FREAKY FRIDAY (2003) – Jamie Lee Curtis gets her freak on

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Jamie Lee Curtis blasts through Freaky Friday like a breath of fresh air in a staid movie premise. This personality-switch comedy (already done twice before by Disney) takes forever to get going, but when it does, Curtis doesn’t just trade places — she channels Lucille Ball.

Curtis plays Tess Coleman, a prickly psychologist who is touchy-feely with her patients but has no patience for her teenaged daughter Anna (Lindsay Lohan). When the two have a fight in a Chinese restaurant on the eve of widow Tess’ second wedding, a Chinese sage (in the movie’s most dated story element) gives them a magical formula that will cause them to walk more than a mile in each other’s shoes.

Let’s get the nasty stuff out of the way first. Besides the wise Oriental, the movie offers up such painful stereotypes as the senile grandpa (wasted Harold Gould) and the smart-alecky younger brother. For a while, the movie all too vividly resembles one of those late-’60s Disney comedies where the characters on the screen resemble no human beings you’ve ever met.

But when the transformation finally takes place, there’s no stopping Curtis who, in 2002, enhanced her fame with a magazine spread where she displayed her unglamorized, middle-aged self. And what that pictorial didn’t do, this movie finishes the job. She throws herself — quite often literally — into the role of a mom-as-teen so well, it’s as though she’s using the role to work out her own mid-life crisis. This isn’t the stuff to win Oscars, but for everyday moviegoers, it’s a blessed catharsis.

Lindsay Lohan admirably holds her own with Curtis, plausibly adjusting the angst-ridden teen routine to prim-and-proper oldster as the script calls for it. The “second banana” in these routines is inevitably the overlooked one, but Lohan is a pitch-perfect trouper. Together, she and Curtis take a premise that ought to be threadbare and, by sheer force of personality, makes it a winning family comedy.

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TAKE THE MONEY AND RUN (1969) – Woody Allen steals the show

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The following is my entry in the “It Takes a Thief” Blogathon, being hosted Nov. 17-19, 2017 by Debbie at the blog Moon in GeminiClick on the above banner, and read bloggers’ critiques of movies’ portrayal of thieves!

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In Take the Money and Run, his first movie as writer-director-star, Woody Allen plays Virgil Starkwell, a supremely inept thief and bank robber. The story is told in mock-documentary style (narrated by Jackson Beck, voice of Bluto in the later-era Popeye cartoons), but it’s not so much a story as a meshing of styles. It hops from man-on-the-street interviews to silent-film-style comedy to set pieces in order to disguise what little form it really has.

That said, if you’re a hardcore Woody Allen fan, it’s surprising how it sets the template for many of his future movies. Allen returned to the mock-doc style for his more highbrow comedies Zelig (1983) and Sweet and Lowdown (1999), and he later mined the bank-robbery theme for further laughs in Small Time Crooks (2000).

The most startling theme here is one that Allen mined more starkly in his first drama, Interiors (1978). In a contemporary interview, Allen said that one of the ideas he was exploring in Interiors was that of the artist who badly wants to create but finds that he really has nothing substantial to say. That theme has echoes here in Starkwell’s incompetent bank robber; after watching him bungle caper after caper, you’d think he’d realize he was no good at it and move on to a more lucrative occupation.

(This theme is summed up perfectly in an interview with one of Starkwell’s old acquaintances [played by Allen’s ex-wife Louise Lasser]. She states incredulously, “Everyone just thought he was a schlemiel, and it turns out he’s a criminal. I can’t believe it — there was a mind working in there, that could rob banks. It’s phenomenal!”)

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Probably the movie’s funniest scene is when Starkwell hands a sloppily written stick-up note to a bank teller, and before long, every worker in the bank is nonchalantly re-reading the note and second-guessing Starkwell’s terrible penmanship. But the funniest moments come completely out of left field, as when Starkwell and five other convicts are chained together at the ankles, and they all have to quietly slink in unison to avoid the suspicions of an inquisitive lawman. Or when the convicts are working on a rockpile, and a black man starts singing a spiritual, and Starkwell finds himself doing the song Tony Bennett-style.

As a comedy-film debut, Take the Money and Run occupies a spot in Allen’s canon similar to Monty Python’s first movie, And Now for Something Completely Different. It’s not his greatest or funniest film, but it’s a nice harbinger of things to come.

(FUN TRIVIA: The movie’s very first line of dialogue gives Virgil Starkwell’s birth date as Dec. 1, 1935 — the same as Woody Allen’s. Also, Virgil’s future wife is played lovingly by Janet Margolin, who was later to play Alvy Singer’s far less sympathetic spouse in Allen’s Annie Hall [1977].)

THE KID (1921) – One of Charlie Chaplin’s finest films

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The following is my entry in the Then and Now (Now and Then) Blogathon, being co-hosted by the blogs Realweegiemidget Reviews and Thoughts All Sorts from Nov. 12-15, 2017. You can click here for more details, but the main rules are that a participating blogger must choose:

  1. an actor or actress, and review two movies in which they appeared;
  2. a director or producer, and review two movies in which they appeared; or
  3. a film or TV series that has been rebooted or remade, and review those.

Essentially, I have chosen both 1 and 2, as I am reviewing two feature films directed by and starring Charlie Chaplin; my entry for # 2 can be found here. (I must confess that in the case of # 2, Chaplin appeared only in a seconds-long cameo. Otherwise, the criteria fit both entries.) The two entries come from wildly varied points in Chaplin’s film career — the first, when he was at the height of his creative and producing powers; the second; his movie swan song, long after much of those powers had been hindered by age and circumstances.

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Nowadays, it’s nothing for a laugh-along sitcom to trumpet a “Very Special Episode” in which things are suddenly going to get semi-serious for a half-hour. But before Charlie Chaplin made The Kid, he was heralded by naysayers who knew perfectly well you couldn’t mix comedy and drama in the same movie. Nearly a century later, the original template still holds up magnificently.

This “comedy with a smile and, perhaps, a tear” begins with an unwed mother (Edna Purviance) “whose only sin was motherhood.” (Chaplin’s intertitles here are unusually editorializing – more on that in a moment.) Guiltily, she abandons her newborn baby in the backseat of a limousine that is soon stolen. When the car’s hijackers discover the baby in the back, they ditch the baby in an alley (mercifully so – one of the hijackers is ready and willing to shoot the child).

Enter the Tramp on his morning stroll. He happens upon the baby, and as soon as he tries to abandon the infant, all manner of circumstances cause him to be stuck with the child as though he was flypaper. And yet, for a man who fancies himself a loner, once the Tramp accepts the inevitable, he’s surprisingly adaptable to this new addition to his life.

Five years later, and the babe (Jackie Coogan) has grown into the spitting image of his foster father. The duo run a “business” of sorts, which I won’t detail here because it would be a “spoiler” and because it’s so beautifully detailed within the movie.

Later, Jackie has another great scene where he and the Tramp must deal with a neighborhood bully and his older brother. The conflict leaves Jackie ill, and when a doctor visits Jackie in his rundown home, he decides the law must intervene with (as a title tells us) “the proper care” – heartless officials who want to take Jackie away to an orphanage.

Of the scene where Jackie is nearly separated from the Tramp, Coogan said years later, “If you are going to portray yourself as being hysterical, you better get yourself hysterical or, brother, it’s as phony as a three-dollar bill.” Unlike so many stagey child actors before and since, phoniness in the one emotion that never occurs in Coogan’s performance. Whatever the scene calls for, he’s there. And this particular, openly cathartic scene proves that Chaplin knew the bedrock rule of parenthood: You don’t screw around with someone’s kid.

If the movie has any weak link, it’s probably its finale. Finally separated from the kid when a flophouse manager finds there’s been a reward offered for his return, the Tramp searches the city for the kid all night, returning forlornly to his own doorstep and falling asleep. There follows a cute but superfluous dream sequence in which the Tramp and Jackie are reunited in Heaven but still must deal with day-to-day hassles. The sequence has a few laughs, but like the “It was only a dream” endings done to death by Chaplin and his peers, it’s rather turned into a cliché from overuse.

(There’s also an interesting moment where a devil appears over the shoulder of a young female angel as she stares at the Tramp and tells her to “Vamp him.” Years later, when her name was changed to Lita Grey and she became the second Mrs. Charles Chaplin, she seemed to have done just that.)

And finally, the happy ending. A policeman rounds up the Tramp and takes him to the mansion of the kid’s mother. She is now a world-famous star and has been reunited with her child, and she happily welcomes the Tramp into her home as the film fades out. It’s a nice thought, except where would it go from there? The woman would no doubt be grateful for all that the Tramp has done, but where/how would he fit into her world? And being the Tramp, who never wants to fit in anywhere, how long before he would get restless and want to abandon the whole idyll? The later ambiguity of City Lights is far more satisfying precisely because it doesn’t strain to put a final exclamation point on the whole matter.

That said, The Kid is still a marvelous tearjerker in the best sense. Perhaps because the story involves not just the Tramp, whom we feel can fend on his own well enough, but an innocent child, the lower-class world inhabited by the Tramp seems even more bare-boned than usual. (In the shot where the flophouse manager is reading the newspaper ad for the kid’s reward, we even see a fly crawling across the newspaper. Eeew!) Maybe that’s why Chaplin went for the quick wrap-up with its sanitary setting.

MONTY PYTHON’S THE MEANING OF LIFE (1983) – Food for thought

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The following is my entry in the Food in Film Blogathon, being co-hosted by the blogs Speakeasy and Silver Screenings from Nov. 3-5, 2017. Click on the above banner, and read bloggers’ takes on edibles as presented in movies!

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(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

Despite its lofty title, Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life never gets around to an exact definition of life’s purpose. However, based on the evidence presented here by the famed British comedy troupe, much of life’s meaning can be extracted from food, which certainly makes numerous appearances in the movie.

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After “The Crimson Permanent Assurance” (Terry Gilliam’s elaborate short-subject opening), the movie-proper begins with a sextet of fish (the Pythons, of course) exchanging morning pleasantries while ensconced in a restaurant-based aquarium. One of the fish looks out and shrilly notes that Howard, one of their former fishmates, is now being served to a customer. On that note, the fish get all philosophical: “Makes you think, dunnit?” – “Yeah, I mean what’s it all about?” On cue, the movie’s opening titles and theme promise that they’ll provide us with an answer. Don’t hold your gills.

A later sketch, “Fighting Each Other,” centers on a World War I officer named Biggs (Terry Jones) quietly but firmly ordering his troops to find cover during an attack. Sentimental group that they are, soldier Blackitt (Eric Idle), on behalf of the troops, gives Biggs a goodbye speech, a card, and parting gifts of a grandfather clock, a Swiss watch, and a monetary check.

When Biggs finally tells the troops that enough is enough and they need to run for cover, they all get quiet and turn to Blackitt. “You shouldn’t have said that, sir,” says soldier Spadger (Michael Palin) to Biggs. “You’ve hurt his feelings now.” The rest of the men grumble, and one of them declares, “Let’s not give him the cake!”

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Biggs says he doesn’t need a cake, but Spadger elaborates on how much effort Blackitt put into the cake — “I mean, you try to get butter to melt at fifteen below zero!” With that, Biggs agrees that he should honor Blackitt’s work, cheerily offering slices to his ever-diminishing (due to assassination) troops.

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Fish make their next appearance in the film’s mid-section, appropriately titled “The Middle of the Film.” A stately matron (Michael Palin!) invites the movie’s audience to join in the next segment, “Find the Fish.” A couple of indescribably strange characters (Graham Chapman and Terry Jones) recite a poem about a loyal fish — “…and it went wherever I did go!” — as Dr. Seuss-like creatures — the fish presumably among them — cross the screen, and audience members shout their guesses as to where the fish is hiding.

The fishy sextet from the film’s intro return to applaud this loopy sketch, then go quiet as one of them declares, “They still haven’t said much about the meaning of life, have they?” I thought fish were smarter than this.

The film’s penultimate segment, “Death,” shows the black-hooded title character (John Cleese) interrupting a dinner at an isolated country house where friends have gathered. It takes them a while, but the friends slowly realize that Death has come to claim them for good. Finally, a member of the group named Debbie (Michael Palin again!)  smugly asks, “How can we all have died at the same time?” Death points his, er, finger of death at the meal’s offending main dish:

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“The salmon mousse!”

The hostess (Eric Idle) then offers her apologies at having prepared the dish with cheap canned salmon. As the group are being escorted by Death to their final fate, Debbie comes to a too-late realization: “Hey, I didn’t even eat the mousse!”

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But undoubtedly, the movie’s most memorable and controversial ode to edibles is “The Autumn Years,” wherein a beyond-morbidly-obese man, Mr. Creosote (Terry Jones), enters a restaurant for a gazillion-course meal, offered by Mr. C.’s regular waiter, an obsequious maitre d’ (John Cleese). Mr. C. gulps down countless courses of food, punctuated every so often by his vomiting as a matter of habit, which does little for the appetites of the surrounding customers.

At meal’s end, the maitre d’ dares to offer Mr. Creosote “a wafer-thin mint.” At first, Mr. C. declares he’s full, but eventually he is talked into consuming the mint — lovingly served by the maitre d’, who then vaults behind a restaurant display, knowing the apocalypse to come.

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Beyond his control, Mr. Creosote’s already huge stomach expands, and then it explodes all over the restaurant’s guests, causing them to lose their meals as well. As pandemonium ensues, the maitre d’ returns to nonchalantly hand Mr. Creosote his check for the evening.

As with most of the Monty Python oeuvre, The Meaning of Life gives you a lot to sink your teeth into — and some of it is sure to haunt you later, in one form or another.

 

10 THINGS I HATE ABOUT YOU (1999) – Let me count the ways

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Seven things I hated about 10 Things I Hate About You:

 
1. The movie’s gimmick is that Bianca (Larisa Oleynik) is barred by her hermetic father Walter (Larry Miller in yet another thankless role) from going on a date until Bianca’s sister Katarina (Julia Stiles) decides to ever date a man. That seems pretty unlikely, given that Katarina is a male-hating, insult-spouting bundle of neurosis. Somebody involved in the movie thinks this is an original character, but I saw About Last Night… (1986), in which Elizabeth Perkins played the same sort of self- and man-hating hag. We’re meant to feel sorry for this kind of character because she’s been so hurt that she lashes out at the world in spite. Personally, I feel that this sort of character gets what she deserves.

 
2. The movie thinks it’s clever just by doing hip updates of William Shakespeare’s comedy The Taming of the Shrew. What a pity that this movie is readily available on video, and episodes of the 1980’s TV series “Moonlighting” are not. “Moonlighting” did a killer take on Shrew that had more laughs in the opening credits than are in this entire movie.

 
3. Updating Shakespeare to modern-day high school is a nice concept, but the movie’s script never develops the concept any further. Instead, it does a lot of dumb sitcom-like jokes to curry favor with the teenaged viewers most likely to rent this movie. In fact, I’d be amazed to see any high school in America that is run like the one in the movie. The teachers regularly curse out the students and get no reprisals for it. Sure!!

 
4. Allison Janney (later to do far better in TV’s “The West Wing” and “Mom”) here plays a horny guidance counselor who spends most of her job-time writing a dirty novel on her laptop.

 
5. The Walter character is a beaut. Two daughters, and he barely lets either of them experience the real world. When one of the girls actually is allowed to go out, Walter insists she wear a “pregnancy suit” to remind herself of the dangers of sex. And that leads to…

 
6. There isn’t an event that isn’t motivated by anything other than the urge to get a cheap, sitcom-type laugh. The guy (Heath Ledger) who eventually woos and wins Katarina can’t just sing a song to Katarina — he persuades the high school band to back him up. Never mind that most high school bands need weeks of practice just to do a simple half-time-show number. And when Katarina wants to divert a teacher’s attention in order to get her guy out of trouble, she flashes her breasts at the teacher in front of an entire class. Don’t tell me that either Katarina’s action or the teacher’s reaction wouldn’t send the local school board into apoplexy.

 
7. Two women, Karen McCullough Lutz and Kirsten Smith, are credited as the screenwriters for this tripe, proving that females in Hollywood can sell out as easily as males do.

 
One thing I do like about this movie is the climactic scene where Bianca and her boyfriend are challenged by the local macho student, and it looks like the typical “two guys fighting for the girl’s honor” scene. Instead, Bianca takes matters into her own hands and decks Mr. Macho. In a movie with a supposedly feminist slant, this is the only scene that smacks of modern-day reality.

ARBUCKLE & KEATON, VOL. 1 (2001) – Comedy compilation more historical than hysterical

(To Lea at the delightful silent-film blog Silent-ology: Sorry for the following sacrilege.)
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Kino Video probably issued the Arbuckle and Keaton, Vol. 1 DVD based on the strength of Kino’s earlier, mostly flawless Buster Keaton compilations. And in spite of this DVD touting some short subjects of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle at the height of his fame, Keaton remains the DVD’s main draw — at least, for me.

The story goes that in the late 1910’s, Arbuckle was America’s second-most-popular comedian, bowing only to Charlie Chaplin. When Arbuckle met up with Buster Keaton, he recognized Keaton’s comedy strengths and debuted Keaton in his movies as an ever-reliable sidekick.

Yet based on the evidence shown here, Keaton in even secondary roles was someone to keep an eye on, while Arbuckle’s appeal has assuredly diminished over the years. Unlike Chaplin or the solo Keaton, Arbuckle has little of a persona to fall back on. One can imagine how Chaplin’s Little Tramp or Keaton’s Stone Face would react in a given situation. But Arbuckle seems to change his stripes whenever any gag, in or out of character, presents itself. About the only persona that emerges for Fatty is that he’s…well, fat.

And the plotlines, concocted mostly by Arbuckle, are just as arbitrary as his character. The short The Bellboy (1918) begins in a hotel and segues strangely to a bank that’s being robbed. The Butcher Boy (1917, and Keaton’s film debut) begins in a grocery store and switches to a girls’ boarding school.

But unlike Arbuckle, who all but winks at the audience in an attempt to win their love, Keaton plays straight no matter the situation and scores points all around. Out West (1918) presents Keaton as a barroom gunslinger, and just by force of personality, he makes you believe it. And heaven knows, nobody could take a fall or elaborate a simple gag better than Buster.

Arbuckle’s hoary stories are not helped by racist humor (in Out West, barroom bullies shoot at the feet of a frightened black man, and Arbuckle goes right along with the bullies) and by musical accompaniment (by “The Alloy Orchestra,” according to liner notes) that rates as Kino’s worst.

Anyone with an interest in Buster Keaton’s humble film origins might want to give this a look. Silent-film buffs might be drawn in initially but will most likely lose interest about halfway through.

THE ADVENTURES OF ROCKY AND BULLWINKLE (2000) – Hey, Rocky, watch me pull a minor miracle outta my hat!

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It seemed impossible, but The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle is the first feature-length movie that has translated the wacky spirit of Jay Ward’s great TV cartoons to the big screen. Other such movies usually dwelled on dumb physical comedy or throwaway gags that should have been thrown away. But this movie breezes along, barely stopping to acknowledge some of the terrible puns that are posted on buildings and streets as though they were old Burma Shave ads.

I’ve also not seen a movie that could get away with spending a full 90 minutes of jokes referring to itself as a movie (even Wayne’s World didn’t get this carried away). The entire movie is based on the premise of Rocky and Bullwinkle escaping out of their TV show and into the “real world” after spending 35 years in reruns. (I swear I can hear Jay Ward chortling somewhere.) They enter the real world because Fearless Leader (Robert DeNiro!) and his flunkies Boris and Natasha (Jason Alexander and Rene Russo) are using a cable-TV network to hypnotize America into thinking that they should vote for F.L. as our next president. (Heck, I’m not so sure I wouldn’t vote for him these days, even without hypnosis.)

Yes, the whole movie is just about this literal, and it doesn’t entirely succeed. As a helper for Moose and Squirrel, the movie employs a doe-eyed FBI agent (Piper Perabo) who is improbably named Agent Sympathy. This entire character, much like her name, is one of those jokes that doesn’t quite come off. And when the plot requires Bullwinkle to get a bogus degree from his old university (don’t ask), it’s hard to figure out why the university’s students are protesting the award when nearly everyone else in the movie is gaga over meeting their favorite cartoon character.

On the other hand, the movie makes you laugh at some of the obvious jokes and even harder at the less obvious ones. I laughed when Robert DeNiro did a flaky dance to his country’s national anthem. I laughed when Sympathy told her boyfriend he could hold her hand during a movie and he debated the merits of doing so while holding lots of refreshments. Most surprisingly, Jonathan Winters — not one of my favorite zany comics — appears in three different roles, and I laughed at all of them.

The voice work is wonderful. June Foray returns as Rocky — a little the worse for wear after 35 years, but she’s still got it. Bullwinkle’s original voice having long passed on, Keith Scott does the work here (doing double duty as the flustered narrator) and does it admirably.

The cartoon-cum-live-action characters are nice enough (though DeNiro does a scenery-chewing job on a par with Jack Nicholson’s in Batman). But the stand-out is Rene Russo. She gets Natasha’s voice down perfectly, and she’s proof that you can take sex appeal and dress it up in a purple wardrobe and cartoony writing, and it will still be sexy.