Posted in First Take, Second Take

{First/Second Take}[1997] The Full Monty

Original Cinema Quad Poster - Movie Film PostersLest you get the wrong idea, I’d like to start by saying comedy movies need not necessarily be artfully made. Stylistic filmmaking can distract from the tone a comedy screenplay requires. But I’d like a little creativity from time to time, and although The Full Monty has a number of amusing bits thanks to the winking performances from its actors, the camerawork was very still for a film revolving around choreography.

There are as many ways to make people laugh as there are methods of communication: body language, tone of voice, facial expression, music and sound effects; biting sarcasm, salty wit, acute satire; the unexpected and ironic, or obvious and deliberate; slapstick, vulgarities, and physical shtick… The list goes on and on, yet film is one of the few media capable of blending the desired selections from the full swath of tools to set a comedic tone. Not just The Full Monty, but seemingly the majority of comedy movies are afraid to move beyond over-the-shoulder shots and other static frames. TV shows and commercials nowadays have bolder filmmaking than studio productions. Before I get technical, let it be known that I’m writing this having recently watched this fantastic deconstruction of Edgar Wright’s comedic filmmaking style, which says everything I want to say more eloquently (and backs it up with clips).

If you don’t want to sit through all eight of its minutes, I’ll summarize the video: Edgar Wright makes inventive use of camera movement, framing, and sound editing to tell a story both comedically and cinematographically, in contrast to fellow Brit Peter Cattaneo’s The Full Monty. Granted, Cattaneo is going for a certain lighthearted realism and Wright is working within very heightened universes. But that doesn’t mean Cattaneo’s dance footage need be filmed in boring, unimaginative shots, particularly if the actors’ movements are supposed to be funny.  Perhaps jerky camera motions during the beginning of the choreography montage could give way to smoother, more flowy movements as the guys slowly learn how to strip in sync with one another. Or hopefully something better than that, I’m not a filmmaker. But the point remains.

In fairness, there were moments beyond the humorous dialogue and acting that left me grinning. Our protagonist spends much time spying on people over fences and through windows (something about envious, voyeuristic comparisons men make against each other and how that affects their perception of worthiness and manliness would be a whole other blog post), and some of those instances were well shot and edited. Particularly amusing and well framed were the guys spying on Tom Wilkinson’s character’s waltz lesson. And it goes without saying the final dance performance at the end of the film was a funny, suitable climax. Yet even the impromptu “Hot Stuff” dance waiting in line at the job centre, as funny as it was, could have been filmed with a little more panache.

It’s no wonder this movie was quickly adapted into a stage musical; much of it is simple, uncomplicated blocking with three walls surrounding the actors, who primarily dance shoulder-to-shoulder. There seems to be much more comedy available to be mined from this story, and you wouldn’t have to replace its reserved, dry Britishness with more American dick jokes, as a more up-to-date incarnation would no doubt attempt. Just a little more thought into making the presentation match the action and tone, and the movie would be elevated from an amusing diversion to an absurdist comedy.

Also, the entire time these grown adult men are stripping and practicing getting naked in front of one another and wearing banana hammocks, there’s a boy who appears about twelve years old forced to bear witness. From the inception of the production to the final performance, adults wag their penises at this child. And no one bats an eye. Just thought I’d make sure we all noticed that part, and didn’t gloss over it. Continue reading “{First/Second Take}[1997] The Full Monty”

Posted in First Take

[1963] How The West Was Won

The opening track to Led Zeppelin’s 2003-released/1972-recorded live cut, How The West Was Won, is aptly titled “L.A. Drone” and it’s 15 seconds of crowd recordings that serves as a buffer from silence to the all out gut-punch that is Immigrant Song, the opening cut from Led Zeppelin III, released in 1970 as the third installment of Led Zeppelin’s four-part domination of psychedelia, hard rock, metal, folk from 1969 through 1972. The How The West Was Won soundboard-recorded and Jimmy Page produced record draws material from several concerts recorded straight to the mixing board in Los Angeles on the leg of Led Zeppelin’s 1972 tour of the United States. There is a zero percent chance that titling this album How The West Was Won is a coincidence of the most ironic standards.

The music album is almost certainly a reference to 1963’s loose compilation film of the same name.  Forty years before the music world got a taste of Led Zeppelin at their creative and artistic peak, the film sphere tracked a star-studded film documenting a series of decades from the early 1840s through the late 1880s. With a cast of 1960s most recognizable, including James Stewart, Henry Fonda, Gregory Peck, Carroll Baker, Debbie Reynolds, John Wayne (and more!), How The West Was Won, the film, tells in film what Led Zeppelin did in song: a snippet of the epoch recorded for the history books. Though one is literally about westward expansion, the other’s metaphor for world takeover (and cementing themselves as one of the premier rock’n’roll bands of all time) is the logical expansion of the themes in the film. While our cast, littered with stars, makes its way from the regimented eastern seaboard out past the Mississippi to the left coast, the biggest rock band in the world crossed the brusque Atlantic to tour the United States and record was to become a composite concert album. Through the different media, we begin to understand the lore of The West and its place in Earth’s history. Continue reading “[1963] How The West Was Won”

Posted in Conversation

[1991] JFK III

As part of the Conversation Series, I’ll be speaking with certain contributors about certain movies at certain times. 

Zach Schonfeld is a “writer” living in “Brooklyn.” He is currently a reporter for Newsweek Magazine and studied English and American Studies at Wesleyan University, for which we’re all very proud.

We spoke at length about Oliver Stone’s 1991 masterpiece, JFK. Here’s Part III and the conclusion. Part I can be found here and Part II can be found here.


ZS: He pulls it off!

SS: I totally believe that. He’s one of these legendary actors.

So, that’s a really good transition, actually, into how I want to wrap this up. I try to finish my reviews with a discussion of the other films that were nominated for Best Picture. I know we may not have seen all of them – so I do a lot of guesswork at this point in the blog, a “what I’ve heard about the movie,” before having actually seen it or I’ll look up a small summary. 1991 is another(!) compelling year in Academy Award history being that it’s the last time a film took home all five major categories – Best Picture, Best Director —

ZS: Was this Dances With Wolves? 

SS: Actually, this was Silence Of The Lambs. It won Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress and then also Best Adapted Screenplay.

ZS: WOAH! Silence Of The Lambs won all of those?

SS: It won a lot of Academy Awards – those five. And all five were the “major” ones, kind of dwarfing the other films that were nominated that year – including JFK, which received eight or so nominations (and I don’t know if it won any, maybe two or three) but they were smaller categories, upon which most people wouldn’t necessarily recommend a film, “Oh did you see JFK? It won Best Art Direction,” which is nice for people involved, though not terrible compelling. [I don’t know if that’s actually true because sometimes a movie can be visually stunning and worth a look – ed.] The other movies nominated that year: Prince Of Tides, starring Barbara Streisand and Nick Nolte [Woah, 1991 – ed.], that’s one of those psychological, personal narratives that I’m not necessarily drawn to, but I’m sure the acting was good. Beauty And The Beast was nominated for Best Picture [And should have won, in my humble opinion….or maybe not -ed.], which is funny. That may have been the first time an animated film had been nominated for Best Picture and I guess that shows the strength of Disney, back then. We can also talk about Bugsy.

ZS: What’s that?

SS: Bugsy, Bugsy Siegel, the famous gangster. Just the fifth of five movies nominated that year. Warren Beatty, Annette Benning – you know that classic pairing. I don’t want to say it was a weak year, but there have definitely been stronger years for Best Picture. You’ve seen Silence Of The Lambs I’m assuming. Continue reading “[1991] JFK III”

Posted in Conversation

[1991] JFK II

As part of the Conversation Series, I’ll be speaking with certain contributors about certain movies at certain times. 

Zach Schonfeld is a “writer” living in “Brooklyn.” He is currently a reporter for Newsweek Magazine and studied English and American Studies at Wesleyan University, for which we’re all very proud.

We spoke at length about Oliver Stone’s 1991 masterpiece, JFK. Here’s Part II. Part I can be found here.

SS: Right, right. So the acting in this movie is superb. The cast of characters…if you recommend this movie to someone or you speak to anybody about JFK, you could read down a list of actors who have either won awards or have been lauded as landmarks within film. Let’s take a look: Kevin Costner, Tommy Lee Jones, Gary Oldman, who play a very off-kilter…

ZS: Yeah, and I didn’t even realize that was Gary Oldman…

SS: He’s a total chameleon.

ZS: Right, but you never actually hear him speak; he’s just black-and-white footage and pops up.

SS: I mean, Kevin Costner had just come off a huge performance in Dances With Wolves a year before [1990’s Best Picture winner], so it gave the audience a name recognition and a draw to see the movie. It won 7 Oscars and now he’s in a movie crafted by Oliver Stone, who we [the audience] knows as a very overtly dramatic and very specific and very dynamic director. And you look down the card and you see other names, I mean Kevin Bacon has a very small role, but it’s a pivotal role. We as an audience, now 25 years later, have a connection to these actors who were just gaining fame at the time or maybe some were in the middle of their careers and now the movie has held up a. because the subject matter is compelling and b. because the acting is stunning. I thought it was a very compelling three hours…

ZS: Oh yeah, that’s another thing that Roger Ebert writes about, that it’s just an insanely fast-moving and entertaining movie because the longer it goes on, the more entranced you are by this web of characters and evidence and it does a very strong job or channeling his [Garrison’s …or Stone’s?] obsession and makes you feel it, too. Any good mystery film is like that.

SS: It’s a tough thing to pull off – the theatrical cut is three hours and eight minutes and Director’s Cut, on top of that (and at this point, if you’re going to commit 188 minutes, you may as well commit the extra half an hour), is around 208 minutes.

ZS: I think the Director’s Cut was the version I watched, but it did not seem that long. It did not feel like it was three hours.

SS: What do you think about the shift in tone as the first part of the movie where we go through and we meet this character, we meet Jim Garrison and it goes through his investigation and these theories that keep popping up and then we actually see the courtroom drama. It turns into a courtroom drama, which is a completely different style of film. It doesn’t seem out-of-place and yes, we want to see this. What did you think about including this? It could have faded out 45 minutes earlier and ended with a parting shot that Clay Shaw trial was this and this and this and read the, “where are they now,” bit. And it does this…after the fact.  Continue reading “[1991] JFK II”

Posted in Conversation

[1991] JFK I

As part of the Conversation Series, I’ll be speaking with certain contributors about certain movies at certain times. 

Zach Schonfeld is a “writer” living in “Brooklyn.” He is currently a reporter for Newsweek Magazine and studied English and American Studies at Wesleyan University, for which we’re all very proud.

We spoke at length about Oliver Stone’s 1991 masterpiece, JFK. 

Sam Sklar: What’s going on man!

Zach Schonfeld: Not much…

SS: I’m glad we’re finally able to do this…this is a cool thing…thanks for taking the time.

ZS: Yeah, of course.

SS: So I guess the first thing I wanted to start with was the article you sent me about The Thin Blue Line and its relation to I guess the cinema verité and what constitutes true documentary. It had an interesting take on Oliver Stone’s movie, JFK, which is pseudo-fictional. The movie itself is obviously based on JFK, the person…

ZS: Um, yeah. Well Oliver Stone described it as a counter-myth to the myth of the Warren Report, which I find really interesting because he’s sort of acknowledging that his film doesn’t tell any sort of objective truth because there can be no objective truth because probably the only people who know what happened to JFK are dead. So in that sense he is constructing Jim Garrison’s version of the truth – which in many ways i diametrically opposed to what the Warren Report came out with. And so, the film has been attacked because it validates some of the most extreme and radical conspiracy theories associated with the Kennedy assassination but I think that was Oliver Stone’s goal, really.

SS: I think so, too. I think that he would have…there would have been no success in his eyes had he tried to construct a straight biography from that point on November 22nd, 1963 to the months and years that followed. There is no biography there to tell that hasn’t already been told. His goal in making this movie was to draw attention, maybe turn some heads and kind of get his message across, which may or may not be truthful, so I think that — what was the author’s name of that piece?

ZS: Linda Williams

SS: Linda Williams…there was a little, well the writing was a little dense.

ZS: Oh yeah, it was very dense.

SS: She attempted a lot of six-syllable words when she could have used simpler ones, but I understood her point and it’s a theme that has kept coming up in all the reading and all the movies that I’ve watched and the critiques that I’ve read, this concept of, “Is there a bigger picture?” and within the bigger picture, how can the details be interpreted. So within this world that Stone created, at what point are we to believe, “what is true? Is there such a thing as objective truth and did Stone even attempt to search for it or was his goal, like you said, the counter-myth…was that the point. Does it matter, then the criticism he’s received?

ZS: I don’t really think that truth is obtainable and I don’t know if he [Stone] viewed it as, “Oh, I’m going get at the total truth of the assassination. I think his goal was to show things from the point of view of Jim Garrison and Roger Ebert also wrote some interesting things about the movie. Roger Ebert liked it a lot and he wrote that Oliver Stone does not subscribe to all of Jim Garrison’s crack-pot theories but, he writes, he [Stone] uses Garrison as a symbolic center of the film because Garrison, in all the United States, in the years since 1963, is the only man who has attempted to bring anyone into court in connection with the fishiest political murder of our time. I think that’s something that’s easy to forget; the main character of the movie is not JFK, it’s Jim Garrison. That’s something that’s very, very clear as you’re watching it. We never actually see JFK speak, really, we never view him as a living, breathing character. Jim Garrison is our anchor into the entire plot. He is the only person ever to have prosecuted someone in connection with JFK’s murder. And for that reason, he’s the most important character in the movie.

SS: So, I guess the question is, I would want to sum up from all this is, “why are people deriding this movie?” Is it because they were expecting a biography of JFK and will do anything to keep that truth in their mind or are they diametrically opposed to his methodology or blinding dislike it regardless of the message he [Stone] was trying to send. Where is this derision coming from? Continue reading “[1991] JFK I”

Posted in First Take

[2009] The Hurt Locker

Recently, for no reason in particular, I’ve been obsessed with war.

I don’t know why I have a desire to see violence or connect with a soldier’s turbulent and uncertain lifestyle; I neither condone nor seek to kill or injure my enemy, and while my life is in transition, the uncertainty is more about approximate life choices. Certainly not about life or death.

Nevertheless, I find myself more and more identifying with a soldier and what it means to be one-track, one-day-at-a-time. 2009’s Best Picture winner, The Hurt Locker, bridges the gap between a warman and a civilian to a remarkably relatable T. Director Kathryn Bigelow inserts us, the readers, into the middle of the Iraqi conflict, but not as a demure bystander. We’re not confronted with the disaster story of a personal tragedy or a shaky upbringing that led to a damaged soldier with a death wish. Instead, our conflict exists extant the horrors and violence of war. The camera work and the haziness of what’s “right,” inserts each of us into the uncertainty of a bomb squad, whose task it is to defuse IEDs and uncover some of the layers of war not related to conflict or even guerrilla warfare. We’re concerned with this teams’ move on a minute to minute basis. Compelling tells half the story.

The phrase, “the hurt locker,” is an interesting one, as it’s relatively obtuse as a straightforward metaphor, but shockingly obvious if we peel back the layers. For me, a hurt locker is a place to store despair, hate, anger, annoyance – negativity; it’s an organizational tool through the lens of war. For our bizarrely autonomous team, the hurt locker is more literal (still figurative) – in a place where death is relevant and imminent the hurt locker is a function of a solider’s mind to quickly switch on and off the feelings to achieve a task. For our soldiers, who seem to operate without direct command, it is essential that the hurt locker exists to keep a clear head when lives are at stake. But what happens when lives aren’t at stake?  Continue reading “[2009] The Hurt Locker”

Posted in First Take

[1958] Separate Tables

I have a strong connection to 1958’s Auntie Mame because it’s a movie that I would watch with my father every so often as a younger lad, but often enough for its lore to remain etched into my brain. Auntie Mame is a story every way in which Separate Tables is not – thematically compelling, dramatically lighthearted and fun, funny, charming, you name it. Granted and absolutely, the two films have disparate aims. Separate Tables is Grand Hotel-esque as its characters continue to lead lives apart but plot ensemble. I found every character unlikable and stereotypical, with almost no attempt to resolve any issues, whether plot-related or personal. Two movies nominated for Best Picture during the same year, two films embedded in Cold War Culture but only one is ‘watchable.’ For all its star-power, and it commanded quite the ensemble cast, Separate Tables is an unfortunate dud in an otherwise dull year.

We need to talk about storytelling rigor and what it means for a film to be ‘unwatchable.’ First, and most likely foremost, taste is subjective. Each of us has had a conspicuous life and will continue to do so, complete with our own experiences, feelings, memories and futures; these together start to compile our taste profiles and, to each of us, what’s subjectively ‘good’ and ‘bad.’ Good art accesses our taste profile and the best art does so implicitly – a small tribute to other art here or there, a historical nod, a cheeky anachronism or a running joke without actually spelling out its joke. Its themes are elastic and its structure clear, and concise (if not concise then purposefully bloated). Bad art meanders around half-baked everything and might pander to the offensive (not as a social observation) for a cheap laugh. It’s cheap and we feel cheap. We build our taste profile by compiling, either alone or among friends, the collective experiences of good and bad art.  Continue reading “[1958] Separate Tables”