Director in Focus: Brian De Palma – The Bonfire of the Vanities

The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990)
Starring Tom Hanks, Melanie Griffith, Bruce Willis, Kim Catrall, Morgan Freeman, Saul Rubinek, F. Murray Abraham

And so, all great filmmakers must descend into the bowels of hell from time to time. It’s hard for us to understand just how terrible this film is now. Oh yes, Hanks is certainly acting in a way that comes across as acting. And Willis is forced to deliver voice over narration that both shoves the story forward and sounds like he has difficulty saying it. But the utter disaster that is The Bonfire of the Vanities was both as a completed picture and the behind the scenes production fiasco. What was thrown up on the screen was a watered down version of a biting satire, that somehow manages to still offend every major racial group and still feel like the studio was pulling back and watering it down.

The novel by Tom Wolfe, was an attempt to skewer the 1980s greed culture and the rise of a more and more tabloid-influenced media. You have Sherman McCoy (Hanks), a Wall Street financial wunderkind who is sneaking behind his wife’s back (Catrall) to have an affair with socialite Maria (Griffith). During one tryst the lovers take a wrong turn and end up in the Bronx where, with Maria at the wheel, they end up running over a black youth who was attempting to rob them. Sherman thinks they should report it to the police, but Maria convinces him otherwise. Cue an Al Sharpton-inspired preacher, opportunistic D.A., and drunken reporter (Willis) and the hunt is on to catch the WASP in the Mercedes who ran over the poor young man. All of these cynical characters feel set to get their comeuppance in deliciously vicious way…however, it never happens.

The names originally batted around in pre-production color a very different film. William Hurt was originally looked at to play McCoy. Jack Nicholson and John Cleese were named as playing the role that went to Willis. Walter Matthau was brought up when casting the judge, but he wanted more money than they were willing to spend. And nineteen year old newcomer Uma Thurman has been up for the role of Maria. These people in these roles would have presented a much better film, not perfect, and they would have fit the types they were meant to play. Hurt would have played into the Ivy League, born into money mold much better than Hanks, who has always come across a more everyman than anything else. And anyone would have been better than Willis as the reporter, who seems to never know what he is doing and simply plays “smarmy”.

De Palma throws us some cinematography bones: steadicam shot, quick POV, deep focus. It all comes across as him jumping up and down, shouting “Hey, remember I’m directing this!” Otherwise this is any other lofty studio picture trying to tackle the race issues of the early 1990s and come across as “edgy”. I was reminded of Lawrence Kasdan’s Grand Canyon (also released in 1990) which is on the other end of the spectrum from this picture. In Grand Canyon, Kasdan seems to tread as if he is walking on ice while broaching the issue of black-white relations and so the film never feels like it comes to any point. Here, we have a film that seems to be promising its going to go where no one else will while constantly tugging at the reins. The final courtroom scene snuffs out any chance that the film will end on a provocative note, as the judge descends from his bench and delivers a sermon to the characters and to us. The entire didactic droning feels like it should have ended with an American flag unfurling behind him and tiny sparklers appearing from out of frame. De Palma was at a major low point here…but he was about to prove he could deliver a monumental picture.

Next up: Carlito’s Way


Newbie Wednesdays Bonus! – Get Him to the Greek

Get Him to the Greek (2010, dir. Nicholas Stoller)
Starring Russell Brand, Jonah Hill, Sean Combs, Elizabeth Moss, Rose Byrne, Colm Meany

There is the way Apatow films are perceived by those that haven’t seen them, and then the what the films actually are. Most people who don’t see these movies discount them as gross out frat boy movies, and that’s sad because they will be missing a rather poignant film about relationships. That’s what the Apatow circle has done an amazing job of, making movies about very real relationships. The women in this film are not harpies or shrews, they are not holding these men back. Instead, they are equal partners in the mistakes and travails of our main characters.

Aaron (Hill) is a young music executive tasked with the job of getting washed up rocker Aldous Snow (Brand) from London to L.A. for an anniversary concert at the Greek. Aaron is also dealing with his live-in girlfriend Daphne (Moss) who is in the midst of med school and has just got a transfer to Seattle. Aaron leaves LA on a sour note with her, but quickly gets involved in the insanity that surrounds the hard drinking, drugged out Snow. Aaron is constantly impeded by Snow in getting the man first to an appearance on the Today, and then to the Greek theater. They are sidetracked by Snow’s proclivities for sex and drugs and Aaron usually ends up on the losing end of this. He drinks absinthe unaware of what it is and ends up a buffoon in a nightclub. He is forced to store Aldous’ heroin on his person in a rather uncomfortable place. He is injected with a needle full of adrenaline and goes on a rampage in a strip club.

The character of Aldous Snow first appeared in 2007’s Forgetting Sarah Marshall, there he was  put together, Zen-like sage. Here his career has seen a downturn, he’s lost the woman he loves, and his career seems to be over. This version of Snow has much more in common with Brand’s own life. If you have read his autobiography Booky Wook, then you know that Brand suffered from a drug and sex addiction. He also has some major emotional issues when it comes to his father. Snow’s father also plays a significant role in the film, as a figure responsible for much of his son’s current state. Snow also has a more successful ex (Byrne) who is at first presented as an absurd character, but when we meet her later, comes across as someone who has moved past the gutter Snow seems to be stuck in.

Every performance here feels very unforced and natural, and I think that’s why Apatow’s productions are so enjoyable. Every one feels like they are these characters, the lines roll effortlessly from them and never feel like actors acting. The friendship between Aaron and Snow feels genuine, and this comes from the fact that in real life Brand is a very open and friendly person, as glimpsed in his many British television series. Director Stoller is also not afraid to end Snow in a place that doesn’t wrap everything up perfectly. Snow doesn’t get the girl, he ends up going on stage right after receiving a horribly painful injury, and tells Aaron in a heartbreaking scene that this is the only thing he has left that makes him feel like a good person. In an odd sort of way Snow is a comedic version of Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler. They are both playing characters based more on themselves than any fictional creation.

Newbie Wednesdays – I Love You Phillip Morris

I Love You Phillip Morris (2009, dir. Glenn Ficara and John Requa)
Starring Jim Carrey, Ewan MacGregor, Leslie Mann

Audiences love a great scoundrel. Con men able to take on the persona of figures of power, then use that power to one up “The Man” have been archetypal figures. Most recently Steven Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can proved again that audiences love a good scam. At last year’s Sundance Film Festival, audiences were shown I Love You Phillip Morris, a feature film based on the true story of a man who never met a swindle he didn’t like. Since then the feature has struggled to find distribution and has been thrown around the schedule by studios frightened of its content, finally with a July 30th release date it looks like the general public will finally get to see what is a surprisingly clever and funny picture.

Steven Russell (Carrey) was an easy going clean cut suburbanite with a beautiful wife and daughter and steady job. However, he was hiding his sexuality from his wife, sneaking off for trysts with men when he had the chance. This all changed with a car accident where he had an epiphany. He was honest with his wife and left Texas for Florida where he met a handsome Latin man and showered him with gifts. Steven also had another secret: he was a damn good conman. He resorts to purposefully injuring himself in department stores and using fake credit cards to finance his life. The authorities catch up to Steven and he is tossed in prison where he meets the titular Phillip Morris (MacGregor). Steven falls madly in love and makes it his mission to get both he and Phillip out of prison. What follows are a series of scams that are so outlandish its hard to believe this is all based on a true story, and that the real Steven Russell was actually able to do these things.

It’s very interesting that the screenwriters of the snarky and vicious Bad Santa, Ficara and Requa both penned and directed this incredibly funny and, in certain moments, tear-inducingly poignant film. There is definitely the self-aware and sarcastic tone of Bad Santa present, but the characters here feel much more fleshed out and sympathetic. The film never shies away from the sexuality of its leads but it also doesn’t make them spokesmen for the LGBT community. These are just two people in love who are living their lives. That’s not to say the more prudish elements in our society will be lured into the theater. The scene where we learn Russell is gay involves him in the middle of coitus with one of his late night trysts.

The picture suffers in the structure department, though. It appears that Ficara and Requa wanted to be as true to the chronology of events as possible, and real life just doesn’t translate into a traditional cinematic story arc. The film comes off as episodic and a series of acts: act one is Steven’s coming to terms with his sexuality, act two is Steven meeting Phillip, and so on. I have to say the film is better than I expect it would have been if its original director, Gus Van Sant, has stayed on. As much as I love Van Sant, I can’t see him creating a film as entertaining as this. While it does it entertain, Carrey refrains from being schitck-y and is more in line with his performance in Man in the Moon. It’s inevitable that the film is going to lack the publicity push it deserves and be dumped at the end of the summer in theaters, so if you have the chance to see it definitely go.

My 40 Favorite Film Moments – Part 1

This month I will be looking at my favorite moments in movies. These are not necessarily the best ever in films, but they are my personal favorites. In no particular order, here we go:

1) Let Me Out (Young Frankenstein, 1974, dir. Mel Brooks)

Gene Wilder is at his best when he goes from calm to frantic in a split second. His red-faced blue blanket tirade from The Producers is a gorgeous moment. This one however goes up there as one of my all time faves. Wilder as the nephew of Victor Frankenstein shines. In this scene we see him go from calm, to manic, to desperate, and finally to confident in his macabre heritage.

2) Mike Yanagita (Fargo, 1996, dir. Joel and Ethan Coen)

Two actors here who deserve a lot more credit. Frances McDormand won the Oscar for her role of Marge Gunderson, but this scene also showcases the chops of Steve Park. Park is able to create a three dimensional character in a single scene of this film, its amazing what he does. Its hard not to imagine the life of Yanagita after watching this. A powerful example of what happens when good writing and acting are paired up.

3) Oh, Are They? (Rushmore, 1998, dir. Wes Anderson)

The film that really broke Anderson out and still one of his best. Max Fischer (Schwartzmann) turns a post opening night dinner into a farce when his love interest invites her male nurse friend along. Would be nice if Anderson tried to go back to his more comedic roots, not that his current work is bad.

4) Binary Sunset (Star Wars, 1977, dir. George Lucas)

It’s a short scene, but it says a lot. The dual suns reinforce the alien nature of this world, the lighting sets the perfect tone as Luke Skywalker stares out across the vast landscape of Tatooine, and the music gets across his desire to explore. Simple and perfect.

5) Come Play With Us, Danny (The Shining, 1980, dir. Stanley Kubrick)

A perfect horror movie scene. The music and cinematography are in perfect unison and there isn’t much more to say other than, experience the scene yourself.

Newbie Wednesdays – Mystery Team

Mystery Team (2009, dir. Dan Eckman)
Starring Donald Glover, DC Pierson, Dominic Dierkes, Aubrey Plaza

I read through the Encyclopedia Brown books voraciously as a child. And out of the dozens published and the hundreds of mysteries contained in them, I think I only solved one without having to look at the answers in the back. The titular team of this newly released independent comedy were probably like me. They loved the possibility of solving the crime but when it came down to the actual investigation it was over their heads. Mystery Team is the first feature from YouTube comedy troupe Derrick Comedy. They were one of the first to upload videos to the now uber-popular website and because of their early adopter status they garnered an impressive fan based. So how does the transition from 5 minute web video to 90 minute feature film work out?

Once upon a time, Jason, Duncan, and Charlie were a beloved staple of their small town, solving harmless mysteries like “who ate the pie?” or “who stole Timmy’s lunch money?”. Now they are seniors in high school, on the precipice of adulthood, yet still behaving like scrappy tweens. They are suddenly hit with a case way out of their league when a young girl asks them to find out who killed her parents. Duncan, the brains of the outfit, immediately wants to turn this over to the police, but Jason, after becoming smitten with the girl’s older sister, demands that they take on the case. The result is a very high insanity journey into the suprisingly dark underbelly of their small town. It’s a mixture of grossout humor and eccentric characters, including a cameo by UCB alum Matt Walsh.

Donald Glover, who was a writer on 30 Rock before being cast in Community, has always been the standout in Derrick Comedy. He has an enthusiasm and charisma that make him incredibly likable. When I watch Glover acting I see the future of American comedy. He’s definitely a young actor with the potential to make it as big as someone like Eddie Murphy or Adam Sandler, with the hope that he remains true to his comedy roots rather then make a series of throwaway pictures (I’m looking at you Grown Ups). A recent Twitter trend popped up calling for Glover to be cast in the lead of the Spider-Man reboot. While I consider myself a traditionalist when it comes to the physical makeup of comic book characters on film, this is a casting move I am behind 100%. That’s how enjoyable it is to see Glover act, and he would make a hell of a Peter Parker.

The strength of the film is that it isn’t mean spirited towards its leading trio. It would be easy for a group of socially stunted teenagers to be cast in a mocking light, and while humor is found in their awkwardness, we’re meant to love them. And its impossible to resist liking these three guys, as they are living out the childhood fantasy of being a detective, finding clues, and being wrapped in a big mystery. The acting all around is spectacular. Bobby Moynihan, currently of SNL, appears as Jordy, a convenience store clerk who was an informant for the boys for years. Moynihan’s performance is phenomenal, getting across the pathetic nature of man who gave up on his dreams and is smothered by this small town, but playing it with over the top enthusiasm. It’s one of the best and most layered comedy performances I’ve seen in years. If you looking to see where film comedy is going in the next decade, this is it.

Wild Card Tuesdays – Someone’s Knocking at the Door

Someone’s Knocking at the Door (2009, dir. Chad Ferrin)
Starring Noah Segan, Ezra Buzzington, Andrea Rueda, Elina Madison

You should probably not watch this movie. By that, I don’t mean this is a bad film, but it is definitely not a movie for your casual filmgoer. This exists in a very specialized realm of film, grindhouse, but even still it doesn’t strictly adhere to the tenets of that genre and even openly plays with the conventions. This is not to say the film is some masterpiece. It’s very cheap and very gritty, and that’s what it has to be to do what its trying to do. If you decide to see this movie, and can track it down, you’re going to discover a very disturbing, very funny, and in the end oddly moving low budget horror flick.

The first scene of the film features a young man shooting up with some strange drug and then being raped to death by a demonic looking man. Flash to the young man’s friends, a group of med school students who react with coldness towards news of his death. The only one who seems to feel anything is Justin (Segan), the most drugged out of all of them who has a dream/hallucination where his dead friend appears in a morgue blaming him for his death. The kids are called into the police station for questioning where its revealed a few nights prior to the murder they had been poking around the basement of a records building on their campus. Justin discovered files on John and William Hopper, a husband and wife serial killing duo who would rape their victims to death. The two were on an experimental drug which Justin finds a vial of and shares with his pals. It appears that the drug has somehow broken down a barrier to Hell, and now the Hoppers have returned in demonic form to wreak havoc.

While the film follows many of the tropes of grindhouse, particularly  beginning with a big horrific scene, then slowing down until one more final climactic act of grotesque, it also throws some new ideas. There are a lot of jump cuts, particularly when focusing on Justin, which serve the purpose of showing how his drug addled brain is processing things. Sound is also used in an incredibly effective way, sound being an element that is normally overlooked. In certain scenes, instead of hearing the dialogue, we can see that the characters are talking but the soundtrack is overtaken by ambient static. There’s a reason in the plot for this, but just in terms of atmosphere it gives an otherwise mundane scene an air of creepy surreality.

There’s a lot of explotative sex, as you would expect in a grindhouse styled film, and this film definitely goes places with it you wouldn’t expect. If you thought A Nightmare on Elm Street or Halloween was a crudely disguised warning to adolescents to refrain from sex and drugs, this picture will blow those ideas out of the water. The two supernatural killers of the film possess…*ahem* macabre transformations of their genital regions that render them brutal and demonic. William Hopper in particular has a very unique method of killing his victims. I absolutely loved how evil the villains in this film were. I don’t believe a studio horror film would ever allow a director to go as far and as horrible as Ferrin takes the Hoppers. At the end though, the film has a strangely sad and poignant. Though once again, I warn you to not watch this film unless your brain is truly ready for the horror.

Jolly Good Thursdays – Girly

Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny, and Girly (1969, dir. Freddie Francis)

If you never heard of this film, I can’t fault you. It is an obscure little British horror-comedy that has strong genetic ties to The Addams Family, but more macabre. Full of murder, mayhem, and some very unnerving incestous overtones, Girly (for short) is one of the funniest black comedies I have seen in awhile. In the US we tend to put the crazy killers of our films at the bottom rung of the socio-economic class and basically kick the poor while they’re down. The wonderful thing about the UK is the intense dislike of the aristocracy, even by a lot of the aristocracy themselves. Thus, a film as wonderfully insane as Girly can come about and skewer the 1950s nuclear family unit.

Somewhere on a palatial English countryside estate lives Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny, and Girly. Though Sonny and Girly are obviously in their twenties, they still dress and behave like schoolchildren. Sonny and Girly also have a rather queasy relationship that is hinted at but never made explicit. Also in the mansion live the Friends, homeless men and free love hippies lured to the house and locked up for the sadistic pleasure of the quartet. The introductory friend finds he is unwelcome when he can’t follow the rules Mumsy has set up to run her happy home. As a result he’s decapitated. But into their lives comes New Friend, a gigolo who through a series of gruesome circumstances ends up trapped. Unlike previous Friends, New Friend is a conniver and begins his quest to tear about this happy homicidal home.

Girly was the project of acclaimed cinematographer Freddie Francis, the lens behind such films as Tales of Hoffman, the Gregory Peck Moby Dick, and The Innocents. Francis transitioned into directing in the early 1960s and went on to helm some cult British horror films and established him as filmmaker who brought a lot of visual flair to his pictures. Francis would eventually return to working the camera and was responsible for the cinematography on such films as The Elephant Man, Dune, Glory, and Scorsese’s remake of Cape Fear. Girly was originally a stage play (you can feel the more theatrical moments in the film). The premise of the film is a lampooning of the “traditional” family unit at the hands of the 1960s counter culture.

The film is very fun, dark fare. It’s never truly horrifying, just the kind of violence that gives off a creepy vibe and elicits laughs more than gasps. The middle of the picture meanders a little bit, becoming a bit of a struggle to work through, but the way New Friend begins to tear apart the four members of the family by turning them on each other is enjoyable to watch. Definitely an odd, incredibly obscure picture worth a watch.