Saturday, October 27, 2018

I. Can't. Take. It. Anymore.

We're currently experiencing a serious national emergency. Television has been taken hostage - that's right - and we must rescue it. We must!

A self-styled amateur Nazi - who resembles an engorged variation on the evil spawn in "Village of the Damned" - has assumed complete control of not only our homeland but also television, which was once a dependable, immediate source of surcease and escape from just such ugly situations. But no more.

While it was once within the realm of reality to avoid his presence by simply switching channels, now it is impossible. 24/7. 24/7. 24/7. 24/7. It goes on and on and on, ad infinitum. Relentlessly. And without mercy.

And while there are reportedly about 190 available cable and satellite TV channels, he seems to be on every one of them.  And. All. The. Time.

The first word that one hears when one tunes in is his name.

The first image one sees is his face.

The first voice that one hears is his.

And each week seems to force us to witness a grotesque car wreck. Last week's episode involved a beheading. This week's was devoted to a multiple assassination attempt via bombs. And just now, a bonus episode about a critical shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue has been added.

And nestled in-between all this awfulness, effectively exacerbating matters, are commercials about drugs for life-threatening medical problems - drugs that are also possibly life-threatening themselves.

Can it get any worse? Is there an answer - a way out of all of this?

Well, one can run and run and run, like little Jimmy Grimaldi, the frightened kid in the old "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" movie.

Run. Or else, you're next. That's right, you're next! Or you can try not watching TV. And stop checking the internet. And avoid social media.

Or, you can simply ... run.

Regarding Comments: All comments are enthusiastically appreciated but are moderated before publication. Replies signed "unknown" or "anonymous" are not encouraged. Please sign any response with a name (real or fabricated) or initials.  Be advised that a "name" will be assigned to any accepted post signed "unknown" or "anonymous." Thank you.

(from top) 

~Peter Finch in Arthur Hiller's "Network"
~photography: United Artists  1976©

~Martin Stephens and his deplorables in Wolf Rilla's "Village of the Damned"
 ~photography: MGM 1960© 

~Kevin McCarthy in Don Siegel's "Invasion of the Body Snatchers"
~photography: Allied Artists 1956©

Saturday, October 20, 2018

adventures in movie reviewing: "caddyshack"

"There's no business like show business - and it's a good thing there isn't ... No other business engages in so much public boasting about its 'big heart' and indulges in so much private malice with its little head."

-Sydney J. Harris/Chicago Daily News

The late Syd Harris' summation of the entertainment industry, written way back in the 1970s, remains as succinct, penetrating and on-target as ever.

It's a quote that I reference quite often and, when I do, I am invariably reminded of Warner Bros.' New York-based press junket for Harold Ramis' ”Caddyshack" in July of 1980. It remains a highlight of my film-reviewing career, not so much because of the movie which I enjoyed tremendously (and still do) but largely because of what I've come to call "the incident."

The film was screened for the press on a warm Friday night at the Loew's State Theatre (once located at 1540 Broadway and now long gone), with the interview session scheduled for the following Saturday morning at Dangerfield’s, a comedy club at 1118 First Avenue that was co-founded by one of the movie's stars. That would be Rodney Dangerfield.

The event started off memorably. The atmosphere at the screening felt free-form, informal and appropriately chaotic.  The entire "Caddyshack" cast showed up, as well as the comedy ensemble then currently appearing on "Saturday Night Live," there in support of their SNL cohorts Chevy Chase, Bill Murray and Brian Doyle-Murray. While Belushi, Aykroyd and Gilda were all there, what I remember most is Al Franken and Tom Davis standing in an aisle having an animated conversation with Ramis. 

The movie itself, deliriously funny, always reminded me of a live-action Looney Tune. Which is apt, given that it was made by Warner Bros. Bill Murray was/is the film's standout, improvising a wild variation on Wile E. Cayote opposite a little animatronic gopher's take on The Road Runner.


The next day, a bus was waiting outside the hotel to deliver the press to Dangerfield's.  Here's where matters got strange.  I'm in the hotel elevator, see, with about six other people. One guy, thirtysomething, is talking particularly loud and sounds angry. There's profanity. Then I notice that he's looking at me.  He starts yelling. He's yelling at me. But why?

I assume he's drunk. Or on drugs. Now, I'm on the bus -  and he's there, too, continuing his rant or verbal assault or whatever you want to call it.

OK, now we're at Dangerfield's. The place is packed. Murray shows up needing a shave, wearing a swim suit and matching top and carrying a pizza. Rodney Dangerfield plays maître d', seating everyone. Again, memorable. But that serpentine guy, now sitting in the back of the place, is still yelling at me. Everyone is staring. Studio people try to quiet him to little avail. I'm told his identity by a Warners person. He's someone important, very important, someone intimately involved with the film.

It's Doug Kenney, a comedy genius of the 1970s who worked on the Harvard Lampoon as an undergraduate, co-founded the National Lampoon magazine with Henry Beard and collaborated on the script for "Caddyshack" (not that anyone paid much attention to the screenplay during the production of the film) with Ramis and Brian Doyle-Murray.

Kenney was also one of the movie's producers.

By now, he knows who I am - that I'm with the press and that I'm ostensibly there to help promote his damn film. Wait! Let's get something straight: Contrary to Hollywood legend, it is decidedly not part of a critic's job to help promote or sell a film. (At least, it shouldn't be.) That said, the irrational yelling continued. And people continued to stare at him. And me.


I should note at this point that, during "the incident," I was able to figure out the reason for his wrath. I think. At one point, he told me to "take off that button." I was wearing a small button that read, "Animals Have Rights, Too," the slogan of the Fund for Animals, an animal advocacy group (200 West 57th Street in New York), founded in 1967 by the late Cleveland Amory and still going strong. I supported the group's campaigns and animal-care facilities.

He also yelled, "Take off that belt, you hypocrite!" I was wearing a leather belt at the time which, indeed, made me guilty of Doug Kenney's charge.

Anyway, when I get back to the office the following Monday, my editor asks me how everything went. I tell Walt about the incident and we agree that instead of running any interviews, I'd write something else: a column about how good-natured films are often made by mean-spirited people - a dichotomy which still fascinates me. Hence, the Sydney J. Harris quote.

That same Monday, I also receive a phone call from Elijah "Lige" Brien, the head of Warners publicity in the New York office at the time, and another from his colleague, Carl Samrock, both apologizing for the bad behavior.

As planned, we eschewed the usual (and expected) interviews and instead I wrote the suggested column, which remains one of my favorites. Not surprisingly, Warners Bros. never addressed my column or questioned why we didn't run any interviews. (The situation was also seized on by Harry J. Themal, a colleague who covered film for the Wilmington News Journal.

The movie industry has never been noted for decency or its ability to cope with success and power.  But what about protocol?  In the bad old days, a Harry Cohn or a Jack Warner would have never tolerated anything less than appropriate behavior by one of their own at a public gathering.

But times changed with the collapse of the studio system and the Doug Kenney situation, frankly, was not unique. He was simply one of many movie people who disappoint and disillusion. Sadly, he passed about a month after the New York incident, falling from a cliff overlooking the Hanapepe Valley on the island of Kauai, Hawaii on August 27, 1980.

There were conflicting reports about his death - that the cliff where he was standing collapsed or that he might have jumped, the latter speculated because, immediately prior to his death, he reportedly left a note for his girlfriend, written on the hotel bathroom mirror, along with a love letter.

Doug Kenney was 33.
Note in Passing: "The incident," meanwhile, continues to live on. It was documented in a 2017 Behind the Spotlight profile of Ron Brien, Lige's son, by Timothy Dumas.

Regarding Comments: All comments are enthusiastically appreciated but are moderated before publication. Replies signed "unknown" or "anonymous" are not encouraged. Please sign any response with a name (real or fabricated) or initials.  Be advised that a "name" will be assigned to any accepted post signed "unknown" or "anonymous." Thank you.

(from top) 

~minimalist poster art for Warner Bros. "Caddyshack" 
~design: BCCreate  2013©

~co-stars Cindy Morgan, Scott Colomby and Bill Murray at the New York press screening for "Caddyshack"
 ~photography: Warner Bros. 1980© 

~Doug Kenney 

~The "Animal Have Rights, Too" button
~design: Fund for Animals. 1967©

Friday, October 12, 2018

the incredible shrinking movie

"Wow!," I thought to myself after the first few minutes of the movie.

This is too good to be true.

My expectations had been high, elevated even more so by the non-stop hype that started mid-summer, but this was more than I had anticipated.

The opening scene of the movie took its time introducing one of its major characters and the situation in question. "Wow," indeed. Exposition! Actual exposition, a quality that has all but disappeared from films in this age of immediate gratification. The second scene, adding another character and then a few others, was more of the same. The people on screen actually talked, and for long stretches, revealing tiny details about themselves.

The talk was small and often awkward, real-sounding.

So far, about 15 minutes have gone by, maybe 20 - and, by current standards, "nothing happened." Just people talking and relating. I was amazed that the filmmaker got away with this. There was none of the usual bulldozing or pandering to impatient modern audiences. Good.

The third scene was longer than the two previous ones, much longer. The self-revealing talk continued. Hmmm. OK, I get the point. Let's move on. I was becoming one of those aforementioned impatient moviegoers. The scene continued. It simply would not stop. I was getting annoyed. I checked my wristwatch. We're a half hour into the movie and the two lead characters are still flirting and sizing up each other. Get a room already.

Exposition is all well and good but this is just too much. Help!

The film continued for another hour - and so did the repetition. The various settings and backdrops would change but the dialogue didn't. The same conversation was repeated over and over and over again. I came to the realization that the two characters had nothing more - or new - to say.

But they continued talking and repeating themselves nevertheless.

Ad infinitum.

By this point, it occurred to me that, while both were rather colorful characters, neither one was necessarily interesting. It's been posited that all drunks are dull and that's true here, what with the lead male character essentially playing one long drunk scene, mumbling and slurring words.

Very one-note.

The lead female character is more fully developed (but just barely) because she serves, alternately, as his protégé, victim and enabler.

I came to the rude awakening that I could care less about either of them.

So, a film that originally loomed large in my head was quickly shrinking. 

As music is crucial to the plot, there are songs interspersed throughout, regularly interrupting the navel-gazing dialogue. The performances of them are predictably loud. Why whisper a lyric when one can shout it out?

I went into "A Star Is Born" with high anticipation. After all, the reviews have been uniformly rhapsodic, except for The New Yorker's heroic Anthony Lane. Plus, there's been all this jumpy, overheated advance "Oscar buzz" which, frankly, means little to me. So why did I mention it?

Yes, I went in enthusiastically but, two-hours-and-fifteen minutes later, I had fully morphed into a miserable grump. I should have learned by now that it is unwise and unfair to go into a movie - any movie - with too-high expectations. Or just plain high expectations. And when the inevitable letdown sets in, who's exactly at fault - the movie or the moviegoer?

Note in Passing: The material for "A Star Is Born" has been the source of no fewer than five - count 'em - five films, starting with "What Price Hollywood?" in 1932. The others, all titled "A Star Is Born," were released in 1934, 1954, 1978 and 2018. (George Cukor directed both the original 1932 film and the 1954 Judy Garland remake.) Perhaps someone can explain exactly why Hollywood finds the basic plotline so irresistible.

Regarding Comments: All comments are enthusiastically appreciated but are moderated before publication. Replies signed "unknown" or "anonymous" are not encouraged. Please sign any response with a name (real or fabricated) or initials.  Be advised that a "name" will be assigned to any accepted post signed "unknown" or "anonymous." Thank you.


~Grant Williams and his pet cat in "The Incredible Shrinking Man"
~photography: Universal-International 1957©