Wednesday, November 30, 2016

RULES DON’T APPLY: A Warren Beatty Bomb Decades In The Making

Now playing at mostly empty theaters across the country:

RULES DON’T APPLY (Dir. Warren Beatty, 2016)

By this point it’s pretty apparent that Warren Beatty’s return to the big screen has failed to make a big splash. Beatty’s long gestating Howard Hughes project was released last Friday to mixed reviews and terrible box office returns, which is sad because it’s his first acting role in 15 years (his last was in Peter Chelsom’s dreadful TOWN & COUNTRY), and his first directing job in 18 years (his last was 1998’s far from brilliant BULWORTH).

Beatty first had the idea for the film in the early ‘70s when he found himself staying in the same hotel as the famously reclusive billionaire, but it didn’t have a screenplay until the ‘90s when he drafted Academy Award-winning screenwriter Bo Goldman to co-write what was then titled “Hughes.” It was intended to be Beatty’s follow-up to his last big hit, DICK TRACY, but things didn’t work out and the project was shelved.

Since then, it’s been in development hell, and many have thought it would never be made. Yet, here it is – just in time for awards season, now called RULES DON’T APPLY, starring Beatty as Hughes, and featuring a fabulous supporting cast including Alden Ehrenreich, Lily Collins, Matthew Broderick, Martin Sheen, Alec Baldwin, and Beatty’s wife of 24 years, Annette Bening.

Actually, Ehrenreich and Collins are the real stars, as Beatty’s Hughes is largely in the background here, sometimes even in the darkness of sparsely lit hotel rooms or holed up in a curtained bed.

It’s 20 minutes before Hughes even enters the picture as we learn about Collins’ fictitious character, Marla Mabrey, who has come to Hollywood in 1958 to make it in show business. Marla signs a contract with RKO, in which she is provided with a posh house, and a chauffeur named Frank Forbes (Ehrenreich). Both Marla and Frank are waiting for a chance to meet their employer – she about when she will get to do a screentest, while he wants to get Hughes to invest in a real estate deal involving housing in Mulholland Canyon.

When Hughes finally makes his entrance, it’s in the aforementioned darkness of a Beverly Hills Hotel bungalow, in which the nervous Marla has a prepared spiel, but Hughes ignores her questions.

Frank also gets his meeting with Hughes over burgers at the end of the Long Beach dock where Hughes’ ginormous flying boat, the Spruce Goose, is stationed, in the middle of the night.

Despite having a fiancée (Taissa Farmiga) back home in Fresno, Frank has the hots for Marla and things get heated between them when she sings him a song she wrote called “Rules Don’t Apply.” The couple engages in a make-out session, smashing a glass table in the process. However, Frank’s coworker Levar Mathis (Broderick) interrupts and ends their lustful moment by showing up at Marla’s house to drive her to an engagement.

Meanwhile, the paranoid Hughes fears that he’ll be committed to a mental hospital so he figures that if he gets married the powers that be can’t put him away without his wife’s approval. When Marla sings her “Rules Don’t Apply” song to Hughes, it triggers the same smitten reaction, but this time her tryst gets consummated.

I bet Beatty thinks that the song, an original composition by Lorraine Feather and Eddie Arkin, is sure to get an Oscar Nomination, but, despite it not being bad, I'll be really surprised if it does.

It’s weird to say that a movie that has been in the works in one form or another for decades is underwritten, but it certainly is the case. Beatty nails the collection of ticks that Hughes was famous for including the habit of repeating the same phrase over, (though Leonardo DiCaprio did that better in Martin Scorsese’s far superior Hughes biopic THE AVIATOR), and his performance is one of the best things about the movie, but it’s in service of a extremely lightweight storyline.

It’s easy to see why Beatty was attracted to Hughes’ persona, as Beatty himself is an eccentric, reclusive, control freak. In Peter Biskind’s 2012 biography “Star: How Warren Beatty Seduced America,” journalist/politico Bill Bradley speaks of Beatty’s original concept being one that “could be a movie that really explains power and money in America.” That’s not what we have here at all. What this is a drawn out, largely dull tale of a love triangle that oddly resembles what Woody Allen did better in his period piece CAFÉ SOCIETY last summer.

Beatty’s co-writer Bo Goldman who once called himself “the world’s greatest living expert on Howard Hughes,” and who penned the also Hughes-related 1980 comedy drama MELVIN AND HOWARD, wrote a version of the screenplay 20 years ago that Beatty appears to have rewritten and rewritten until whatever spark that may have been there is gone.

RULES DON’T APPLY strains and fails to be an amusing and charming romp, but there’s a severe lack of chemistry between its leads, and an indefinable purpose to the proceedings. It's a passion project without any passion.

There are a number of stylish touches that I enjoyed, such as the use of archival footage in establishing shots and in rear projection driving scenes, and the film is beautifully shot by cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, but that is just the pretty packaging for a shallow, insightless premise.

At the very least, if this is indeed the swan song that Beatty has claimed, even though it bombed, it’s still a better movie to go out on than TOWN & COUNTRY. In many ways, that’s all it really needed to be.

More later...

Film Babble Blog's Top 10 Favorite Cinematic Sight Gags

Back in the day, I used to post listicles (before they were called listicles) of movie tropes that I would attempt to amusingly connect to break up the flow of review after review. So with the upcoming glut of year-end releases plus the stress of the holiday season coming (not to mention the craziness of the post election season we're going through) I thought I’d rekindle that idea and do something silly – list my top 10 favorite movie sight gags.

The following are what I consider 
meme-worthy screen shots from the obvious suspects: Monty Python, Zucker brothers, Mel Brooks, super hero movies, etc, They’re the engrained images, mostly from my childhood, that always make me laugh when I think of them. So here goes:

1. The shit hits the fan in AIRPLANE!

(Dirs. David & Jerry Zucker, Jim Abrahams, 1980)

Almost every other shot in the line of movie spoofs made by the Zucker brothers (David & Jerry) and Jim Abrahams is a sight gag – some brilliant; some idiotic. The one that most appeals to me is an absurdly literal visual joke from their classic disaster film satire AIRPLANE! that involves Ted Striker (Robert Hays), who’s been called in to land Boeing 707 (Trans American Flight 209) after the pilots have been taken ill. Striker: “The oil pressure, I forgot to check the oil pressure. When Kramer hears about this, the shit's gonna hit the fan.” The film then cuts to a shot of actual shit hitting a fan in the airport control room. Hey, I warned you above that there would be stupidity.

2. Clark Kent can't find an old school phone booth in SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE (Dir. Richard Donner, 1978)

As an eight-year old kid, I remember the laughter from the audience being really big when Clark Kent (Christopher Reeve) was first called into action in the first big screen Superman movie and found that the walk-in phone booths of the past, that he regularly used to change into his suit in the comics, were largely non-existent. Reeves’ expression at this realization of modern times is priceless.

3. The town sign for Plotpointburg in MUPPETS MOST WANTED (Dir. James Bobin, 2014)

Sure, MUPPETS MOST WANTED isn’t the best of Muppets movies, but it’s far from the worst, and this meta gag about how their European-set adventure, the latest in the cinematic series that was rebooted by Bobbins and Jason Segel in 2011, was adhering to a tried and true formula, got the biggest laugh of any of the jokes in their 2014 follow-up.

4. Sherrif Justice's restroom faux pas in SMOKEY & THE BANDIT (Dir. Hal Needham, 1977) 

The second biggest grossing movie of 1977 (STAR WARS was the biggest – duh!) had its share of dumb visual jokes, but this one which had Sherrif Buford T. Justice (Jackie Gleason) leaving the men’s room at a truckstop with a line of toilet-paper following him out the door really made me giggle as a kid. According to Wikipedia, Burt Reynolds said that it was Gleason’s “idea to have the toilet paper coming out of his pantleg” in the scene. I may just have to agree with writer Tyler Coates, who said in his Decider post about seeing the film for the first time, that the shot may be “the greatest toilet-paper sight gag in the history of motion pictures.”

5. A 23rd century McDonald's in SLEEPER (Dir. Woody Allen, 1973)

Many of Woody Allen’s movies have sight gags, especially his “early funny ones,” but this particular one has stayed with me as it’s a really outdated, but still funny joke. In the film, which concerns Allen’s Miles Monroe, a nebbish NY neorotic (duh!) waking up 200 years in the future, our protagonist walks by a 23rd Century McDonald’s that has a sign boasting “Over 795,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000" Served.”

In the IMDb trivia section for SLEEPER, it is noted that “if translated into American numeration this value would be Seven Hundred, Ninety-five sexdecillion," a value with 51 zeroes. By comparison, Avogadro's Number, 6023E23 (or 6.023^23), or "mole," is a value normally used to count atoms or molecules, and, incidentally, thought to be about the number of grains of sand on all the beaches on earth, give or take a couple orders of magnitude. The value of 795 sexdecillion is very nearly a mole of moles.”

As McDonald’s was a somewhat seemingly new fad of a fast food chain in the early ‘70s, you can see why Allen made this joke. Though these days, it seems like a hell of an under-estimate.

6. Combing the desert in SPACEBALLS (Dir. Mel Brooks, 1987)

Another Jewish comedian turned ‘70s comedy star, Mel Brooks, also had many sight gags in his films. In the late ‘80s, Brooks’ schtick was pretty played out, but that didn’t stop him from making a spoof of the STAR WARS films and modern movie sci-fi in general called SPACEBALLS. One of its most memorable involved Rick Moranis’ Darth Vader spoof Dark Helmet ordering his troops to “comb the desert” for the missing Princess Vespa, and, of course, they do just that.

Maybe a funnier sight gag in SPACEBALLS was in the film’s few minutes, in which there was a parody of the opening of the original STAR WARS’ long, continous shot of a ginormous starship. That one, isn’t as well captured in a gif though.

7. The Black Knight's limb loss in MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL (Dirs. Terry Gilliam & Terry Jones, 1975)

More ‘70s sight gag funniness comes from the iconic British comedy group Monty Python, whose films are full of them. I’ll go with this one from their 1975 classic MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL, in which a black knight gets both his arms chopped off yet afterwards still continues fighting. The blood gushing was a new thing for a comedy film in that era (Dan Aykroyd's Julia Childs SNL bit around that same time  hit the same vein - sorry), so this was as groundbreaking as it was hilarious.

As a runner-up, I’ll go with this shot from MONTY PYTHON’S LIFE OF BRIAN which happens after Brian (Graham Chapman) has been up all night following a strict Roman Centurion’s (John Cleese) orders (again with the literal following of orders) to paint “Romani ite domum,” which means “Romans go home,” a hundred times all over the Roman Palace’s walls:

8. Steve Martin cleans his gun in DEAD MEN DON’T WEAR PLAID
(Dir. Carl Reiner, 1981)

Okay, so either the ‘70s-‘80s is the glorious age of cinematic sight gags or I’m just old and that’s the era that I most identify with, but I have to go with either this Steve Martin should be comedy classic’s shot of Martin’s detective character Rigby Reardon cleaning his handgun in a sink with a bottle brush, or the tie shot that has him shaving his tongue. How either of these really satire the world of Humphrey Bogart-era gumshoe film noir is debatable, but I still find both damn funny.

9. TIE: THE SIMPSONS MOVIE (Dir. David Silverman, 2007) & AUSTIN POWERS: INTERNATIONAL MAN OF MYSTERY (Dir. Jay Roach, 1997)

Both of these films feature sight gags involving the obscuring of the male member. I don’t feel I need to explain any more than that.

10. Brick Tamland's reaction to his dismembered TV image in ANCHORMAN: THE LEGEND OF RON BURGANDY (Dir. Adam McKay, 2004)

Although Will Ferrell's big deal newscaster Ron Burgandy could be seen as a walking sight gag (as could just about every character he's ever played), it’s Steve Carrell’s character in the 2004 '70s news spoof, Brick Tamland, freaking out because his green pants made his legs disappear on a weather green screen that makes the cut here.

Okay! So what are your favorite sight gags? Let me, and other readers, know in the comments below.

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Thursday, November 24, 2016

Brad Pitt & Marion Cotillard Revisit WWII In Robert Zemeckis’ ALLIED

Now playing at a multiplex near everybody:

ALLIED (Dir. Robert Zemeckis, 2016)

his is Brad Pitt’s third World War II movie (not counting the 2009 short BEYOND ALL BOUNDARIES), but while in Quentin Tarantino’s INGLORIOUS BASTERDS * and David Ayers’ FURY he was a gruff, hard ass Sgt. Rock-style Nazi-killing machine with nicknames such as “The Apache” and “Wardaddy,” here he’s a suave, dapper intelligence officer. But don’t worry, he still kills plenty of Nazis.

The premise in this WWII tale, which is Pitt’s first film with director Robert Zemeckis of BACK TO THE FUTURE and FORREST GUMP fame, is that our hero’s wife may be a German spy.

Marion Cotillard, whose second WWII film this is (Pierre Grimblat’s 2001 drama LISA was her first), plays French Resistance fighter Marianne Beausejour, who meets Pitt’s Max Vatan on a dangerous mission in Morocco to kill a German ambassador. Before long, they fall in love and consummate it in an intense love-making scene set in the back of a car in the middle of a sandstorm.

That’s one of the movie’s most memorable moments as it
s heated and convincing enough to make Angelina Jolie feel like her real-life split from Pitt is beyond justified, but unfortunately the film lacks enough of such stunning scenes to make it ultimately worthwhile.

After Max and Marianne get married and have a daughter while living in London and dream about having a house together across the pond in Medicine Hat in Alberta, Canada, Max is told by a SOE (Special Operations Executive) Officer portrayed by Simon McBurney (who really ought to play Roman Polanski someday) that there’s strong evidence that Marianne is a spy. If she
s found guilty, Max will be forced to kill her or be executed himself for not following orders.

So Max does what he can to prove her innocence including traveling to a veterans hospital to question an acquaintance named Guy Sangster (an almost unrecognizable Matthew Goode) about whether his wife is who she says she is, and a French prison to interrogate to a one-armed drunk. The latter is another effective sequence with genuine suspense and a thrilling shoot-out, but, again, there’s not enough of this action to really make this movie a must.

One of the film’s major problems is that it looks so phony. From Pitt and Cotillard’s heavy, unnatural looking make-up to obvious use of green screen to the soundstage sets (especially in the rooftop scenes), the whole thing never not comes across like a glossy Hollywood production.

I’m sure that some of these aesthetics are intentional in its attempt to make an old fashioned CASABLANCA-type romance involving espionage and intrigue, but I was distracted by how Pitt looked like BENJAMIN BUTTON when he reached his pretty boy stage, and how artificial the surroundings appeared.

The conclusion is far from satisfying in its predictability and there are some character threads that don’t add up to much like that of Max’s lesbian sister, played by Lizzy Caplan. Jared Harris is used more successfully as Max’s sympathetic commander, but it’s a part Harris could play in his sleep (Harris’ role in CERTAIN WOMEN is certainly a much more challenging one).

Still, ALLIED is passable entertainment, and many folks will be swept up in its charms, as limited as they may be. It stars two appealing movie stars, who do display considerable chemistry, and it moves along at a brisk pace. If only its screenplay, by Steven Knight, was more fleshed out and there was more authentic grit in its visuals.

As is, it’s a fairly forgettable affair that I doubt will have much traction this season.

* Will Fonvielle of the fine blog Filmvielle pointed out that August Diehl, who appeared in INGLORIOUS BASTERDS, also makes an appearance in this film. I consider that a callback.

More later...