Monday, August 18, 2014

Jam Sessions




After a lengthy sabbatical, Professor Dennis Cozzalio is back with another of his mind-boggling mind teasers, this one called "Professor Dewey Finn's Ostentatiously Odd, Scholastically Scattershot Back-to-School (of Rock) Movie Quiz." Since Professor Finn's work is some of the most underrated ever approved by Dean Linklater, I was thrilled to see America's favorite music teacher get his moment in the sun; I'm also glad to see SLIFR Academy re-open, although I was surprised to learn from Professor Cozzalio that I was apparently already a graduate! Well, I guess college is all about learning new things...

With the semester and all of its frazzled frippery almost upon us, let's just jump right in, shall we?
 

 
1) Band without their own movie, from any era, you’d most like
     to see get the HARD DAY’S NIGHT or HEAD treatment



I've always thought there was a deadpan, Monkees-style show lurking inside of R.E.M. (who have long declared their allegiance to everyone's favorite bubblegum band). That MTV never took advantage of this at R.E.M.'s mid-nineties commercial height is a tragedy ranking just below their promotion of Puck. It's easy to imagine guitarist Peter Buck in Mike Nesmith's wool hat, tossing off wry comments in an Athens accent, while Michael Stipe does a funny dance in lieu of shaking Davy Jones' maracas. It's not too late, really-- I know the band has split up, but who's to say the siren song of Hollywood (where, after all, Michael Stipe is working as an indie film producer) couldn't lure the band back together for something truly surreal? If Richard Linklater can make a pop star of Jack Black, why not movie stars of American's favorite alterna-jangle band?


2) Oliver Reed or Alan Bates?



Despite his turn as Bill Sykes in my least-favorite film musical (no title-- this is a family blog, after all), I think it has to be Reed. Anyone who can embody the spirits of Dickens, the Who, and whatever CGI ghosts power Gladiator is clearly a tremendous talent. I have Richard Lester's Musketeers movies sitting near the top of my Netflix queue, and can't wait to see Reed with a rapier.

3) Best thing about the move from physical to streaming media in home video

Space-- while there are still many DVDs and VHS tapes (yes, I said VHS tapes) in the house, streaming certainly builds on the convenience of the original Netflix model: providing access to a broader range of films than the late, unlamented Blockbuster, while saving you the pile-up of boxes that cinephilia can engender.


That's the other great thing it provides-- broader access. Especially for a chronic insomniac like me, having any number of films and television shows at one's fingertips is nice in the wee small hours, especially in a small, one-town theater that tends to keep the stupidest blockbuster crap on its marquee for weeks at end (if there is a YA movie whose "feminism" consists of a young woman dying/suffering from a terminal disease/being hunted in a competition that functions as a single entendre for capitalism, you can be sure it will play here for weeks).

4) Worst thing about the move from physical to streaming media in home video




I suppose I'm contradicting what I said above, but the access provided by Hulu, Netflix, I-tunes, and other streaming services is a double-edged sword, as that access can also go away, get caught in inter-corporate warfare between media companies, etc. Material is moving on and offline so quickly now, often with no compensatory disc release, that I worry online services are falling into the same traps that major film companies and television networks did-- narrowing and homogenizing their content so much that they miss the benefits that such open spaces can provide in terms of diversification and providing options to folks outside of narrowly targeted demographics (or to put it another way, do you really want to be the online streaming equivalent of those sad multiplexes forced to carry Tammy in an empty theater for the fourth week in a row, when you could offer any number of other, quirkier films in its stead?).



5) Favorite Robin Williams performance


Oh, god-- so many. I was offline at the beginning of the week when Williams was found dead, and missed many of the online tributes and remembrances.
But amidst the rightful praise for Moscow On The Hudson, The World According To Garp, Aladdin, Good Morning Vietnam, Dead Poets Society, and so many others, there are three other performances I'd like to call attention to. 

In The Best of Times (1986), Roger Spottiswoode's very sweet, low-key dramedy about former high school football stars trying to recapture past glories, and facing a middle age that's so much less than they thought it would be, Williams is heart-breakingly good as the nerdy foil to Kurt Russell's brawnier jock: toning down the manic energy that still powered many of his 80s performances, Williams deploys his gift for physical slapstick to create a man full of wistful clumsiness, whose body is stumbling into his thirties even as  his brain is still in his athletic, teenaged past.
 

Almost no one saw this film when it was released, but it feels like the logical spiritual sequel to Breaking Away in how it uses sports to get to character, and to elucidate the culture of a small town in which so much rides on those two hours on a field.




I wish Christopher Nolan still made dramatic character studies as gripping as his remake of Insomnia (2002), where Williams is brilliantly creepy as the mystery writer/murder suspect Walter Finch, engaged in a cat-and-mouse game with cops Al Pacino and Hillary Swank. It's a testimony to Nolan's gifts with actors, and Pacino and Williams' regard for each other, that two of the '90s hammiest performers pull back here and bounce off each other like hungry acting students, in perfect rhythm. A friend of mine once described Hugh Laurie's turn on House as "what Bertie Wooster would be like in real life," and Williams reminds me of that here-- this is the dark undercurrent that fueled so many of the insights of his stand-up material.

Finally, there's his uncredited bit in Dead Again (1991), Kenneth Branagh's quite fun Hitchcock pastiche. As a discredited psychologist working in the backroom of a grocery store and dispensing scatological wisdom to Branagh's P.I.,
Williams blends the quick wit of his comedy with the darkness of his dramatic performances, offering a character whose humor and bitterness make him both appealing and repulsive-- it's a fantastic balancing act.



So, much like Williams going off on a spiel, I've offered three movies without really answering your question. What's my favorite Robin Williams performance? It's this scene. This perfect, heartbreaking scene:







6) Second favorite Carol Reed movie
I saw Odd Man Out (1947) as a very fresh new college freshman in a campus theater at Indiana University, as part of the early-admission summer program of which I took part in 1991. It's a spectacular film-- full of chiaroscuro cinematography, gripping performances, and an air of dread that make it nearly as powerful as Reed's masterpiece, The Third Man (1949). But the reason it sticks out for me is less the film than my experience of the film: as a slightly shy, uncertain new student--but one who had nevertheless read about a lot of film history in high school--there were things I knew about Reed's career that I was hesitant to mention, not wanting to come across as a know-it-all. I will be forever grateful to the Comp Lit professor leading the post-screening discussion for politely chiding me. "You can't be afraid to speak up," he said, in one of those small asides of advice that have a huge impact. So, you can thank/blame him for all that appears here!

7) Oddest moment/concept in rock music cinema

 





Aside from Can't Stop The Music?

8) Favorite movie about growing up


I mentioned Breaking Away (1979) above, which I first saw it as a tween on HBO, and then watched again after deciding to go to college at IU-Bloomington (where the film is set), and countless times since. The movie is almost a religious totem at the school, which is kind of funny, given how wittily it paints the campus denizens as snobs in comparison to the townie "Cutters" that are the film's true protagonists.

But it's hard for me to think of a film that hits me in quite the same way in how it observes small-town life shaping family dynamics. There are actually two "families" in writer Steve Teisch and director Peter Yates' movie-- the biological family of central hero Dave (Dennis Christopher), who love him even as they remain uncomprehending of his love of Italian bike racers, and his gang of friends (including Daniel Stern and Dennis Quaid), with whom he forms a bike team for the campus' "Little 500" race. Both families are pulling him in various directions, and it's up to Dave-- an alarmingly real combination of ingratiating and infuriating throughout--to figure out what his future is in a place that feels both closed off and infinitely open to the future, depending on which part of town you happen to find yourself in.

Bloomington's landscape looks a lot different now than it did in 1979-- hell, when I got there in 1991, it looked different, as the race track where the climactic race took place had been moved to a different part of campus, the dirt and cement covered with grass and soccer fields--but there are landmarks dotting the movie that have Proustian effects on me, none as powerful as the main library (or the "Kleenex Boxes," as we called their modernist architectural scheme), where Dave and his father (Paul Dooley, in a career performance) have a long and touching talk about family, class, identity and the future. It's the best scene in one of the best-written American films of the 1970s, and it should be required viewing for incoming students at any school, so well does it get at all kinds of town-gown issues that a lot of college comedies ignore. But more than anything, it provides a showcase for Dooley, who takes what could have been a stereotypical "Dad' part and imbues it with endless grace notes of pain, exasperation, befuddlement and love. Dave's father might not understand everything about his son, but when he firmly points out that it is he, not the soon-to-matriculate Dave, who can rightfully claim the "Cutter" label Dave wears as as passive-aggressive badge, Dooley evokes generations of struggle and pride in a single line.

EDIT/UPDATE (8/24/14): Because I was off the internet when it went up (and because I am always late on catching up on these things), I just saw that Dennis also wrote about this film a couple of weeks ago, and says all kinds of gorgeous, personal things about it with the grace, humor, and insight that makes him Dennis Cozzalio. Go, read.

9) Most welcomed nudity, full or partial, in a movie (question
     submitted by Peter Nellhaus, class of 2004)



The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988) has something for everyone, doesn't it?

10) Least welcomed nudity, nude or partial, in a movie
       (question submitted by Peter Nellhaus, class of 2004)



 Shakes the Clown (1991) really has nothing for anyone, huh?

11) Last movie watched, in a theater, on DVD/Blu-ray, via streaming


In theaters:


On DVD/Blu-ray:


Streaming:


12) Second favorite Bertrand Blier movie
 
Here we go-- there's always at least one question on every Dennis quiz that I can't answer because I haven't seen someone's work. I'll Get Out My Handkerchief and weep because M. Blier's oeuvre remains unseen by me. Off to Netflx!

13) Googie Withers or Sally Gray?


Sally Gray, just because I like Green For Danger (1946) so much.

14) Name a piece of advice derived from a movie or movie character that you’ve heeded in real life


 
3 Days of the Condor (1975) taught me to always be the one to make the lunch run.

15) Favorite movie about learning

 
I know I should mention a film set in a school, or involving teachers, or one that says something "touching" about the human spirit while its protagonist wears a red clown's nose. But if we really believe that learning is a life-long process, I can't think of a film that tells us more about human nature-- and continually reveals something new about itself and humanity with every viewing--than this one:



16) Program a double bill of movies that were announced but,
       for one reason or another, never made. These could be
       projects cancelled outright, or films that were made, but at
      one time had different directors, stars, etc., attached--
      and your "version" of the film might be the one with that
      lost director, for example (question submitted by
      Brian Doan, class of 2007) 


At one point in the late 80s/early '90s, Terry Gilliam was supposed to direct this:



And I'm forever curious about the apocryphal notion that Cary Grant was once proposed as a the lead for this, by potential backer David O. Selznick:



Together, I think they'd offer visions of excess, despair, unexpected humor, and--if nothing else--guaranteed surrealism, in both intended and unintended forms.  

17) Oddest mismatch of director and material
 

As much as I love John Huston's work, and as much as I like the stage version of the show, what on earth possessed anyone to think that the auteur behind The Maltese Falcon, Across The Pacific, Key Largo, and Beat The Devil was the man to tackle Annie (1982)?  It's not a terrible movie, but it is a particularly ungraceful musical.

18) Favorite performance by your favorite character actor


 "Rick! RIIICK! Save me, Rick!!"

 

19) Favorite chase scene

I think this question appeared on a previous quiz? That time around, I mentioned the car-and-truck-and-bike-and-whip chase from Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), so let me take a different tack here and call your attention to this Antonioni-like game of cat-and-mouse in Mitchell (1975).

 

 20) Movie most people might not have seen that you feel like proselytizing about right now


Oh, goodness. I'm sure there are many, but since it's getting late, and my copy of Leonard Maltin's essential book The Disney Films is within view, how about a few words in favor of The Great Mouse Detective (1986)? I'm not sure why The Little Mermaid, as dopey a bit of misogynist trash as ever became a "family classic," somehow acts as the origin point for so many folks' histories of contemporary Disney, since I'd argue the company's renaissance actually started with this lovely, hand-drawn cartoon. It's skillfully animated and wonderfully voice-acted by Barrie Ingham and Vincent Price, and manages to offer a great child's eye riff on cultural signifiers of Victorian England, while still being a wonderful Sherlock Holmes story in its own right, as tapped into the mythos of the character as the Jeremy Brett adaptations with which it was contemporaneous (except one starred a mouse). Go, watch, and see if you're not delighted.

21) Favorite movie about high school


Seasons Two and Three of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, a TV show with a distinctively cinematic sensibility, and one that was smart enough to know that the best takes on high school are those that avoid nostalgic fetish and find the wry metaphor at the heart of the Hellmouth.

22) Favorite Lauren Bacall performance
 


Probably To Have and Have Not, but I have a real fondness for How To Marry A Millionaire (1953), where she plays wise (but not as wise as she thinks) den mother to Marilyn Monroe.

23) David Farrar or Roger Livesey?



 The correct answer to any question comparing Roger Livesey to anyone is, of course, Roger Livesey. But that doesn't mean Farrar isn't fantastic in Black Narcissus and The Small Back Room.

24) Performance most likely to get overlooked during the
       upcoming awards season
 

Wait, the Coen Brothers haven't even released a film so far this year!

25) Rock musician who, with the right project, could have been a movie star

 
Paul McCartney, whose charm and wit are palpable in A Hard Day's Night and Help!, and who could have had a great life as a character actor if there had been a director able to convince him to play against type. In an alternate universe, I imagine Paul as a French New Wave anti-hero, deploying that charm in something dark and emotionally complex, a la Cary Grant in the Hitchcock films.




26) Second favorite Ted Post movie
 
Hang 'Em High (1968). But to go back to the Buffy conundrum, isn't it interesting that Post's most memorable work was on TV?

27) Favorite odd couple
 
Dennis Cozzalio and Bill Ryan.

28) Flicker or Zeroville?
 

*Sigh*-- off to the library for each!

29) Favorite movie about college


Aside from Breaking Away? Probably this one:



30) In a specific movie full of memorable turns, your favorite
        underappreciated performance



For nearly two decades, over the course of eleven films--amidst changing leading men, increasingly dominant special effects, and increasingly absurd narratives--Bernard Lee showed up as "M" and embodied the stiff upper lip and wry paternalism that made the rest of the James Bond universe work. I suppose this question is meant to evoke acknowledged parts of the canon, or underseen or forgotten films; but there's something to be said for the solid, commercial character work of someone like Lee, who did so much with a pipe, a raised eyebrow, the movement behind a desk, or the occasional shift in tone from relaying Her Majesty's business to reaming out the Double-0 with whom he had a love/hate working relationship. Every fantasy narrative needs to be grounded in some kind of reality, and that's certainly what Lee's underplaying provided. It also makes those moments when he's allowed to step outside of an official role and express human puzzlement all the more affecting, as in On Her Majesty's Secret Service (which I will choose here as my "specific movie"), when he remarks late in the picture on the foibles of super-villain Blofeld ("It's a funny thing, snobbery"): his voice turns slightly, as if examining Blofeld's soul with a microscope, suggests bemusement and disgust simultaneously, and then gets on with it.

31) Favorite movie about parenting




32) Susannah York or Sarah Miles?



Sarah Miles, by a telephoto lens.

33) Movie which best evokes the sense of place in a region with which you are well familiar
 



During my first year of graduate school in Florida in 1997, I rented Love Jones, Theodore Witcher's lovely, bittersweet romantic comedy. Everything about the movie-- from the writing, to the performances, to the jazzy R&B score--works beautifully, but more than anything, I treasured it for its Chicago location work. I'd just moved from the city, and I'd never seen it evoked with such atmosphere in a contemporary film (especially given that another film from that year had gotten nearly everything wrong about Chicago's distinctive geography).

34) Name a favorite actor from classic movies and the
       contemporary performer who most evokes their
       presence/stature/talent


Paula Prentiss came up in the post-studio system era, but in everything from silly Jim Hutton comedies to classics like Man's Favorite Sport?, she remains one of my favorite stars. And I continue to hope against hope that Parker Posey is just a good casting agent or two away from her very own
He & She.






35) Your favorite hot streak of any director (question submitted by Patrick Robbins, class of 2008)


It's hard to think of a run that tops Howard Hawks' between Bringing Up Baby (1938) and I Was A Male War Bride (1949), an eleven-year stretch that encompasses screwball, noir, westerns, and war pictures. Even Hitchcock's breathtaking run between Rope (1948) and Marnie (1964) (and yes, I realize that includes Under Capricorn (1949), which is spectacular, and if you disagree, I'll meet you in that alley over there, and pummel you with recitations of the Oliver! soundtrack) doesn't hit quite the same balance of depth and sensuality, that sweet spot between art, pleasure and commercial imperative that Fitzgerald described as "the whole equation of pictures." All you have to do is say "Joe? Who's Joe?," and I'm submerged.

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