Friday, March 15, 2013

Copious Coppolas

Since The View from the Couch post (below), thirteen more DVDs have wended their way through my player, competing to retain their places on my overcrowded shelf. Results follow.

You’re a Big Boy Now (1966). This flick was Francis Ford Coppola’s UCLA thesis.  Like so many interesting films, it transcends its time even as it is firmly rooted in it. Beautifully shot in NYC, it is the story of 19-y.o. Bernard who is having a hard time growing up. He is infatuated by the narcissistic and cruel actress Barbara Darling (Elizabeth Hartman), who enjoys nothing more than crushing his already shaky sense of manhood and self-worth. All the while, he ignores the real treasure Amy (a young Karen Black) who cares for him. Barbara’s sadism is given an explanation, though not actually an excuse. Meanwhile, Bernard’s parents, while urging him to grow up, in fact hold him back. This coming-of-age film is clever, funny, off-beat and sports a quintessentially 1960s soundtrack by John Sebastian performed by The Lovin’ Spoonful. Shelved.

The Ladies Man (1961). Jerry Lewis made some very good movies as an actor and as writer/director. He is funny as the Delicate Delinquent (1957) and convincing as the ruthless talk show host in The King of Comedy (1983). The Nutty Professor (1963), written and directed by himself, is a true comedy classic. He also made stinkers, such as Way…Way Out (1966) and the almost unspeakable Slapstick of Another Kind (1982). The Ladies Man is neither…and both. Lewis shows real directorial skill in this film, with a superb purpose-built set, solid camera work, and good choreography. None of this is enough to overcome a script that doesn’t rise to the level of weak. Jerry Lewis is big on physical humor, but all slapstick (slipping, colliding, breaking) is not in-and-of itself funny. It really isn’t. It needs some context – not a lot, necessarily, but more than is offered here. In The Ladies Man, Jerry goes to work as a sort of errand boy in a houseful of women with acting ambitions; this set-up is never exploited for anything more than so-so bits and gags – with one excessively maudlin message as a lagniappe. If you want an intelligent, funny, and heartfelt comedy about a boarding house full of aspiring actresses, choose Stage Door (1937) with Katherine Hepburn, Ginger Rogers, and Lucille Ball. Unshelved.

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (2010). Nicolas Cage (born Nicolas Coppola, Francis’ nephew) never just walks through his parts. He always puts effort into them no matter how inane they may be. When he ran into financial difficulties some years ago, he began to accept roles that were very inane indeed. We probably all do things for a paycheck of which we are not proud, but not all of us have the results recorded on film for all time. Perhaps he was hoping for better when this role was offered. If so, his hopes were dashed. The concept for this movie sounds promising enough: dueling sorcerers, a search for a successor to Merlin, a love story spanning centuries, the evil Morgana le Fey loose in modern day NYC, and a bumbling young lad challenged to face his destiny – all brought to us with high budget special effects from the folks at Disney. What could be missing? Oh yeah, how about a script to go along with the concept?  What there is of one is so flawed that Nicholas couldn’t save it. Despite all the whiz-bang action, the film manages to be boring. Unshelved.

Woman Times Seven (1967) – As the title clues us, vignettes of seven women comprise this 1960s movie, which once again shows that a film lives or dies by its script. All of the seven women are played by Shirley MacLaine. The stories are set in Paris and Rome. Was Cesare Zavatinni (the screenwriter) trying to be funny? Poignant? Sad? It doesn’t matter, because the film isn’t any of those things. Only one of the women is believable: the one who thinks she is being followed by an admirer (today we would say “stalker”); the audience learns, though she never does, that he is a detective hired by a jealous husband. All of the other characters are crazy or cartoonish, and not very amusingly so. There is also something unsettling about every one of them being financially well-set. You’d think one out of seven wouldn’t be. The theme is love and betrayal, which certainly can be fodder aplenty for a movie – but not this movie. If you’re a Shirley MacLaine fan and like the vignette format, try What a Way To Go (1964), which is, at least, funny. Unshelved.

Nine Lives (2005). Also a series of vignettes about women, though this time with nine different actresses and a creditable script. Nine Lives has an excellent cast including Sissy Spacek, Elpidio Carillo, Amanda Seyfried, and Glenn Close. The characters span the social spectrum. One is in jail, one is hospitalized, one is an unwelcome guest at the funeral of her ex-boyfriend’s wife, another has a path-not-taken moment in a grocery store when she encounters an old flame, while yet another wavers between suicide and murder. The stories overlap a little near the end. Love in the various tales takes different forms. Seyfried’s character, for example, plainly gives up an Ivy League college opportunity (though she denies it) in order to provide help to her parents, who need it (though they deny it). Glenn Close picnics in the cemetery with her young daughter (Dakota Fanning), combining an affection for what was with an affection for what is. All nine characters are credible, and, as in real life, they don’t always wrap up their issues neatly. Shelved.

Moonrise Kingdom (2012). Written by Wes Andersen and Roman Ford Coppola (son of Francis), this is an off-beat comedy set in 1965 at a summer camp on the New England island of New Penzance. 12-y.o. Sam, a foster child, runs off with like-aged Suzy to a remote corner of the island which they dub Moonrise Kingdom. This raises the ire of Suzy’s parents, Sam’s foster parents, and Social Services, who call in the help of reluctant police Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis). The writing and direction are quirky. It is all a bit odd, but it works. Christopher Orr in The Atlantic argues that romantic comedies are a declining art form (not in numbers but in quality) because they rely on lovers overcoming adversity, but in the 21st century we no longer normally put formidable obstacles in the path of any two people who want to get together. The rare modern romcom that succeeds, he suggests, is one that stretches for obstacles, such as Silver Linings Playbook in which the characters are obstructed by their own mental health issues. Moonrise Kingdom would support his argument. After all, you can see why parents and some other authority figures might balk at letting 12-year-olds in love run off together. Shelved.

Angel (1984). Unapologetic trash. A 15-y.o. prep school girl moonlights as a hooker and befriends the oddball (and generally likable) street people on Hollywood Blvd. A psycho is prowling the streets and killing prostitutes. The film has a few cute moments, and the effort to win the audience’s sympathies works to the extent that we’re happy when Angel grabs her landlady’s gun and goes after the killer. Angel spawned two atrocious sequels that should be avoided at all costs. Though the original film is not without a certain guilty pleasure appeal, there are too many flaws in the production, casting, acting, and direction for the DVD to be shelf-worthy. It’s a closer call than one might think, but Unshelved.

Sucker Punch (2011). I never saw worse reviews for a movie than for Sucker Punch: "two hours of solitary confinement, which feels more like dog hours" (Michael Philips, Chicago Tribune); "Movie lives up to its name" (A.O. Scott, New York Times); "What happens when a studio gives carte blanche to a filmmaker who has absolutely nothing original or even coherent to say" (Lou Lumenick. New York Post). There was the odd exception, e.g. Betsy Sharkey of The Los Angeles Times: "utterly absorbing romp through the id that I wouldn't have missed for the world." I didn’t see the same movie as the mainstream critics. I saw the same movie Betsy did. Critics complained that the plot doesn’t make sense. While I understand the confusion, the film does make sense: wrongfully committed to a high security asylum by a corrupt stepfather, "Baby Doll" seeks freedom while indulging in two layers of fantasy rife with elaborate videogame-style imagery. The key to the story (this is not quite a *spoiler*) is what we are told it is right at the beginning: “the mystery of whose story it will be.” It is this, not the lobotomist’s hammer, that is the sucker punch. Shelved, but I realize a majority of viewers won’t like it.

The Best of Burlesque. This collection contains 7 hours of material filmed mostly between 1950 and 1955, an era when the classic burlesque houses still reigned. Within a decade they were all but gone, replaced by the go-go bar. One of the DVD features is called Too Hot to Handle. It is a record of an entire burlesque show, with the live band, the singers, and the comic acts - some awful, some funny – along with the dancers with their sets and routines. The DVD also contains a long list of shorts (some in 3D) featuring headliners and relative unknowns. Tempest Storm's act is very traditional but amazing. Corky Marshall does a funny dance/monologue routine about a nervous stripper on her first gig. The 1950s were the bad old days in any number of ways. Most of the social changes since then have been in the right direction. Yet something was lost along the way, too. Even if you’re too young to remember the decade, this collection can evoke some nostalgia for a time when the sleaze had more style. Shelved.

Chump Change (2000). This witty, well-written, well-acted (and occasionally silly) flick won several film festival awards in 2000 and 2001. Then it disappeared from view until quietly released on DVD a few years later. It deserved more confidence from the producers. Stephen Burrows, who wrote and directed, portrays an actor/comedian/screenwriter who goes home to Wisconsin after being overwhelmed by Hollywood. There he unexpectedly encounters a woman played by Traci Lords, who is charming in this atypical role. He discovers she is renting his mother’s house while his mother is on an extended vacation in Iceland: “You’re not my mother.” “You’re not my son. At last, closure.” This is hardly the first film to make fun of big bad Hollywood and it won’t be the last, but it is one of the more pleasant. Shelved.

Love Object (2003). In this truly creepy low-budget film, shy and troubled Kenneth buys an ultra high-end sex doll. She is named Nikki. His “relationship” with her actually helps his confidence enough to develop a real relationship with a pretty coworker named Lisa (Melissa Sagemiller). Uh-oh, Nikki is jealous and starts causing trouble. Or is Ken bonkers and causing the trouble himself? When Lisa discovers Kenneth is weirder than she ever imagined and tries to back away, he develops a plan to turn her into a doll with embalming techniques. Twisted, but that’s precisely what the movie is supposed to be. Shelved

Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist (2008). No, this is not a late addition to The Thin Man series, though it does involve detective work: the search for a secret show being held somewhere in NYC by Where’s Fluffy, the favorite band of teens Nick (Michael Cera) and Norah (Kat Dennings). The movie takes place over the course of a single 24 hour period in which Nick and Norah meet for the first time, break up and make up with each other, make up and break up with their respective old flames, seek out Norah’s drunken girlfriend before she gets into trouble, scour the New York club scene (the bouncers don’t seem strict on the over-21 rule in this pic), and search for Where’s Fluffy. This film doesn’t try to be anything deeper than a breezy teen date-flick, but it succeeds at being that. Likable. Shelved.

Somewhere (2010). Sofia Coppola (Francis’ daughter) wrote and directed this film about a spoiled self-indulgent movie star who lives for expensive toys (such as his Ferrari), luxury hotel suites, shallow affairs, and tawdry (but pricey) entertainment – until the daughter he barely knows (Elle Fanning) shows up. It takes a while, but Elle evokes parental feelings and values in him that he didn’t know he had. At the end he walks away from his Ferrari, leaving the keys in the ignition. This film received mixed reviews, but those who liked it liked it a lot. It won some film festival awards. I’m just not the right audience for it. If I had any kids, perhaps I would be. But I don’t and I’m not. Unshelved.

Hey, I’m getting better. I unshelved 5 out of 13.

The Lovin’ Spoonful play the 1966 soundtrack to You’re a Big Boy Now. (The dialogue is audible in the actual film.)


  1. You know I'm on the fence with "Suckerpunch". It looks visually dazzling, but the director is really hit and miss for me. "300" was OK, I liked "Watchmen" a little more. Still, I might have to check this one out, just to see the anime and video game inspired madness.

    "Moonrise Kingdom" also looked interesting, and again the director is really hit and miss for me. But you with both these directors, I appreciate that they try new and different things - even if the result don't quite make it. It's better than watching the same cookie cutter movies.

  2. Suckerpunch is at least worth a look. I can't imagine what MST3K would have done with it.

    Trying something out of the ordinary does count. All of writers/directors of the "shelved" in the above list at least tried that.