Thursday, June 26, 2014

Eli Wallach (1915-2014)

Another of those great actors who was somehow never nominated for an Oscar. Which movie boasts your favorite Eli Wallach performance?

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

The Rules of the Game (La règle du jeu) (1939) (Mini-Review)

Slammed by French critics and audiences alike on its initial release in 1939, The Rules of the Game is now regarded as one of the greatest films ever made—indeed, it's the only film to have appeared on every one of Sight & Sound's (in)famous once-a-decade top-ten lists since that poll's inception in 1952.

Me, I only got around to seeing it this last weekend—a nice Criterion Collection edition for my birthday.

In this comedy of manners about a group of French aristocrats and their tangled extra-marital affairs, writer-director Jean Renoir took aim at the whole of French society and found everybody wanting. Aristocrats are weak, generals are stupid, workers are lazy, men think with their you-know-whats and women are weary with the task of leading them around by it. Even the aviator, hailed as a hero for crossing the Atlantic in record time, reveals himself to be an empty flight suit.

They all meet in a country house, ostensibly for a shooting party, but really to play a game of ring-around-the-rosies where everybody loves somebody they shouldn't and nobody loves the one they're with. In the course of the weekend, Renoir makes clear that any supposed superiority on the part of the ruling class is purely a fiction. Indeed, how they got to be in charge of anything, much less an entire country, is a mystery.

No wonder French audiences were miffed.

But when a year later the German army crushed France like a bug, Renoir suddenly looked like a prescient genius and history has been trying to make it up to him ever since.

It's a good movie. Is it one of the ten best movies ever made? How would I know? Of Renoir's films, I actually prefer Boudu Saved From Drowning (Boudu sauvé des eaux) myself, and I think others would go with Grand Illusion.

Of those movies released in 1939, which many consider the greatest year for films ever, I'd go with Gone with the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Stagecoach, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Ninotchka and maybe even Only Angels Have Wings, in roughly that order, and then The Rules of the Game. But I'm a barbarian.

And ultimately, such considerations are irrelevant anyway. The question is, is this something you might enjoy on a Saturday night when you're in the mood for something frothy and fun? You bet.

Starring Marcel Dalio (aka the croupier in Casablanca), Jean Renoir, Nora Gregor, Julien Carette, from a screenplay by Jean Renoir and Carl Koch.

My rating: 4 stars (out of 5).

Friday, June 6, 2014

Castle Keep (1969) (A Mini-Review): You Can Keep It

On this the seventieth anniversary of our forefather's supreme sacrifice on the beaches of Normandy, my good friend Mister Muleboy and I drove down to the AFI-Silver to see Castle Keep, a 1969-vintage war movie starring Burt Lancaster, Peter Falk and Bruce Dern, directed by Sydney Pollack.

With a pedigree like that, what could go wrong? Well, as it turns out, everything.

The story: During the Battle of the Bulge, Burt Lancaster and his eyepatch defend a Belgian castle that sits on a road leading through a beautiful countess's underpants to Bastogne. The problem is, Lancaster can't defend said underpants without risking a priceless collection of art.

In various subplots, Falk makes a separate peace with a baker's wife, Dern gathers twelve disciples and preaches the gospel, and the rest of Lancaster's platoon takes up a strategic position in the world's most chaste brothel.

Told straight, Castle Keep might have been The Train (also starring Lancaster) or at the very least, last year's Monuments Men. Instead, we get a half-assed knock-off of the French New Wave—soft-core porn with no nudity, black comedy with no jokes and more religious allegories than you can shake a stick at.

Throw in lots of 14-century lute music, random editing and one man's unconsummated romance with a Volkswagen, and you have the worst war movie I've ever seen, and probably one of the ten worst movies I've ever seen in a theater. And I've seen Brooke Shields in Endless Love!

I won't presume to say what my father or Mister Muleboy's believed they were fighting to protect when they served in World War II (both in the Pacific), but I'm pretty sure Castle Keep wasn't it.

My rating: 1 star (out of 5).

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

What The Brady Bunch Meant To Me

The recent death of Ann B. Davis, who played the housekeeper Alice on The Brady Bunch, has inspired a spate of what "she meant to me" posts and articles. Well, she was a human being and she did something that a lot of people liked, so why not. It's okay with me.

As the show's target audience when it premiered on ABC television in 1969—that is to say, an eight year old kid—I did watch The Brady Bunch, but it really was a bad show and it never captured my imagination the way that, say, Rocky and Bullwinkle or Jonny Quest did. The actors were devoid of edge, the jokes were Hallmark greeting card safe, and the plots—my God, the plots—well, that's the point of this short post.

The Brady Bunch
was when I finally realized that stories weren't something that organically "happened" as a result of the collision of a person's innate character traits with changing needs and circumstances, but were instead a series of artificial hoops that actors reading lines jumped through. At least, on bad television.

I remember thinking when Greg developed a crush on his teacher in early 1970, "wait a minute, didn't Opie fall in love with his teacher on The Andy Griffith Show?" At least in that case, Opie's teacher also happened to be his father's girlfriend—talk about your Freudian can of worms! But what a coincidence. Or was it?

It wasn't the first time The Brady Bunch would recycle a sit-com plot, nor the last, and I soon realized that most shows recycled plots and that most of the time, you could predict with some certainty what was going to happen on practically every show on television.

And it finally occurred to me that stories don't happen, they are told, and somebody—why not me?!—has to tell them.

But you can only have a particular epiphany once and The Brady Bunch was mine.

That by the spring of 1972 I had decided to become a writer, and that I recycled plots for my own amusement, is probably a coincidence. But maybe not. Every moment, no matter how small, is part of a chain that leads to the present. Who can say which of those moments is the vital link? Not me.

So, Brady Bunch, for making your crapitude transparent to at least one future writer, we here at the Monkey salute you!