01 March 2008

Are You Sitting Down?

It's funny. When I posted my list of favorite movies I thought I would be accused of being simplistic and taking the easy way out. Most of the films on my list are Academy Award-winning films, many of them winning for Best Picture. I assumed my readers would say, "Yes, but those are everybody's favorites. How about some that aren't, you tool?" Well, that will learn me. After pondering these things, I'm going to go into an unnecessarily long bit about a few of my film choices. If you have some place to be, I recommend you going and doing that first, 'cause we're going to be here a while.

It occurred to me last night that perhaps not everyone is familiar with the term "black comedy." Believe me, it has nothing to do with Tyler Perry, if for no other reason than what he does cannot be construed as comedy in any form. Black comedy is what it's called when something normally of a very serious, grave nature is turned into something funny. "Dr. Strangelove" is possibly the most famous example of a black comedy. It mocks the most horrific of scenarios: worldwide nuclear holocaust. The lesser known "Kind Hearts and Coronets" is also a black comedy. It makes light of the murder an entire family. If you removed the humorous dialogue, it would be considered a horror film. But the fact that the main character, played by Dennis Price, narrates his story with such a dry, subtle, and clever wit it becomes hilarious. It also doesn't hurt that he dispatches each of his extended family (all eight played by Alec Guinness, including an aging suffragette) in unique and humorous ways. The end result is a brilliant comedy that doesn't mind how many horrific deaths it takes to make you laugh.

I love musicals. I particularly love funny musicals, and it simply doesn't get any funnier than "My Fair Lady" ("Singin' In the Rain" runs a close second). Based upon the classic story Pygmalion, a wealthy language researcher bets that he can take a "gutter-snipe" flower girl and "pass her off as a duchess at the Embassy Ball." Hilarity ensues. But what is more entertaining in this production is the collection of brilliant songs. Listening to Rex Harrison sing (well, he was more famous for just speaking his singing lines--the father of rap, some called him) about his male chauvinistic views on women will put you into laughable tears. His contention that women's heads are full of nothing but "cotton, hay, and rags" is wonderful. Not only are these smart lyrics key in showing just what makes the professor tick, but helps show his progression through the relationship with the flower girl, Eliza. While he never totally turns over a new leaf with regard to the feminine sex, it turns out he's willing to make a small exception in the case of an equally strong-willed woman like Eliza, whom he finally admits he can't live without.

There are two versions out there of "The In-Laws." There is the newer version with Michael Douglas, and then there is the funny version. I'm still unclear about why someone felt the need to remake the original comedy, let alone put Douglas--a decidedly non-funny actor--in its lead role. If you're tempted to watch that version, let me save you a lot of heartache and tell you to go straight to the original source for your comedy needs. The original was a entertaining, humorous bit of great comedy. The remake was a terrible bastardization in every way. If something was funny in the original, the writers of the remake concluded that exaggerating that humor until it was unrecognizable and shoving it down the audience's throat would be the best way to go. I say again, don't bother. From here on out I will pretend that the remake never happened; you would do well to do the same. The In-Laws is a story about a crazy CIA operative (Peter Falk) who is so secretive, not even his family knows what he does; they believe every ridiculous outlandish lie about his whereabouts overseas that he tells. His son is due to marry a very ordinary dentist's daughter soon and it is that dentist (Alan Arkin) who finally learns what Falk does for a living, after unknowingly being sucked into one of the biggest heists in US history. The fact that Falk can play crazy very seriously and genuinely only makes the humor fatter. He is not a parody of himself. He simply is. Arkin makes the perfect straight man to Falk's insanity. It is genius.

I've been in love with "Stalag 17" since I was a child. I have this thing about studying POWs: probably something I should be discussing with a qualified therapist. At any rate, "Stalag 17" was and still is the best of them. It is a fictional drama/comedy about life in the nonfictional Stalag (Luftwaffe POW camp) 17-B during WWII. It centers around William Holden who plays Sefton, a dispicable character who takes every opportunity to take advantage of the rest of the prisoners to make his own situation a little more comfortable. He is later accused of being a "stoolie" (stool pigeon) and ratting out his fellow prisoners--some of them being murdered by the Germans as a result--to the German guards in exchange for favors. He takes it upon himself to find the real stoolie before more prisoners get killed in the process. A great war-time whodunnit. I haven't seen its equal since.

"Mister Roberts" is a favorite of mine and my father's. We watch it together every chance we get. Based on the Broadway play, which was based upon experiences had by the writer in the US Navy during WWII, it stars Henry Fonda as Mr. Roberts, who played the same role in the stage production--he even wore his own Navy uniform from his wartime service for the role. Mister Roberts is the XO and but one of few officers onboard a US Navy cargo vessel during the war. His best friend onboard is Ensign Pulver (played by Jack Lemmon, who won his first Oscar for his performance), a shiftless, lazy officer who, after more than a year onboard has never even met the cruel, tyrannical captain of the ship (James Cagney) because he's scared of him and because he spends most of the day lying in his rack, sleeping or plotting various ways to exact revenge upon the captain--if he can ever get up the nerve. Roberts's confidante, the ship's surgeon (played by William Powell), keeps Roberts sane and ontrack with a good sense of humor and fatherly compassion for Roberts's desire to see real action in the war instead of seeing toothpaste and toilet paper safely delivered to fighting ships. The film is a comedy, but its overall tone speaks more to the silent killer of war: the boredom and stress that eventually take their toll on the otherwise strong fighting men and women and their ability to continue, despite frayed minds and wills. In the end, Mister Roberts pays special tribute to those who are constantly forced "to sail from tedium to apathy and back again." While funny, it is more a moving tribute to those who sacrifice just as much during a war, but who never see the recognition for those sacrifices.

"The Power of One" I've come to realize is an all-but-unheard of film, let alone book that it was based upon. The film centers around "Peekay" (P.K.) from the time he is a small boy to approaching manhood. Starting in the 1930s, it follows Peekay througout his young life in South Africa during the height of racial tensions between the native South Africans and the German South Africans and the English South Africans. Peekay is called the Rainmaker for his ability to unite the factioning tribes of South Africa in an effort to combat the cruelty of the German South Africans who have since taken control since the outbreak of WWII. Known for his ability to lose everyone he loves or who has ever loved him, he nonetheless presses on toward the bigger goal of bringing peace, largely through education, to the South African tribes. Stephen Dorff, who plays Peekay as an older teenager, is suberb. I was especially impressed that he can actually resemble something other than a heroine addict. Not surprisingly, that seems to coincide with his ability to choose good films to star in, as every other film he's chosen has sucked since that time. This one is actually worth his, and our, while. Simply, it was a life-altering experience for me.

You know a film is good when you can't stop talking about it, even days after you've seen it. "Thirteen Days," based upon RFK's memoirs, holds the distinction of being the only film that left me speechless after seeing it. In school we learned about the Cuban Missile Crisis and our teachers told us that we will never know just how closely our country came to nuclear holocaust during that time. I always figured they were exaggerating the circumstances and that sure, things were tense, but no one was honestly foolish enough back then to intentionally start a nuclear war. Not so. As paranoid as the public was back then--and rightfully so it would seem--they had no comprehension of how close to death they actually came. It was only due to the cool-headed diplomacy of Jack and Robert Kennedy, and apparently Kevin Costner with a "Boston" accent that will make you cry, that saved the situation from complete disaster; and all that despite Kennedy's staff and the Joint Chiefs telling them that war was the last and only remaining option available to them. I don't believe JFK was the greatest president we ever had--far from it--but he was the best for that situation. I believe God puts people in our path at specific times to change history for the better, and I honestly believe now that we needed someone like JFK at exactly that moment, who was one of the few at the top who was willing to ignore and defy his advisors in order to save the situation from catastrophe and avoid a conflict at all costs. We are living today because despite being mocked for lacking a spine and a few other manly things, Kennedy refused to accept that war was the next logical step. That is nothing to be sniffed at. And the film's portrayal of those events spanning 13 long days is phenomenal. Bruce Greenwood (JFK) and Steven Culp (RFK) are amazingly convincing as the Kennedy brothers, particularly Culp. Costner did his best as JFK's friend and advisor, Kenny O'Donnell. At least he kept up the terrible accent through the whole film, as opposed to abandoning it halfway through like he did in "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves." But good on him for at least starring in something worthwhile.

As I told Ms. Holly, I am obsessed with dystopian, or more accurately, anti-utopian portrayals of society. George Orwell's novel 1984 ("Big Brother is watching") is probably the most famous example of the anti-utopia, a society that is horrifically twisted, corrupt, and evil, but which tries to give the outer appearance and assurace that it is a utopia, bright with hope and promise for its citizenry. Animal Farm satirized the anti-utopia, which at the time was characterized by the real-life communist countries of the Soviet Union and China. While I find it fascinating to make parallels between the fictionalized anti-utopians and communism in reality, I've discovered that I'm actually looking more for signs that our own country has moved in the same direction, despite touting its anti-communism ideals. I've seen similarities for years, but it wasn't until recently that I realized we are not approaching the anti-dystopia; we are already in it. I'm still processing this crushing revelation so I don't have much more to add to it. But of the few anti-utopian/dystopian films I've seen, I honestly enjoyed Christian Bale's "Equlibrium" the most. A surprisingly clean film considering what one would expect from the working material and what filmmakers could have gotten away with, it is not a true anit-utopian tale in that it ends with a glimmer of hope. And Christian Bale shoots lots and lots of people.

I saw "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg" entirely by chance one night. I was about to turn off the TV and head for bed when Robert Osborne, the host of TCM, began to introduce a French musical they were about to show. The concept sounded interesting--a film in which every word that would be spoken was instead sung to music. Kind of like an opera, but not as irritating. I decided to check it out for 15 minutes before heading to bed; plus Robert insisted that I personally (I'm assuming I was the only one watching TCM at 2am) would not be disappointed with the film. After 15 minutes I couldn't bear to turn it off, so I decided to watch for just 15 minutes longer. This went on until the film ended at 4am without my ever having been able to look away. Despite the simplistic "lyrics," or because of them to some degree, I was spellbound by the hauntingly beautiful music that accompanied this heartbreaking love story. I also discovered one particular song, "I Will Wait For You," ("Dans le Magasin" on the soundtrack) within the score was very familiar; as it turns out, it is quite well-known, originating with this film. I've seen the film several times since then, particularly since renting it, and then owning it, despite not understanding a word sung therein. I dare say you don't have to with this one.

"Safety Last!" is likely Harold Lloyd's most famous film. Harold Lloyd was the Will Ferrell/Bill Murray of the 1920s. "Safety Last!" while not as funny as his "The Freshman," is still an incredible piece of filmmaking. The iconic photo of Lloyd hanging from the hands on a large clock on the side of a building are from this film. A film in which he scales and generally trips about on the outside of a tall building. It's interesting to note he was willing to do the film, with minimal assistance from a stuntman, despite being terrified of heights. It will make you squeal with empathetic terror. The things people do for the sake of comedy....

"White Christmas" isn't just great because of its holiday message and great music from Bing Crosby and fabulous choreography from Danny Kaye. It also speaks to the story of a retired Army wartime general who has been pushed aside by the military and all but forgotten by everyone else. Crosby's rendition of "What Can You Do With a General (When He Stops Being a General)?" always gets me. And I'm embarrassed to admit that I cry every time the general walks in at the end and discovers a host of people waiting for him: people who he assumed had long forgotten him after he was no longer the war hero from ages ago. I admit, it doesn't feel like Christmas to me without seeing this film.

"Airplane!" "UHF" and "Napoleon Dynamite" are just stupid, stupid humor. And I love it.


Misty D. said...

The Power of One is one of the most powerful movies I've ever seen. I first saw it in college, and it moved me in a way only a handful of movies have. It made me feel there is hope for the world, and that I might be able to make some sort of change for good in someone.

That said, it is one of the hardest movies for me to watch, too.

Abby said...


Janie said...

So I have to ask - what do you value most in movies - the pure entertainment value or the message - I opt to only be entertained - that's probably why I don't like war movies - too realistic and sad to me. I am generally not looking to be educated either, which is probably why I avoid movies like Thirteen days - though your synopsis has me intrigued...

Abby said...

You must see Thirteen Days if for no other reason than to hear The Accent. It's painful.

Movies should be entertaining first and foremost. If they aren't, they can't hold the audience's attention long enough to tell their story. Dr. Zhivago may have a great message, but I'll never know because it wasn't entertaining enough to make me keep watching. Pointless, huh?

Most movies have a message/moral to the story, etc. Some are more obvious about it than others. MST3K: The Movie didn't have any message to be gained that I could see. If it was there, it was far too subtle for me to recognize. But I still loved it because I was entertained out of my mind. The comedy is on a level so advanced that message or no, I simply can't resist it.

Movies like The Power of One is a little heavier on the messages. That's cool, especially if it's a good message and it entertained me. The film made me believe it and I felt for those people, particularly Peekay. He became real to me. He was no longer Stephen Dorff out of rehab with a new haircut, he was a young South African Britisher with optimism and hope, despite the pain he'd suffered. He dealt with his own pain by spreading hope to those around him. The painful scenes advance your love and empathy for Peekay and you feel with him. The film succeeded in its goal to entertain, educate about history, and most of all to be real for two hours.

I don't believe a film has to be funny or fluffy to be entertaining. I can be entertained by several different factors, humor only being one of them. The question is, is the film well made? Did it capture my attention? Did it achieve its goal? If it's a comedy, did it make me laugh good and hard? If it's a documentary, did it teach me something new and important? If it's a drama, did it make me think beyond myself for a while and explore another's life? Obviously, you can laugh, think, and learn all in the same film, too.

A lot of war films are blood and guts. The message: war is terrible and affects millions. They usually depict battles that actually happened, further extending the message to that of teaching about history--something we have to learn or we're doomed to repeat it. But like you, I'm not always really entertained by that type of war film. The dying and the crying are too much for me to enjoy it. There never seems to be a break in which to recover from the emotional overload. I didn't enjoy "We Were Soldiers" for that very reason. It was well-made, just not my bag. If a war film can convey those messages without all the gallons of blood and bullets, I'm all for that.

"Hart's War," a WWII POW whodunnit, conveys its message largely blood-free. Yet it still sucked. It failed in its quest to make me think outside of my current situation and get into the lives of people I don't know. It was so contrived and poorly executed that I didn't believe it for one second. I felt no empathy or sympathy for anybody onscreen. And it had Colin Ferrell, who sucks without even trying. It was a bad film.

Film is a medium for transmitting information, pure and simple. It helps if it captures the filmgoers' attention, too. Kinda like church, often what you get out of the source is directly related to what you put into it yourself. If you shut off and never allow yourself to feel during any movie other than a comedy or the occasional chick-flick, you're guaranteed to never get anything out of them, and thus hate them. Movies can be so much more than a way to kill two hours of your life; they can change your life in only two hours. But only if you're willing.

Benteti5 said...

So not only do you want O'Reilly's job, you're pining for Ebert's too. Who doesn't watch movies to be entertained? A good war movie is not really about war, it's about people. This is what sets Saving Private Ryan and The Lost Battalion, to name a couple, above the rest.

Abby said...

Janie's question asked just that: given how much our tastes obviously differ, do I go to be entertained like she does or am I searching for some other higher purpose? I indicated that one can do both, but entertainment is always the goal first and foremost. And as you said, everyone's goal.

And yes, I am totally Ebert. *coughsmartasscough* I loved "The Lost Battalion." Great film. "Saints and Soldiers" is another excellent war film that is supremely entertaining and enlightening.

Karie said...

I like this post--you neatly sum up what I aspire to achieve in movie-viewing. Sometimes I'm a sucker for the cheap laugh or the easy romance, but for the most part, my favorite movies are entertainment and enlightenment.

I envy you that you've been able to watch Saints and Soldiers. I haven't been able to find a copy to watch yet. I think I can track it down on Netflix. *note to self*