope & Crosby pictures, seem to have struck a chord with viewers. It helps that these episodes feature Brian and Stewie, whose chemistry is popular with fans, but the exactness with which MacFarlane and his writers translate material from the original "Road" movies suggests that the formula still works in a contemporary context.

It's not particularly surprising that the sensibility of these films from the 1940's and 50's continues to appeal; the humor in the Bob Hope/Bing Crosby pictures, like that of the "Family Guy" program, is irreverent and self aware. Of course, "Family Guy" is often as crass as it is sophisticated, but this also serves to make the "Road" gags work. When Brian and Stewie dance around the censors in their musical numbers (just as their cinematic counterparts did all those years ago), they also sidestep our expectations because we know that they are just as likely to follow through with a dirty joke.

It may be worth investigating whether or not audiences are backwards compatible. That is to say, would contemporary viewers who enjoy "Family Guy" be entertained by the Hope & Crosby films, or would they find the humor too benign and the references too outdated? (Perhaps an informal study and a future post will follow). For the time being, I am content in knowing that at least one forum remains, in these (post)modern times, for this rare brand of madcap comedy.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

i bought hope for $11.99 (cdn + tax)

... And he's worth every penny.

Oh sure, I like expensive things, but I can
afford cheapy discount items, and thanks to some archaic copyright laws, there is no shortage of value priced DVD collections, largely comprised of films that have fallen into the public domain, to be found in stores. You, yourself, have likely passed by an aisle display and seen covers such as the one below, retailing for under ten dollars.

Now, to a certain extent, you get what you pay for. I have several sets produced by St. Clair Vision (including Classic Film Noir), and the quality of the discs is so poor that most DVD players have trouble reading them. On several occasions I have been half way through a movie when it suddenly digitizes, freezes, and will not restart regardless of how I tamper with the disc and/or the machine.

Also, no matter how much one loves a bargain, the average consumer probably harbors little interest in these old fashioned films. To the consumer's credit, it is often the case that only a few of the titles included in any given set are worth the time it takes to watch them.

Still, for all the rough, it is inevitable that one will stumble upon a few diamonds. Assuming that you can get them to play from beginning to end, pictures like "D.O.A."; "The Strange Love of Martha Ivers"; and "Detour" should provide you with a quantity of B-grade entertainment that exceeds the price of admission. It was with this in mind that I decided to take a chance on the affordably priced "Legends of Hollywood Bob Hope" collection: ten films on five DVDs for $11.99.

This nicely packaged set is not distributed by the dreaded St. Clair Vision people, but by a company called BCI Eclipse that seems to have put an extra few pennies into basic materials in order to ensure that the discs actually function. And while not every film in this compilation is a gem, it does provide a fairly comprehensive overview of Hope's big screen career, and includes a number of, what I consider to be, his best pictures.

Previous to buying this set, I had seen most, if not all, of the Hope/Crosby "Road" movies (two of which-- "Road to Rio" and "Road to Bali"-- are part of the package) and found them to be quite charming overall. I frequently lament the fact that vaudevillian style entertainment is no longer common within popular cinema and television. The "Road" pictures revel in the spirit of a sometimes hokey brand of comedy, and, in particular, the duo's musical numbers highlight the irreverence that makes this erstwhile genre so enjoyable. To be honest, though, in spite of the chemistry between Bob and Bing, I always found Hope to be more compelling to watch than his partner, Crosby.

So it was a joy to finally delve into some of Bob Hope's solo projects: "My Favorite Brunette"; "The Great Lover"; and "Paris Holiday". Though the names of his characters change, Hope's persona remains much the same throughout all of these pictures, and the plots of the films are always superfluous to the punchy one-liners. But the formula works: put Bob in an outrageous situation and watch him be a cad, a coward, an anxious lover, a hero, a victim, a ladies man, and a commentator, all in a single scene.

Other movies included in this package (like "Son of Paleface" and "The Private Navy of Sgt. O'Farrell) are considerably less delightful. These later works employ many of the same comedy devices, but the writing is far weaker and, at times, Hope appears to be justifiably disinterested in the material. Even his trademark direct address to the camera/audience cannot excuse the lameness of the events taking place on screen-- and nothing can excuse the broad racial stereotypes that are meant to serve as humor in these films.

In the category of good-but-not-great, "The Seven Little Foys," inspired by the true story of a family of vaudeville performers, offers a rare glimpse of Hope in a quazi-dramatic role, and for the purposes of the film, he competently fits the bill. There are certainly better movies from the era (circa 1955), but I think contemporary audiences would be surprised at how engaging and emotionally moving this story really is.

I have yet to watch the remaining two films in the compilation, "The Lemon Drop Kid" and the much maligned "How to Commit Marriage." By all accounts, it looks like I'm in for one decent picture and one that's a total stinker. For the money, though, I can't complain.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

johnny depp in Tim Burton films

Thursday, July 03, 2008

wanted: The Big Sleep and Sin City

In order to truly enjoy the new film, Wanted, one must check one's logic at the theater door. I mean, c'mon... A world where the names of baddies who are fated to die are delivered to a secret society of assassins via loom? Let's hope that the powers-that-be don't slip a stitch. Just because this film demands an obscene level of suspension of disbelief, however, doesn't mean that viewers should turn their brains off altogether.

That I enjoyed this film in no way forgives the fact that it revels in some fairly dubious morality. I think it would be difficult to justify my appreciation of Wanted if I was not consciously aware of the ideological elements that I find so objectionable. (In order to refrain from divulging any information that may constitute spoilers, allow me to limit my summarization for the time being and say that the movie celebrates misogynistic fantasies, rationalizes amoral [and sometimes immoral] violence, and masks the ambiguous value system its protagonist develops by suggesting that he is on a path of self growth.)

At the risk of sounding pompous, Wanted has been touted and marketed as mindless summer entertainment, and it is bound to appeal to a largely mindless audience. I'm not saying that the majority of the film's viewers lack the ability to discern from right and wrong, fiction and fact, or that they will adopt the movie's values into their everyday lives. To think, however, that the celebration of ideals such as Wanted presents does nothing to shape a spectator's notion of what traits are to be admired in a movie and/or its "hero" would be a mistake. Just look at these excerpts from fan reviews posted on

In all honesty, this movie is symbolizes what all action movies should be. Fun, HOT, testosterone-fueled... PLUS you get to see that sweet little bum bum of Angelina Jolie's! What's not to love about this movie? ... It starts off with James McAvoy playing Wesley Gibson as a bumbling nobody walking through his daily existence as someone who doesn't know the core of who he is. By the end of the film, he is a violent, magnetic presence that you can't take your eyes off. You'll truly understand why he is "The Man".

Off the chain look for an unexpected twist at the end. I didn't quite understand it but, was very good movie watching. Grab that bag of popcorn and soda in the other hand and enjoy ... An action picture that shows ingenuity in inventing new ways to attack, defend, ambush and annihilate. Wanted slams the pedal to the metal and never slows down.

Now, in the interest of full disclosure, while the film scored a 7.6 out of 10 from imdb visitors who rated it, there are at least as many negative written reviews about Wanted as there are positive, and even the fans who enjoyed the film are, by and large, quite insightful in their commentary. One must grant, however, that most people who would be inspired to take the time to write a comment for the website have a vested interest in film analysis to begin with. I can't help but think that if you interviewed the audience as a theatrical screening lets out, you would get a lot of responses to the movie that are similar to the ones above.

In fact, I am reminded of a university tutorial I taught a few years ago in which the class was studying Howard Hawks' 1946 film noir, The Big Sleep. One of the goals for the hour was to examine sexist attitudes in the film, and my students were surprisingly reluctant to do so. When I asked them what they thought of the lead character, private eye Philip Marlowe, a young gent shouted out, "Dude, Marlowe's pimpin'" (in the most complimentary sense of the term). I was shocked, again, to see how many of my female students smiled and nodded in agreement.

The class was in no way opposed to examining the aesthetics of the film, but its ideology was decidedly off limits, as if discovering something objectionable in the fabric of the movie would destroy its entertainment value. Bear in mind that this is an introductory course for film majors, students who have committed to spending the next four years of their lives analyzing cinema. They were convinced that Marlow embodied every aspect that a movie hero should, and were able to brush off the fact that he slaps a few women around as a sign of the time in which the picture was made.

And it is true that such behavior would not fly as easily in a contemporary film, but they refused to see that these blatant images are not the only examples of outdated morality in The Big Sleep, or that the fact that they so easily accepted the character of Philip Marlowe as a typical on-screen hero illustrates that many of the film's values and ideals are still present in the movies we watch today. Ultimately, we all need to understand that enjoying a film as entertainment and recognizing its ideological flaws are not mutually exclusive.

The difference, I would say, between a movie like The Big Sleep and one such as Wanted is that the content of the former is largely influenced by the ethics of the time in which it was made while the latter, more often than not, means to entertain by way of hedonistic excess. This is not an admirable agenda, but I find it hard to dismiss the movie for this reason any more than I would poo-poo the early James Bond films. I don't admire Bond for being a womanizing brute, but neither do I deny the fact that his cinematic persona is the source of great amusement.

Wanted has been compared to films like The Matrix and Fight Club, and aptly so, since it owes a great deal of visual style and story content to both. But the feeling I got from watching the movie was more akin to my experience with Robert Rodriguez & Frank Miller's Sin City. The visuals are stunning, and they subsume me the way only a comic book or video game can. The plot line (or lines) is (or are) both extreme and engaging. The film establishes a consistent mood and an enticing story world. And yet, the subject matter is often appalling.

It's not the violence or sexuality that I find offensive, but rather the way in which the film tries to misdirect us into believing that it is somehow progressive. For instance, I take particular issue with the segment entitled "The Big Fat Kill," in which we are supposed to imagine that the female prostitutes who occupy the Old Town region of Basin City are strong women who rule the turf and administer their own brand of justice: "The ladies are the law here. Beautiful and merciless. If you've got the cash and you play by the rules, they'll make all your dreams come true. But if you cross them, you're a corpse."

Forget, for a moment, that the only powers these women wield are their bodies and their guns, and consider that, in spite of the authority they are said to maintain, when the chips fall they need a man (Clive Owen) to save the day. Oh... and, best case scenario? If he saves the day, they get to continue being prostitutes!!! Wanted attempts to manipulate us in much the same way, presenting Angelina Jolie as an expert assassin who is, initially, far more capable than our protagonist. But the scene in which she reveals her ornate tattoos and supple buttocks to James McAvoy should alert us to the fact that her primary role in the film is to be sexy.

It is difficult, in a way, to begrudge a spectator for having a superficial reaction to a film when that film encourages just such a reaction. In the end, however, I believe that it is our responsibility as an audience to seek out and support films that are more ideologically sound, and to establish dialogues about the movies that aren't. I would hate to live in a world where an excessive, hedonistic, amoral extravaganza like Wanted couldn't be made, but I would be less tempted to live in world where its ethics are accepted, let alone championed.


The tagline for The Big Sleep is: "
The type of man she hated . . . was the type she wanted!"

The day that my students and I discussed The Big Sleep was only the second class of the semester. As the year progressed, they proved themselves to be superb film analysts, and I wish them all the greatest success as they continue their education.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

mid-summer round-up

Some brief thoughts about the movies I have seen so far this summer:


Director Jon Favreau has assembled a superb cast, admirably led by Robert Downey Jr. as rebel billionaire Tony Stark. Downey's performance in the film's first act is worth the price of admission, but the highlights of his ballsy comic take on the character are all in the preview, so most of us have already seen this performance for free. After Stark escapes from captivity he becomes sullen and self-righteous and, to be honest, a little bit boring. (my full review here)


Minor Mamet. This film, set in the world of mixed-martial arts competition is compelling due to the facts that it: (1) is written and directed by David Mamet, (2) is not about the sport as much as it is about a behind-the-scenes conspiracy, and (3) the actors-- the impeccable Chiwetel Ejiofor, Mamet regulars Ricky Jay and Rebecca Pidgeon, and a surprisingly capable Tim Allen-- deliver the writer's nuanced dialogue superbly. The inevitable plot twists, however, are far too predictable to anyone familiar with Mamet's work. Judging by the audience at the screening I attended, those who are not familiar with his previous films (and/or plays) were disappointed that Redbelt wasn't more like Jean-Claude Van Damme's Kickboxer.


It's crap. If I get started on all of the film's flaws again, I'll be sitting here typing for hours. So please see my full review


I lump these two films together for a couple of reasons. One is that the premises of both movies are seemingly absurd.
Zohan: an Israeli Special Forces soldier moves to New York to pursue his dream of becoming a hair stylist. Guru: a self-help author/spiritual advisor from India is asked to come to Toronto to rekindle the talent and love life of the Maple Leafs' star player. Another is that I read a lot of early speculation about these pictures that questioned whether or not Sandler and Myers are still relevant in the age of Seth Rogan/Judd Apatpow comedies. Well, critics have maligned The Love Guru because it relies upon only two gags: puns and penis jokes. Zohan has received considerably more acclaim; I suspect this is because it has an underlying message that Israelies and Palastinians should get along, but what they don't seem to acknowledge is that Sandler's film regurgitates two jokes, as well. Is hummus funny? How about sex with old women? Maybe the first time, but not the umpteenth. Jews and Arabs would be wise to unite in hatred of a movie that insults the intelligence of an audience to such a degree. The Love Guru is probably a better film, but it is more disappointing than Zohan because it had more potential to begin with. Guru has a lot of material that would have been funnier if better timed in editing (how can we not laugh at the idea that the Leafs' star hockey player is black and their manager a dwarf?). The main problem, though, is that Myers seems not to be sure whether the Guru Pitka is savvy or stupid. Had he made the character more specific, like the fish-out-of-water Austin Powers, The Love Guru could have been laugh out loud funny, and Myers performance may have been compared to some of Peter Sellers' work. Are Sandler and Myers still relevant? I believe that Myers has more humour and intelligence to offer, but neither comic has provided enough evidence this summer to indicate that they're still on the cutting edge.

Having now seen two film adaptations of this comic, I am convinced that the Hulk is just not interesting enough to warrant this much screen time. Furthermore, simply casting a talented actor like Edward Norton is not enough to ensure that Bruce Banner will be interesting, either. Throw an equally dull villain into the mix, and you've got a big budget recipe for boredom. The highlight, for me, was watching the two animated monsters wrestle their way down Toronto's Yonge St. in their climactic battle. Prominent background sites include Sam the Record Man and the notorious Zanzibar strip club.


With Steve Carell stepping into Don Adams' phone shoes and five seasons of zany spoof material from the television show created by comedy legends Mel Brooks and Buck Henry to provide inspiration,
Get Smart had every advantage it needed to be successful and funny. Sadly, it is neither. The movie has more action sequences than gags, and the Maxwell Smart character as interpreted by the screenwriters is competent when he should be clumsy. The handful of jokes that do work are the ones that reference the TV show, suggesting that the filmmakers would have done well to stick closer to the source material in the first place.


Critics have looked favorably upon this summer flick, albeit with a qualification of the film as "mindless entertainment." I, on the other hand, would encourage viewers to remain
mindful while they watch this movie, as it champions some rather suspect ideology. Having said that, I really dug the film. The action is invigorating, the dialogue is sharp, and James McAvoy is funny as hell. To say that the premise, a disgruntled young man in a dead end job is recruited by Angelina Jolie to train as a super-powered assassin for a secret agency, plays into base male fantasies might be too mild a statement. It is likely that the original story was born of a comic book writer's wet dream. (The film is an adaptation of the Millar/Jones graphic novel.) Wanted is
"Rated R for strong bloody violence throughout, pervasive language and some sexuality," and takes full advantage of that classification by refusing to shy away from excess. In spite of its abject morality, this film won me over in terms of sheer excitement. Definitely the high point of the summer so far.