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Monthly Archives: July 2015

I just read this Grantland oral history on Tom Cruise’s turn as Les Grossman, and it got me to thinking:  what are the funniest supporting performances in film?

For your consideration–

Tom Cruise as Les Grossman, Tropic Thunder: It’s hard to even recognize Cruise, he is so transformed as a profane hairy-armed Hollywood studio exec, but he steals a film graced by scads of very good comedic performances.  My favorite Grossman scene is when he meets the film’s Vietnam veteran writer.

Robert Downey Jr. as Kirk Lazarus, Tropic Thunder.  Downey caught some flak for his use of the term “retard” and on that sin alone, he should be honored, but his role as an Aussie actor so “method” he changes the pigment of his skin is nothing short of genius.  And yes, his best scene is when he schools Ben Stiller on the perils of playing a disabled character in Hollywood.

Adam Scott as Derek, Step Brothers.  Scott’s domineering, obnoxious older brother reflects what most people hate about older brothers, especially overgrown adolescents digging on the “bro'” culture and categorizing success as $$$ and having a family who can harmonize a shitty song.

Fred Willard as Buck Laughlin, Best in Show.  This is what you get when you hand color commentary duty for a dog show to a bowling announcer on ESPN’s “The Ocho.”

Sydney Pollack as George Fields, Tootsie.  Pollack has two bravura scenes.  First, when he explains why his difficult actor client Dustin Hoffman doesn’t get any work and then, when Hoffman approaches him at lunch in drag.  They’re both top notch, but Pollack (who was more the director than actor in his career)  exudes such memorable terror in the second scene, I have to give it the nod.

Ted Knight as Judge Smales, Caddyshack.  Knight basically moved Ted Baxter from the role of anchorman to judge, but his turn as the country club snob is still the funniest thing in what is an otherwise okay comedy.  He is at his best when he tries to be “helpful.”

Hank Azaria as Agador, The Birdcage.  Physical comedy gold from the super fey “butler” who isn’t used to wearing shoes.

Jane Lynch as Sweeny, Role Models.  Her desperate to be “in-the-know” community service director steals every scene she is in, in this, my favorite of the Judd Apatow type comedies which strangely, does not have a connection to Apatow .

John C. Reilly as Cal Naughton, Jr., Talladega Nights.  Reilly’s goofy sidekick to Will Ferrell is so earnest and open, you actually feel for him as he steals Ricky’s position, family and dignity.  His thoughts on what Jesus means to him are priceless.

Vince Vaughn as Trent, Swingers.  As Vaughn drowns weekly in season 2 of HBO’s True Detective (I can think of few actors less suited to Nic Pizzolatto’s increasingly ridiculous take on hard-boiled patter, but to be fair, nobody could really convincingly deliver lines such as, “It’s like blue balls of the heart”), it is fair to remember his frenetic, cheerful best friend to Jon Favreau.  His dating advice to Favreau is spot on.

This is a charming documentary about the first fan club president of The Beatles – Freda Kelly – who started out in a typing pool, sneaking off work to see the band at The Cavern Club, and worked her way in to become the assistant to Beatles manager Brian Epstein.  Kelly provides nothing really new about “the lads” (Paul was always nice, John could be a handful), but her remembrances are touching and frankly, impressive.  She took her job as correspondent for the band very seriously, and while in their employ, authored thousands of responses to fan mail, even going so far as to fire an employee for sending non-Beatle hair to a fan who had requested a strand.  She even used her home address as the fan club address for a time, until her father complained that he couldn’t find his utility bills in the sacks of mail that arrived every day.

Kelly worked faithfully for the group until its demise, and then just moved on with her life.  As the documentarian finds her now, she is a working secretary.  The surviving Beatles and the estates of John and George must have given the filmmakers rights to the music, because Beatles tunes litter the film, and Ringo even gives a video goodbye to Freda during the credits.  I will say, however, there’s a bit of a bad taste at the end.  Freda is presented as a true gem, someone who tended to the band’s needs, kept their confidences, never once traded in on their fame for her own aggrandizement, and even became a companion to many of their parents.  I don’t expect the Beatles to shower attention on all of the “little people” who helped their rise, but Freda seems a cut above, and so . . . what the fu**, Paul!

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Rory Kennedy’s Academy Award nominated documentary opens with American Captain Stuart Herrington remarking, “The burning question. Who goes and who stays?” When it went bad, Herrington took his South Vietnamese friends out surreptitiously (Americans were not allowed to bring South Vietnamese out without authorization), but he explains, as do others, that after the Paris Accords, the presumption of most in-country Americans was that peace was at hand, and the Americans would be in South Vietnam for a long time.

This film shows the feel on the ground for the last denizens of Saigon, while adding insight on a geopolitical level. For example, the North Vietnamese took very seriously the threat of Nixon bringing back American air power after execution of the accords – as one interviewee states, the North Vietnamese thought Nixon was a madman – but after Watergate, they were emboldened. “Overnight, everything changed. Hanoi suddenly saw the road to Saigon as being open.” With 16 divisions bearing down on Saigon, Herrington recounts how Ambassador Graham Martin wouldn’t countenance plans for evacuation because it was defeatist and he feared a panic (Martin is a tragic figure who had lost his only son in combat in Vietnam, and while he is criticized, he saved hundreds of South Vietnamese by refusing to leave the embassy until more civilians were evacuated). At that time, there were 6,000 Americans still in country, and Martin held firm even after he returned to the United States to watch President Ford’s $722 million request for an evacuation voted down.  At this juncture, embassy staff began to risk their careers to get South Vietnamese compatriots out in makeshift airlifts to the Philippines, and at the very end, in any other way they could find.  Their stories are harrowing.

There is no political agenda here.  It is fundamentally a human story on every level.  One Vietnamese evacuee recalls his father, a pilot in the South Vietnamese, picking his family in a Chinook and heading out to sea (“when I heard the Chinook, I knew my Dad was coming to get me”).  When it couldn’t land on an American vessel, the occupants jumped out to be fished from the sea.

Much of the footage is simply jaw-dropping. A scene of a modern World Airways passenger jet taking off with its on-board stairs lowered, hustling panicked South Vietnamese on as it hurtles down the runway, is just one example.  Another is footage of the bus pick-up points (Americans knew when to go to them; the code was the playing of “White Christmas” on the radio”) as South Vietnamese press the buses for entry to helicopter evacuations, one of the last options available after the North Vietnamese closed down the airport with artillery fire.  Or the American naval vessels that became deposit points for South Vietnamese helicopter pilots, who had flown from their air bases to pick up their families and then headed to sea hoping for the best.  The ships could only accommodate one helicopter at a time, so when one landed, and its passengers disembarked, the crewmen pushed it over the side to make room for the next.

Meticulous, moving and rich, this is a must see.

image This is a Roger Moore-era Bond flick, but with cheeky self-referential humor, first-rate, modern action sequences and a decidedly South Park sensibility. It features a budding, young James Bond from the wrong side of the tracks (Taron Egerton), his sophisticated mentor (Colin Firth), a megalomaniac, quirky villain (Samuel L. Jackson, with a lisp), his own Odd Job (Sofia Boutella, who slices you with her scythe legs instead of a hat) and a plan to destroy the world to save it from the menace that is man, much like Drax in Moonraker and Stromberg in The Spy Who Loved Me.

Spoilers follow. There’s no way to do the film justice without talking about the plot.

Jackson, a zillionaire, has decided, like his Bond forebears, that man is a virus. So, he enlists the upper reaches of society – prime ministers, royalty, heads of state (including Obama) and the rich and powerful – to let him loose a transmitting signal that will make man kill man. And thus, the world will be saved from the global warming man has created through immediate, violent, hand-to-hand near self-extinction. Again, Jackson “enlists” the upper crust. But to ensure they stay the course, he implants a chip in all their necks so, if they do decide to balk, he can blow their heads up. But they don’t balk. Obama and most of the rest of the world leadership are in on the gig.  They willingly and without reservation sign on to the plan that will have mankind wipe itself out, except for the rich and powerful. Ha ha ha ha.

This is a delightful, wildly politically incorrect “eat the rich” comic book, which just amps up the absurdity.  The Kingsmen not only thwart Jackson’s design, but we get to see it tested out on Westboro Baptist Church-types,  who dispatch each other out with gusto in a raucous church melee. Then, a Kingsman activates the implants, so we see the heads of Obama and his whole cabinet, and the heads of the rest of the aristocratic collaborators, blow up. Some world leaders do not collaborate, and they are jailed.  One is a beautiful Swedish princess, blonde and resolute, and when Egerton shows up to save her, as with Bond before, she offers him a kiss and more if he will free her and kill Jackson.  And if he saves the world?

That’s a couple of extra stars right there.

I re-watched and reviewed Apocalypse Now a few weeks ago and followed it up with the documentary of its making, Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse. Directed by Francis Ford Coppola’s wife Eleanor and two others, the documentary intersperses Eleanor’s “home movies” of the extended shoot in the Philippines with participant interviews and actual film footage. The result is a gripping, informational remembrance from start to finish.  The story is incredible.  Coppola put up his own money against the profits and endured a host of calamities:  a change in lead actor (Coppola brought in Martin Sheen to replace Harvey Keitel after reviewing a few weeks of footage); a typhoon that destroyed many of his sets; a Philippine air force (standing in for American Vietnam-era air cavalry) whose helicopters would often have to leave in the middle of his shoots to fight rebels; Sheen’s heart attack, which delayed filming further; and finally, the bewildered behemoth that is Marlon Brando, who came to the shoot fat, unprepared, and mercurial, insisting on spending days talking about character motivation rather than shooting scenes. On this last fiasco, Coppola realized Brando had not read the book Heart of Darkness as instructed nor was he in any shape to adhere to the script, Unfortunately, Coppola had given $1 million to Brando to show up, and it was non-refundable. In a particularly tragicomic part of the documentary, Coppola explains that he made a decision to have Brando just walk around and improvise during his time on set, and some of the rushes are painfully funny, as Coppola tries to prompt some sort of usable dialogue from Brando, and Brando rejoins with pomposity and ultimately, a certain “can I just cash my check and get out of here?” weariness.

This is just one of many brilliant nuggets exploring the process of filming this audacious movie.