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Waiting for Guffman

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Now, before I get started, I want to point out to those who are thinking, “Isn’t she a little biased to be writing this review?” that, yes, I am. I had the privilege of 2 weeks on the set of this film, which is why I waited until I saw it again last night before I wrote a review. Knowing stuff they cut out, I was disappointed and frustrated with the released version, but on a more objective viewing, I feel I can safely say that this movie will appeal to people who
find humor in the following venues:

Small towns
Community Theatre
Bad Theatre
Mock Documentaries
Improvisation
Musicals
Dry, deadpan humor

If this stuff is not your cup of tea, the 82 minutes selected for your viewing pleasure (from 60+ hours of footage!) will probably just float on by. If you are like me, however, you will find it very funny – there are understanding smiles kind of humor, and laugh out loud kind of humor.

It’s a mock documentary, in the tradition of Spinal Tap and Smile, of a small town, Blaine, in Missouri putting on a musical for it’s 150th birthday. Christopher Guest stars and directs, and with Eugene Levy (of SCTV fame) wrote the outline around which the actors improvised all their lines (except those in the actual musical). Levy is in it as well, as a not-funny dentist-cum-actor, as are Parker Posey (an indie film favorite), Fred Willard (Spinal Tap, anything Martin Mull has ever done), Catherine O’Hara (Beetlejuice, SCTV, The Home Alone movies), and many more faces you will recognize from film and TV. You can see me, too!

Anyway -Corky St. Clair (Chris Guest) hopes to attract the eye of a Broadway producer, and they mount this ridiculous show, which chronicles high points in Blaine’s history. Blaine has been visited by a UFO, been the Footstool manufacturing captial of the world, among home to some great characters, improvised by everyone. The songs in the show were written by Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, and Harry Shearer of Spinal Tap fame. It’s gently amusing and not at all mean spirited. I myself recommend it highly! It’s had great reviews too and a great web page – http://www.guffman.com. I can’t quite say full price feature because it’s not quite the pure genius of Spinal Tap or Living in Oblivion.
But there is the bonus of looking for me! :) I counted last night – I am in four scenes but there are 7 shots. One is a stretch but the first person who can name all seven shots will win….something!*

*prize may vary due to geographical location of the winner
Note: as of August 2010 this prize has yet to be collected.

MPAA Rating R – language
Release date 1/31/97
Time in minutes 84
Director Christopher Guest
Studio Columbia Pictures

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Scream

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I grew up watching horror films. I saw them too young and too many – and Michael Myers still scares the crap out me even when the film has nothing but crap left in itself. Writer Kevin Williamson clearly shares the same nervous fondness for the genre as myself (and clearly, many others) do – he has managed to make a movie that is both genuine scary movie and arch parody of scary movies. It’s the film’s very self-awareness that makes it different from all the rest. Instead of following the time-honored horror rules that it so carefully details, it leads them – the virgin is immune from death, we are told, but what if she gives it up! oh heavens that wasn’t supposed to happen!

The movie begins with Drew Barrymore and goes somewhere totally different – and by the end you are so amazed that they took you there so adroitly, so smoothly, and yet with so many geniune yuks, you want to see it again! At least, that’s how it was for me. The characters mock the very archetypes they end up playing – and they weave in and out of Red-Herringville with smooth abandon. A groovy cameo by the Fonz himself (as the high school principal) is a nice nod to we who have grown up freaking out that Freddy will come in our sleep. Watch for funny horror cameos and winks here and there.

My favorite moment involves parallel action between the characters’ viewing habits and the reality all around them. I don’t want to give anything away but it involves a van, Jamie Kennedy, and Jamie Lee Curtis. It sums up what I love about Scream. It’s smart, but it’s not too smart – it hands you some information and hides other information – it dances around, pointing you in the direction it wants, but upon repeat viewing it doesn’t suffer like movies like The Game do.

Grab some friends, a big bowl of popcorn, check all the locks in your house…and obey all the rules! This movie makes ’em and breaks ’em! Woo hoo!

MPAA Rating R -graphic horror violence/gore, and language
Release date 12/20/96
Time in minutes 111
Director Wes Craven
Studio Dimension Films

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That Thing You Do

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Dismissed as fluff by critics and audiences alike, That Thing You Do is perched delicately on the pop culture crest of rock and roll as fad and lifestyle, jazz as high art and street art, and the first wave of the one hit wonders. First time feature film writer/director Tom Hanks does not make the Woody Allen mistake of casting himself as the lead in a role he was so clearly meant to play. Instead he casts new(ish) face Tom Everett Scott as the Tom Hanks guy, a good hearted, artistic, sensitive guy who is also sensible and gentlemanly. The catchy title song was played a thousand times a day on the radio in 1996 and maybe that kept everyone away. If so, it is their loss.

It’s not just good because it’s an exuberant breath of fresh air and has great production design. It’s good because it takes a tale of naïve ambition and incredible good fortune and turns it into a perfect time capsule parable of its time, with fleshy characters and themes of success versus fame versus art, and the marriage of jazz and rock and roll.

Hanks’ unerring eye cast then-obscure and now-desirable stars as Ethan Embry, Steve Zahn, Tom Everett Scott, and Jonathan Schaech, who fulfill the boy band credo of four different types to appeal to all different folks, with easy, natural chemistry. And then he taught them to play their instruments over 5 weeks. Liv Tyler’s groupie girlfriend, in those innocent pre-Rolling Stone days, adds poignancy. Hanks makes this big splashy colorful movie feel like an intimate indie film.

It’s a story that was lived out hundreds of times in the 1964 in which it was set (with impeccable detail), and again in the mid-eighties after the next major rock musical innovation. Instead of jazz, the 1980’s had electronica scoop every one hit wonder out of the bars and bowling alleys of America and England.

Sheer, pure teenage joy is difficult to sum up in words, let alone successfully recreate with a team of 200 union artists. The scene that brings That Thing You Do home for me is the scene where their song gets its first radio airing. I won’t tell you any more, in case you haven’t seen it, but it is a sequence like that which brings us to the movie theatres.

MPAA Rating PG

Release date 10/4/96

Time in minutes 108

Director Tom Hanks

Studio 20th Century Fox

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Forgotten Silver

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(with the short, “Signing Off”) www.firstrunfeatures.com
The short, Signing Off, was a wonderful New Zealander farce about a DJ going to extraordinary lengths to honor a request. It’s definitely not realistic but it is really clever and funny. And even poignant – the NZers, like their British cousins, have managed to hold on to the art of keeping characters sympathetic while making them funny, a skill all but lost to Hollywood.

Anyway, Colin McKenzie directs and I swear I will see everything else he does based on this short. Bruce Lynch’s music was very exciting as well. It’s nutty and funny – a DJ’s last show after over 20 yrs, and his one remaining listener makes a request – he will do anything to honor it – including dive into a rat infested sewer and…well, it’s great chucks, mate.

Forgotten Silver is a mockumentary shot entirely in the realm of artifice (not conceding to reality as Spinal Tap and Waiting for Guffman and When God Spoke do) and in the style of A&E’s Biography. It’s absolutely true to the bowing and scraping homages we Americans produce – but it too is New Zealander. One of the co-directors/writers is the venerable Peter Jackson, better known for Meet the Deedles, Heavenly Creatures, and Dead Alive. The other is Costa Botes.

I took shamefully few notes but Forgotten Silver details the prodigious life of a “lost” filmmaker and his incredible advances that were lost to history…until now. Production Designer John Girdlestone had a daunting task to create “historical” equipment and stagings for the archive photographs of the film genius XXX. This supergenius filmmaker, posthumously inducted into the pantheon of cinema greats such as D.W. Griffith, Orson Welles, and more, created the first talking picture in 1908, the first color film in 1911, but madness and poverty and the usual tolls drove him into obscurity.

I think my companions and I were the only ones who either knew enough about basic film history to get the anachronisms, or the only ones who knew it was a joke. Without a hint of irony the credits thank the widow of XXX and make no attempt to destroy the illusion. Lost cities built by hand over a decade for an epic film slashed into pieces by Miramax? Indeed. My companions and I were laughing uproariously, for the first half. The second half slowed down some but was still very interesting and beautifully executed.

It will surely be as elusive to find in the video stores as any of the late genius’ work, but if you can see it, do see it.

*Note: There is a DVD of Forgotten Silver available via Amazon.com. Check Hollywood Video.

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Emma (compared to Sense & Sensibility)

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There comes a time in every woman’s life where she needs to curl up with a pizza, some Reeses Peanut Butter Cups, and Jane Austen, and last weekend was just such a time. I picked Emma at the store because I hadn’t seen it since it came out, and even though I had also *read* it, I completely forgot my impression of it. Plus it had Ewan McGregor in it. Did I mention Girl Scout cookies?

After greatly disliking Gwynneth Paltrow in Great Expectations, I was horrified to find myself adoring her again in this film, and the multitude of wonderful people who join her – Jeremy Northam, priming himself for the conjugal spanking of a lifetime, Phyllida Law and her daughter, Ms. Thompson – not Emma, but her sister whose name escapes me – it didn’t even occur to me to write anything down at this stage in the game. Emma Thompson’s sister (to that actress, I sincerely apologize) is big in British TV and not so much in film, but she gives an excellent performance as the poor spinster friend to Paltrow’s Emma. And Toni Collette – how underappreciated she is!

I had forgotten how true to the book this adaptation was, and I appreciated by proxy how true to the source material Clueless is as well. I have always like Austen’s women leads, they are strong but neurotic, insecure but confident, lovely yet stupid at times as well – they are perfectly normal people, trapped in this unwittingly sexy period when restraint was the order of the day and gossip and wordplay were art forms. Oh, I wish I could conjure such magical times in my immediate social circle!

Ah well. Yet despite the restraint and British stuffiness and decorum, the mood is so genial and comfortable – I can’t stand the formality of a regular mid-week sit down dinner, much less servants and dressing for tea!

After traipsing through a pleasant, winsome, sunny British romantic tale, I said, well, geez, I have to watch Sense and Sensibility again. Watching the two films together, it is difficult to imagine the germs of the books coming from the same author – true, the films have different casts and directors, but Sense and Sensibility draws more deeply from the well of melodrama (in the best sense) with a wider range of pain and joy than in felt in Emma. Emma is an adolescent tragedy that turns out well – Sense and Sensibility is a more dire, heartfelt exploration of women’s predicaments and feelings. Emma was written 5 years after S & S – could it be Austen just lightened up? Or is Ang Lee (director of S & S) simply more sensitive to the issues underlying the plot?

The bottom line is, who cares? They are both excellent books and movies in their own right, and neither actually lose anything when contrasted to the other. And I want to buy them both on DVD when available. The sexual tension is a bit more exposed in Emma, perhaps because it is a more “Hollywood” film. And frankly, there are way hotter guys in Emma as well, and a greater number of lovely ladies. The incomparable Kate Winslet’s sensibility is a keen match to Emma Thompson’s sense; while both actresses are thought of as those personalities in real life, it’s their sisterly affection that sells us on the contrast.
Rent them both and you will see. Neither will disappoint, even on repeated viewings. My 10th grade English teacher was right – there is a reason these books become classics, and it’s because they’re freakin’ great.

*Author’s note, much much later in time: While Emma remains a delicate froth of a movie, Sense and Sensibility always makes it onto my top ten list of all time for its sheer perfection of craft and content, casting and color. if you are trying to choose, Sense should win every time. Also: enjoy Clueless as a brilliant modernization of Emma!

Emma
MPAA Rating PG
Release date 8/2/96
Time in minutes 121
Director Douglas McGrath
Studio Miramax

Sense and Sensibility
MPAA Rating PG
Release date 12/14/95
Time in minutes 135
Director Ang Lee
Studio Columbia Pictures

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Babe

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Hi again!
This weekend, the Best Boyfriend in the World and I went to see Babe, a Universal Studios talking pig movie, not to be confused with Gordy, another talking pig movie.

First of all, I am not going into why we went to see it, I normally shy away from fluffy kiddie treats, but this movie was GREAT! It was funny, it had a good message for kids (tolerance and generally being nice are the ebst ways to make it in the world), the technical aspects of the talking animals were astounding–thanks to Jim Henson’s Creature Shop, they didn’t wiggle their lips like Mr. Ed, they talked! Animatronics and some computer wizardry and we were transported to a (well, almost) timeless barnyard with real characters and lots of great personalities.

The story is from the British children’s tale, The SheepPig, and it’s of Babe, an orphaned pig (yes, just like Gordy), who comes to the Valley and tries to fit in to his new non-pig family…but it’s more than that. It was funny, and tragic, and visually fabulous–shot in Australia, this is no regular Valley! I recommend it for adults and kids alike, but if there is anyone who can’t find something to like in this film, he is too cold for this world. The irising between scenes got a little old, and the singing mice were a tad too Chipmunks-y, but both myself and the Best Boyfriend in the World (so named because he not only took me to see Babe but also Gordy because I got them confused at first! What were the odds we’d be having a talking pig renaissance?) had a great time!

MPAA Rating G
Release date 8/4/95
Time in minutes 91
Director Chris Noonan
Studio Universal Pictures

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Powder

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Now I have read all the press on Powder, and I went to go see it, completely forgetting about the director’s spotty personal past. I want to say at the outset that at no time did I find Powder to be homoerotic–the scene many reviewers describe as the camera lingering over the hot body of one of Powder’s fellow students I had interpreted, sitting in the theatre, as a very Elephant-Man-like moment of envy on Jeremy (Powder)’s part–he wanted to have hair on his body and head and skin colored skin and be normal and to be accepted, as we all do, even if only at some point. The camera looks at the student lovingly but also enviously–who among us has not at some point, particularly in adolescence, seen something in someone and wished to have that effortless beauty or to fit in. I did find the scene to be a tad sexy, but no more sexy than any shot of an attractive young man. There are so many comparably lingering shots of women in film these days, I wonder that this take in particular was so dissected.

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Nine Months

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Warning: At this point in my life I am *not* interested in having kids so please don’t flip out if you think I am a deviant for thinking this. This is humor writing as well as a review.

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Coma

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You know what’s a scary flippin’ movie? Coma. The movie came out in 1978, a year after Robin Cook’s book, when telephones had dials and nervous housewives took valium, and shortly after Roe vs. Wade went into law. Why is this relevant? Robin Cook wrote medical thrillers with big ideas (though I find the actual writing unbearable, the ideas are incredible) disguising even bigger ethical concerns. Whatever his stance on abortion, it was clear that he didn’t feel that men could play god with other people’s lives, or decide the relative values of one life over another. Enter Coma, directed by Michael Crichton. Crichton himself is a writer with big, ethical ideas, but once upon a time, before he settled on producing, he was a director too. Let’s hope he catches the bug again soon.

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Young Frankenstein

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Always Full Price

Werewolf! Werewolf?! There! There wolf. There castle!
Would you mind telling me whose brain I did put in?
Abby someone. Abby Normal. I’m almost certain that was the name.

I recently purchased the new special edition laserdisc of Young Frankenstein – it has bloopers, deleted scenes, and a running director’s commentary audio track option. Now, this movie is one of the best comedies ever made, and if you’ve never seen it, you really should – it’s the Gone With The Wind of parody/homage movies. Mel Brooks’ commentary is not as illuminating as others (The Mask on DVD director’s commentary is actually GRIPPING! It’s really great!) I’ve heard; he rambles about personal memories on the set and how nice Kenny Mars is and he reiterates information we are looking at, but occasionally tells us something new and interesting. Better just to watch and adore.

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