Thursday, May 25, 2017

character counts: John Goodman

Although he had early screen roles in "Sweet Dreams" and "Revenge of the Nerds," I first took note of the remarkable character actor John Goodman in David Byrne's still-fabulous 1986 new-style film musical, ”True Stories,” a movie that Goodman made after having scored big on Broadway the year before as Pap Finn in "Big River," Roger Miller's musical version of Mark Twain's "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn."

Choice supporting roles followed.

Among them were "Raising Arizona," "The Big Easy," Punchline," "Burglar" and "Everybody's All-American," quintessential, laid-back '80s films that make one deeply appreciate - and, yes, seriously miss - the 1980s.

Hollywood seems incapable these days to produce straightforward, no-frill films of this variety. 

Anyway, the rest of America discovered Goodman in 1988 as Dan Conner on the excellent sitcom, "Roseanne." The show's creator, Roseanne Barr, may have trained as a stand-up comic but she was no slouch as an actress.  Still, she was savvy enough to surround herself with talent from Broadway (Goodman, Laurie Metcalf, Estelle Parsons and John Randolph), venerable movie people (Shelley Winters, Ned Beatty and even Tony Curtis), an up-and-coming hunk who could actually act (George Clooney), smart, cutting-edge comics (Martin Mull and Sandra Bernhardt) and terrific kid actors (Lecy Goranson, Sara Gilbert, Michael Fishman, Johnny Galecki and Stephen Dorff).

But, for me, Goodman's smooth, naturalistic performance as an average husband and dad was the titanic supporting structure of "Roseanne."

Now something of a household name, thanks to "Roseanne," Goodman continued to moonlight in supporting movie roles, but in the early '90s, something happened: Goodman started to score lead roles, beginning with Frank Marshall's "Arachnophobia" (1990). His name was suddenly above the title - for a while, at least.

I was reminded of this when I spotted a cable showing of "The Babe" in a TV listing. Goodman plays Babe Ruth in the 1992 Arthur Hiller film and it is inarguably his biggest screen role.

Around this time, Goodman had another lead role in Joe Dante's ”Matinee,” as well as starring parts in David S. Ward's "King Ralph" (opposite Peter O'Toole, no less), Brian Levant's "The Flintstones" and the Melanie Griffith-Don Johnson remake of "Born Yesterday" (in which Goodman replaced Nick Nolte in the Broderick Crawford role), directed by Luis Mandoki. He was also Bette Midler's leading man in "Stella," the now-forgotten re-do of "Stella Dallas."

And I can't ignore his star vocal turn as the furry James P. Sullivan, the imaginary friend of little Boo, in the heartwarming "Monsters, Inc." animation. Much like Dan Conner, Sullivan underlines Goodman's appeal as an actor - someone who inhabits a role so fully that he brings a cozy, lived-in feel to his line-readings, facial expressions and his movements which often seem almost choreographed.

For a big man, Goodman is incredibly light on his feet.

As dazzling as Goodman has been in his few starring roles, he's more in his element in smaller turns, particularly those for the Coen Brothers - the aforementioned "Raising Arizona," "The Hudsucker Proxy," "Barton Fink," "The Big Lebowski" and "O Brother, Where art Thou?" Exceptional.

But, currently, he seems comfortably ensconced back in supporting roles again.

More recently, Goodman has demonstrated just how invaluable he is in these roles in  such titles as "The Artist," "The Monuments Men" (working for and with his "Roseanne" co-star, George Clooney), "Trumbo," the Coens' "Inside Llewyn Davis" and "Argo," for which he deserved an Oscar nomination every bit as much as his co-star Alan Arkin. What? A mere piddling Oscar nomination? Heck, give this man his own golden statuette already.

Note in Passing: When I was reviewing out of Sacramento, filmmaker David Zucker made a stop in 1988 to promote the film "Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad." He said that he was hoping to find material that would suit John Candy and I suggested a remake of the 1968 Philippe Noiret French charmer, ”Alexander” (aka "A Very Happy Alexander" / "Alexandre le bienheureux"), directed by Yves Robert. But I hastened to add that it would be a better fit for Goodman. Anyway, Zucker had never seen it. I had an old Beta copy and he still had a Beta player. So, Zucker borrowed my tape, later returning it by mail and confessing that he was unable to find financing for it with either Candy or Goodman in the role.

A missed opportunity.
 *  *  *  *  *


~top: John Goodman as Dan Conner on "Roseanne" 
~photography: ABC 1988 ©
still shot of Goodman in "True Stories"
~photography: Warner Bros. 1986 ©

* * * * *

~middle: movie poster for Universal's "The Babe"

* * * * *
~bottom: still shot of Sullivan and Boo in "Monsters, Inc." 
~photography: Disney/Pixar 2001 ©
still shot of Goodman in "The Big Lebowski"
~photography: Gramercy Pictures 1998 ©

Friday, May 19, 2017

indelible moment: "North by Northwest"

Hitchcock's compulsively watchable masterpiece, "North by Northwest" (1959), contains any number of memorable moments.  Hell, the entire film is a memorable moment. But one scene, in particular, stands out for me.

It occurs rather early in the film when Cary Grant returns to the Plaza Hotel - accompanied by the fabulous Jessie Royce Landis, playing his glib, eye-rolling mother - to search the room of one George Kaplan, for whom Cary's Roger O. Thornhill, an advertising executive, has been mistaken.

Snooping around in the suite's bathroom, Cary examins a hairbrush.

Walking back into the bedroom, he announces to mother (in a deadpan manner patented by Grant), "Bulletin! George Kaplan has dandruff."

Grant's body language, telegraphing disgust with the idea of dandruff, perfectly complements his line reading.  He hunches his shoulders and slightly flails his arms, making spindly movements with his fingers:

"Bulletin! George Kaplan has dandruff."

Brilliant, just brilliant.

* * * * *
~image: still shot of Cary Grant and Jessie Royce Landis in "North by Northwest" / MGM 1959 ©

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

"Our special tonight is roasted partridge with a lemongrass coulis, served with a goat cheese marmalade": "the dinner," acerbic and brutal

With his highly polarizing new film, "The Dinner," Oren Moverman has handily fashioned a rather brutal, fully-deserved attack on current American values that's at once elegant, acerbic and refreshingly languid.

And so it's no surprise that, after attracting much attention and admiration at the Berlinale (the Berlin Film Festival) in February, where it premiered, "The Dinner" is now at the mercy of provincial American movie critics who just don't "get it" and conservative movie audiences who clearly do.

At the performance I attended, the half dozen or so patrons sat there quietly throughout the entire film, only to boo and hiss when it was over.

One misguided woman actually demanded her money back.

These few moviegoers picked up on the film's message, perhaps only subliminally, but they caught what was clearly oblivious to the professional critics reviewing it, including - surprisingly - the almost always reliable Jeannette Catsoulis who wrote one of those brief, "let's get this one out of the way" reviews that The New York Times runs regularly these days.*

From where I sit, all this agitation over "The Dinner" isn't a negative at all.  It only means the film is clearly doing something right, pushing buttons.

And Moverman takes his time before he strikes, introducing us to Paul and Claire (Steve Coogen and Laura Linney) as they prepare for a night out with another couple at one of those comically pretentious restaurants that fetishizes food.  Paul, a contrarian and malcontent (after my own heart) really doesn't want to dine with "those people" - who happen to be his brother and sister-in-law, Stan and Kate (Richard Gere and Rebecca Hall).

He calls them "leeches."

The restaurant itself is a dark monstrosity - a cavernous villa, with all sorts of intimate nooks and crannies, where the specials are recited as if they were florid Shakespearean sonnets and where the servers (dressed like Bob Fosse dancers) walk, four to six in a line, carrying the treasured food in one hand, with the other hand tastefully pressed against their backs.

This is waitering as performance art.

The first offering, served on huge white plates, looks like strands of grass sitting on an artful drizzle of snot, topped with a miniature heirloom radish. This penchant for dining minimalism was perfectly captured in a hilarious 2012 essay titled "Tiny morsels arranged with tweezers," written by San Francisco chef /author Joyce Goldstein for the San Francisco Chronicle. 

The comic recitation of a restaurant's menu is something that director Mary Harron nailed in the opening scene of "American Psycho" in 2000 and that has seemingly been aped (and with a straight face) by newspaper restaurant critics. Although clearly not intentional, your average restaurant review in a big-city paper now reads like a humor column, what with its hilariously poetic description of dead fowl and bizarre sauces.  It's difficult to believe that anyone could top the absurdity of today's trendy, monied restaurants, but Moverman extends the joke, lacing it throughout his film.

Once the four principals are seated, we're given the impression that "The Dinner" might be a variation on Louis Malle's "My Dinner with Andre" (1981) - you know, a dinner conversation done in real time. But Coogan's troubled Paul instigates interruptions that guide us through a series of flashbacks which strive to explain the alarming reason for the dinner.

Gere's Stan is a U.S. Congressman who is accustomed to being in charge but can't control his mentally-ill brother's outbrusts.  The conversation takes forever to get started - or rather the revelation behind it takes forever to come out. Much like preparing a meal, Moverman slowly peals away layers, slicing and dicing his narrative. His source material is a 2009 novel by Dutch author Herman Koch, but Moverman doesn't divide his story into chapters but into food courses - L'Apéritif,  L'Entrée, Le Plat Principal, et al.
Moverman is testing our patience, just as Paul is testing Stan's.  The obsequious maitre d' and his staff are told to go away and we finally learn that these two couples have indulged children who did the unspeakable.

Stan, who is willing to sacrifice his career, wants his son and Paul's to own their horrible crime, but the others all are adamant about protecting the teenage boys at all costs, particularly Linney's Claire whose no-nonsense tiger mom devolves into a disturbing Lady Macbeth.  Now completely exposed, "The Dinner" can be seen for what it really is - a scathing, unapologetic attack on bad parenting that produces entitled monsters.

This is not exactly something that Americans want to hear, particularly during a night out at the movies, which explains the hostile reaction at the screening that I attended.  But Oren Moverman is not one to pander or coddle. And that's why "The Dinner" is never less than compelling.

And while all four leads are excellent, the film belongs to Steve Coogen, who turns in a major performance driven by both bravado and nuance.

BTW, this is the third time that Gere and Linney have starred together in a film.  Their previous films are "Primal Fear" (1996) and "The Mothman Prophecies" (2002).

Also, this is the third film version of Koch's book - the second remake of a movie originally made in The Netherlands in 2013 and, a year later, in Italy - all three films titled "The Dinner." The subject apparently is not unique to America but Moverman made his version uniquely American.

* Not all reviews of "The Dinner" have been tone-deaf.  Critics who have appreciated Moverman's bravado include Justin Chang of The Los Angeles Times, Owen Gleiberman of Variety and Boyd van Hoeij of The Hollywood Reporter. And full disclosure Jeannette Catsoulis is my favorite Times movie critic - not because we agree but because she's genuinely good.

Note in Passing: My good friend Marvin, who has seen all three films of the material, tells me that the mental state or instability of the brother (the Coogen character) is not addressed at all in the Netherlands version and that, while the Netherlands film is more plot-driven, the American film is much more political. Of the three, the Italian version is apparently less impressive than the other two.  Marvin is a huge fan of the Netherlands film but he "adored, adored, adored" (his words) Moverman's film.

I should add that Marvin has exquisite taste in movies.

And as for that woman who demanded her money back, she sat through every minute of the film and certainly got her money's worth.  One doesn't deserve a refund just because one is displeased with what's on screen.
*  *  *  *  *
~Top: The cast of "The Dinner" in a scene from the film
 ~photography: The Orchard 2017 ©

~Middle: Steve Coogan and  Rebecca Hall

~Bottom: Laura Linney and Richard Gere at an even for the film