Monthly Archives: April 2008

Retrospective: "Harry and Tonto"

There are certain acclaimed films of the seventies that have become somewhat lost behind the shadow of more famous titles such as “The Godfather” and “Rocky.” Films like Cassavetes’ “A Woman Under the Influence”, Ashby’s “Being There” and Mazursky’s “Harry and Tonto” come to mind in this sea of wondrous yet forgotten cinema. The latter of those films is one that I’ve always wanted to see, and I finally decided to fulfill my desire to see “The Honeymooners” Art Carney in the role that brought him his one and only Academy Award. The 1974 film wasn’t too sappy or overdone and it features an extraordinarily moving Carney who displays indisputable lovability and a brilliant relationship with life.

The story is uncomplicated. Carney plays widowed septuagenarian Harry Coombes, a man who lives a simple life and purely adores his cat Tonto. At the beginning of the film, Harry is forced out of his New York apartment. He is literally pulled out by the police, a clever device to show his undying pain of the loss of his wife Annie. This pain is rarely discussed fully through the film, but her loss is undeniably omnipresent. This is where Tonto comes in. Tonto is his safety blanket, and it is their relationship that fashions the film’s tenderness and inarguably blissful nature.

Harry moves in with his son Burt played interestingly guarded by Philip Bruns. The back story between Burt and his father is not developed but is shown through Bruns’ performance and the fascinating way that writer/director Paul Mazursky and co-writer Josh Greenfeld create their dialogue and develop the relationship between Burt and his own family. The term dysfunctional is thrown around a lot in the description of cinematic families, but Burt’s family absolutely fits that definition in this crooked family portrait. His children, albeit almost grown-up, are severely affected by their generation and Burt’s disconnection from their culture. The dinner scene that depicts this rift is intensely affecting.

Burt’s son Norman (Josh Mostel) is especially lost. Paul Dano’s character Duane Hoover in 2006’s “Little Miss Sunshine” owes a lot to Mostel’s performance. Like Duane, Norman has taken a vow of silence due to his misguided views of drugs and their even more misguided association to Zen religions. Norman is constantly discouraged in his search for himself. However, Norman is not too misplaced in the world, especially when he develops his relationship with his grandfather. Harry wakes up in the middle of the night and in a very touching scene, he comforts Norman by simply taking interest.

Feeling trapped Harry picks up Tonto and sets off across country to see his other children. He shares a very warm goodbye with his son (a truly heartbreaking character) and enters the airport ready to set off. Unfortunately his inability to part with his cat and his distrustful relationship with law sends him back out the door and into a cab. The cabbie takes him to the bus station where he sets off for Chicago. Again, Harry’s trip becomes delayed when he gets off the bus to let Tonto relieve himself who then runs off. The bus leaves, and Harry must find his way to Chicago by other means. He buys a car for the low price of $250 (showing the age of the film) and finally finds his way to the Windy City.

On the way to Chicago, Harry picks up an oddball 16-year-old named Ginger (Melanie Mayron in her debut film role). Harry is incredibly dialed into the younger generation. As mentioned before Harry makes an interesting connection with Norman, but it is his relationship with Ginger that is especially intriguing. She brings out his youth, a side he has obviously not seen in years. She is adorably naive, and brings out Harry’s spirit and truly engages him. During their hotel stay, Ginger gets Harry to talk about his life before Annie. Harry describes his first love Jessie Stone, a free-spirited woman who he had loved very much until she left him for Isadora Duncan. This back-story is what realizes Harry’s ability to connect with Ginger and Norman. These two are children of the sixties and seventies, a very sexual era. Harry himself is not unaware of this time period, as he has now admitted that he was part of the roaring twenties. He understands much more than the stiff 1940s parental units that these two have been stuck under and break free from.

This conversation leads to the most moving scene in the film. Ginger persuades Harry to go visit Jessie, who is played by Hollywood legend Geraldine Fitzgerald (“Wuthering Heights”). In a very funny sequence that precedes the unwavering tears that follow, Harry finds the wrong Jessie Stone in an overweight black woman who he has never set eyes on. But he soon finds the real Jessie who hasn’t had a visitor in years in the geriatric home and she suffers from Alzheimer’s disease. Jessie can only remember certain things, but not the most important. Fortunately, Harry’s new appreciation for life brought upon by this road trip tells him exactly what to do. He picks her up and graciously dances with her, creating one of the warmest scenes I’ve ever seen on screen.

The rest of the film creates a full circle in terms of the Coombes family. Harry meets his daughter Shirley (Ellen Burstyn) and Eddie (Larry Hagman). Shirley’s relationship with her father is obviously the harshest out of the three children. But she truly loves her father, even though she doesn’t always necessarily like him. Burstyn (who won an Oscar the same year for another film, “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore”) only has a few scenes, but her talent shines through and she fits oddly into the Coombes family. The scene introducing Shirley also brings the return of Norman. He is now speaking, and has visibly found himself after separating himself as far as he can from his discouraging mother and father. We meet a more contented Norman, and we feel even happier when he finds a mutual attraction to Ginger. Their relationship blossoms, and when they leave the screen we hardly feel bad for either of them.

When Harry arrives in L.A., we finally get to meet Eddie. Eddie is a mess. Unlike his brother and sister, he is utterly lost. When he’s introduced he is outwardly alright. He drives a nice car, lives in a cool apartment, and he seemingly is comfortable in the California lifestyle. Harry knows otherwise. When Eddie tries to invite his father to live with him and split the rent, Harry questions his son’s money situation and breaks him down. Eddie disappears from the film at this point, somewhat questionably. We yearn for closure, but unfortunately we must be left worrying about Harry’s regrettably lost son.

The film has a hopeful ending, which oddly takes place after the sad but timely death of Tonto. Tonto’s ubiquitous nature in the film must be broken, in order for Harry to finally live his life freely. Harry meets a comical cat lady who offers him a place to stay. One of the cats (resembling Tonto) runs away across the beach. Harry catches him, but then lets him free when he sees a young child playing in the sand. The camera zooms away but stays in a long shot until the very end of the credits. Harry has the looming fear of death throughout the whole film, and with this child he finally makes a connection with himself. He knows that he kind of screwed up his kids, but he doesn’t have to worry about them. Life moves on, and so will his family.

The film truly belongs to Carney, who brings a layered and lived-in performance to the screen. Harry’s love for life is infectious and his warmth is refreshing. Carney delivers a tour de force performance and is simply unforgettable. It is the performance that carries the film. Mazursky isn’t the most original of directors of his time, and comparisons to Hal Ashby’s “Harold and Maude” must be made. That film was released two years earlier and inspired many directors. Mazursky was obviously one of them. It’s nice to see someone appreciate a filmmaking pioneer, but unavoidable similar styles are a bit distracting. Harry is oddly familiar to the patented character of Maude. His devotion to life is just too recognizable.

“Harry and Tonto” was pleasantly warm and shouldn’t be pushed away in cinema history. 34 years later, it has many themes that are still relatable. Our respect for the elderly is as distant now as it was then and it takes a good film like this one to strike a chord and remind us of our older generations. I found a lot of similarities in Harry to my own grandfather, adding a very different perception to the film from my point of view. I certainly recommend this, and I’m very happy I finally got to meet “Harry and Tonto.”

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Filed under Hal Ashby, Harold and Maude, Harry and Tonto, Retrospective, Review

Review: Smart People

What is the price to pay for being excessively smart? For Lawrence Wetherhold (Dennis Quaid) and his daughter Vanessa (Ellen Page), the chances of happiness and sanity are squandered because they are just too smart for their own good. In first time director Noam Murro’s new film “Smart People,” the characters face extremely hard forces of nature that ultimate keep them from the simplicity of being happy. The film isn’t perfect, but it is truly worth of discussion and viewing.

Lawrence Wetherhold is not the most well-liked professor of Victorian literature at Carnegie Mellon University. He’s an incurable grump, with the inability to remember the names of his students or get along with his coworkers. On top of that he has to deal with the arrival of his slacker, adopted brother Chuck (Thomas Haden Church). He also happens to be terrible at parking, which leads his car in the impound lot. Lawrence attempts to retrieve his briefcase by hopping the fence, after which he wakes up light-headed in the hospital. Janet (Sarah Jessica Parker), his doctor, was once a former student of his – but of course he can’t remember.

During the accident Lawrence has a seizure, leaving him legally unable to drive for six months. Unfortunately for Lawrence, this means Chuck has to stay in the picture. Chuck moves in, much to the dismay of Lawrence’s super smart and school obsessed 17-year-old daughter Vanessa.

“Smart People” has the good fortune of having an excellent script from Mark Poirier (his first produced screenplay). The film is a lot smarter than its characters. Lawrence and Vanessa are truly depressed characters and are certainly worthy of our sympathies. Vanessa is an especially sad character, unable to express her emotions in fear of showing her weak side. She’s terribly awkward and as the film progresses we learn that she has no friends and even though she strives to impress her father she never gets the gratitude that she truly deserves. Lawrence is also in an unfortunate situation. His book is deemed by a large percentage of publishers to be “unpublishable” and, recently widowed, he can’t let go and thus his blooming relationship with Janet seems to be going nowhere.

The film is exceedingly depressing but very interesting and rarely lags. Dennis Quaid hasn’t fit so well in a role since his turn as Jerry Lee Louis in “Great Balls of Fire.” His performance feels completely lived-in and behind the scholarly beard, protruding gut, and curmudgeonly attitude, he is completely unrecognizable. Ellen Page, fresh off her Oscar nomination for the wonderful “Juno,” takes a bit of a while to get used to. Her character is quite annoying, although necessarily so, and her performance initially seems a little too forced. The role could have been played by any young actress, but in the second half of the film she truly blossoms into the part.

The stand out performance of the “Smart People” belongs to Quaid, but Thomas Haden Church infuses the humanity and humor that lacks from the rest of the Wetherhold family. Church (Oscar Nominee, 2004’s “Sideways”) has the inimitable talent of delivering his lines in a very comedic way and with perfect timing. Playing Quaid’s poetry writing son James is Ashton Holmes (“A History of Violence”). James is the most level-headed member of the family, and Holmes’ performance is quite fitting but unfortunately not very memorable. Sarah Jessica Parker is also non-memorable and while she performed well enough, she just didn’t fit the part.

There are a few issues that could have been avoided with this film. There are multiple storylines that are never really tied up well, or even at all. Vanessa is a girl with some real psychological problems, and her character’s revelation never really feels merited. She also has an awkward sexual tension with her Uncle Chuck, and the resolution just doesn’t feel deserved. The musical soundtrack also feels a bit awkward. There’s an unwelcome, rambling guitar theme that doesn’t fulfill any emotional gaps, and the surplus of similar pop/folk songs are ill-suited.

“Smart People” is not a film for everybody. At many times it feels a bit too quirky, and the film’s overall depressing nature may turn off a lot of viewers. The performances are top-notch especially due to the odd casting choices. Fans of “Juno” may find themselves interested due to Page, but that film was more upbeat and lighthearted than this film by far. The best part about this movie is the career-changing role for Quaid, who’s been in a bit of a lull lately and it’s a fresh re-ignition of a very talented actor. A very thought-provoking film, “Smart People” is worthy of praise, and isn’t too smart for your average audience.

Grade: B+



Originally published in Framingham State College’s The Gatepost

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Filed under Dennis Quaid, Ellen Page, Review, Smart People, Sundance Films, Thomas Haden Church

International Film Series: After the Wedding

I wrote this article for my college’s paper in an ongoing International Film Series put on by my film professor Dr. Arthur Nolletti Jr.

A Danish import titled, “After The Wedding,” (“Efter bryllupet”), was a revelation at the International Film Series, moderated by Dr. Arthur Nolletti. It created several fans after the credits closed. As Nolletti explained, the director (Susanne Bier) is widely known for making “absurd comedies of errors,” but “Wedding” is far from a comedy. Bier’s film does use comedy as a thematic and character device, but the main goal of portraying real emotions is what made the whole movie so affecting and memorable.

On the surface, “After The Wedding” is essentially a family drama. Fortunately for the viewer, this film is deeper than the conventional American movie in this genre. The story begins with Jacob (Mads Mikkelsen, seen by American audiences as the villain in 2006’s “Casino Royale”), a Danish man working in India at a struggling orphanage. He learns that a billionaire from Denmark is interested in funding the destitute organization, and much to Jacob’s dismay, he unenthusiastically returns to his homeland.

When Jacob arrives, he meets the wealthy and magnanimous Jorgen (Rolf Lassgård). During their meeting, Jacob is invited to the wedding of Jorgen’s daughter Anna (Stine Fischer Christensen). The wedding serves as the major turning point for Jacob’s character. This is the point at which “After The Wedding” truly grabs you. Bier and screenwriter Anders Thomas Jensen structure a simple storyline until this point, and then lead you into profound and unexpected territories.

The film takes many surprising routes toward its denouement that are quite miraculous. When Jacob returns to Denmark, there is an air of discomfort. From Jorgen to his beautiful wife Helene (Sidse Babett Knudsen), Denmark feels completely unwelcoming. But when the secrets for Jacob’s visit finally surface, we learn much more about the mysterious characters. They become likeable and deeply poignant.

Lassgård’s performance epitomizes this change. He’s an immensely realistic performer, as shown by one of the most severe and authentic death scenes ever created on film.

Also impressive was Mikkelsen, who showed that he can not only be a great Bond villain, but also an inspiring dramatic actor.

One aspect that had many people asking questions after the film was Bier’s use of extreme close-ups. Many of these close-ups were extremely moving.

At one particular point in the film, Anna has a very special meeting with Jacob, and the close-up of her eyes twitching in confusion works wonders for the scene, and with that small detail, our entire attitude toward the scene changes.

There are other instances of the close-up that seem a bit too obvious in their meaning, and thus a bit too over-the-top. The suggestion of emotion is necessary, but the tremendously natural performances of the actors were sufficient enough to carry it off.

The most admirable aspect of the film is its ability to make the viewer think. After the film, it became evident that Bier had created a movie in which every word had meaning. The themes of family, love and whether or not the ends justified the means were explored. Luckily for the viewers, the question of this justification is up to them. Will the choices Jacob makes be the right ones?

The film is a superbly unconventional melodrama that brings us into a new cinematic territory.

For the International Film series, “After the Wedding” was a crowning achievement and a wonderful bookend to the school year. After the screening, Nolletti explained that he was especially interested in watching the audience and “felt they were absolutely enthralled … with the movie.”

He was quite right – in fact, many students found themselves surprised by the film. Freshman Robert Mulligan was “blown away by how good it was.”

A great film can change how people watch movies, and for director Susanne Bier, it can be safely said that she has found a multitude of new fans.

Originally published in Framingham State College’s The Gatepost

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Filed under After the Wedding, Arthur Nolletti, DVD, International Film Series, Review, Susanne Bier

How Could Star Trek Get Nerdier?

This amazing YouTube video shows how:

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Charlton Heston Has Passed On

He gained notoriety as the gun-toting president of the NRA, but his career as an actor is undeniably important in cinema history. He was a giant, starring in “Ben-Hur,” “The Ten Commandments”, “El Cid,” “Touch of Evil,” “Soylent Green,” and my favorite, “Planet of the Apes” to name a few. I’ve never seen his Oscar-winning role in “Ben-Hur”, but I’m definitely going to catch it now in appreciation for a truly amazing performer. He will be missed.

“Planet of the Apes” (You maniacs! You blew it up!
Ah, damn you! DAMN YOU ALL TO HELL!)

“Soylent Green” (SOYLENT GREEN IS PEOPLE!!! PEOPLLLEEE!!!)

“Touch of Evil” (those who watched “Ed Wood” know
the issues Orson Welles had with this film)

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Filed under Charlton Heston, Obituary, Planet of the Apes

Roger Ebert Loses His Voice

Hey everyone, sorry about the lack of updates… I spent a week in California (which was surreal, and I’ll post a report soon) and I’ve just been busy getting back into the school schedule post-Spring Break. I’ve seen all sorts of movie news in the past week but I’ve just been a bit unmotivated to write about any of them. Don’t worry, I’m getting back into my groove with a couple of DVD reviews and more retrospectives and in May I’m going to post a huge retrospective on the films of Fred Zinnemann. Anyways…

I feel really bad for Roger Ebert… his voice is gone. It’s a terrible loss, and even though he’s still writing there’s an air about the whole situation that feels like the ending of an era. His early work is astounding, and he truly grew wonderfully as a critic. With Gene Siskel, he reinvented the movie industry and I’ve always been very fond of him. Lately his work definitely mirrors his personal life and honestly I’ve had a hard time reading the more recent reviews – I find it just to be a little too over-the-top.

I cite Ebert as a major influence on my writing, and I really think that Richard Roeper has the chops to carry the torch, but I really hope Ebert finds a new voice in this new phase of his career. It could be a downfall, or hopefully a waking up or a rebirth.

I’ll be back soon, with all sorts of meaty reviews and other bits of wonderful movie treats!

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