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.


The tone of this film is one of continual dread, which makes it exhausting. The themes are insecurity, delusion and eventual madness, which makes it an even harder slog. The three characters – Olympians Channing Tatum and his older brother Mark Ruffalo and their rich patron Steve Carell (playing wrestlers Mark and Dave Schultz and heir John DuPont) – do not develop so much as wearily trudge forward to their unsurprising and dispiriting end. The script is unnecessarily overt, verbalizing explicitly what has already been well communicated visually, making the film longer than it has to be. This is just a big bummer of a flick, and despite nice performances by all three leads and some beautiful visuals by director Benedict Miller (Capote), it doesn’t have much to say about anything and what is does say is pedestrian, cold and repetitive.

There is trouble in the North Pole. Santa (Jim Broadbent) is listless and bored, barely phoning it in.  His oldest son and heir (Hugh Laurie) has digitized and corporatized Christmas, while his predecessor (Bill Nighy), retired, undermines him at every turn, dreaming of a return to glory.  His youngest son (James MacAvoy) has the spirit but lacks any discernible skill. When a gift from Santa goes undelivered, the fissures of this dysfunctional royal family emerge.

The computer animation is expert, the story enjoyable for kids and adults alike, and it’s even slyly subversive.  Santa Nighy is a misogynist, Laurie’s male elf assistant appears to have a crush on him, and the elves who man the North Pole have a denizen-of-Jonestown quality (so much so that the film threatens a mass elf suicide at the end).

I avoided this film because of an aversion to dramas about viruses and plagues and because I was still shellshocked at the total crappiness of the 1995 Dustin Hoffman vehicle Outbreak (guess what?  The military did it!).  Unless the eventual outcome of a filmic plague is zombies, 21 Days Later-esque “rage” victims or altered humans ala’ The Omega Man, count me out.

But you’ll watch most anything in a hotel, and Contagion had three extra things going for it – it was the $4.99 special, a few friends recommended the picture and it was directed by Stephen Soderbergh.  Despite my reticence, I was treated to an engrossing, intelligent and moving drama about what a 1918-like worldwide plague (where the entire world lost 1% of its population) would look like today.  The answer through Soderbergh’s eyes is — not pretty, but not hopeless.

The films starts with poor Gwyneth Paltrow, who is the second carrier of an infection transmitted by touch.  Once she is identified as Patient 1 (a Chinese cook is actually Patient 0 – he touched the pig who ate the bat got that started this whole mess, and then he shook Paltrow’s hand), we follow her from China through Chicago and to Minneapolis, where she has touched at least a dozen people  And an epidemic starts.

Soon, the government (Laurence Fishburne at the CDC, Bryan Cranston at Homeland Security) swings into action, regular CDC folk (Kate Winslet, Jennifer Ehle) act heroically, an internet crackpot become a messiah (Jude Law), and Paltrow’s husband and many other regular folk have to deal with a paralyzed world.  Lawlessness increases because law enforcement is sparse; fear runs rampant; trash piles up in the street; and people hole up waiting for aid and/or a vaccine.

This is a gripping, sober thriller, thankfully bereft of the normal tropes of the genre.   The government did not create the virus for military purposes; almost every character is doing the best they can under difficult circumstances; and while society does break down, it also holds up.

All the actors are very good and very believeable.  Special kudos to Matt Damon, who continues to be the least-appreciated American actor of his generation.  He had the misfortune of being outshined by Jude Law in The Talented Mr. Ripley and Jack Nicholson and Mark Wahlberg in The Departed.  They got the nominations and Damon, who carries both films with decidedly more difficult roles, got squat.  Here, he serves as the father who has lost a wife and son and seeks to ensure his surviving daughter is not affected while at the same time giving her some life of normalcy. The scene where he is told his wife is dead is particularly moving.

Final note:  Gwyneth Paltrow gets the Lifetime Achievement Award for Actress Who Allows Herself to Be De-Glamorized to Best Serve the Role (you’ll know what I mean when you see it).


Blood Simple (1984) - Rotten Tomatoes

Al Pacino once explained his attraction to a project by tapping his finger to his temple and noting that the director had “a vision.” That director was Warren Beatty and the project was the bloated Dick Tracy.

The Coen Brothers’ first film demonstrates a true vision, one that has it flaws, but one that is unique and rich, through and through – a sun-drenched, steamy Texas noir potboiler that evokes Jim Thompson and James Cain, updated to include a very sly, dark humor. The plot takes numerous turns, but it is simple in its introduction.   A bartender (John Getz) runs off with the wife (Frances McDormand) of his boss (Dan Hedaya), who in turn puts a lethal private investigator (M. Emmett Walsh) on their trail. Walsh introduces the story in voiceover:

“The world is full of complainers. But the fact is, nothing comes with a guarantee. I don’t care if you’re the Pope of Rome, President of the United States, or even Man of the Year–something can always go wrong. And go ahead, complain, tell your problems to your neighbor, ask for help–watch him fly. Now in Russia, they got it mapped out so that everyone pulls for everyone else–that’s the theory, anyway. But what I know about is Texas…”

What follows is the twisted story of these four characters against the backdrop of a flat, unforgiving landscape. The photography is stunning, and the camera-work is assured, if sometimes a bit too film school flashy (as McDormand and Getz confront each other at his front door, a slo-motion newspaper crashes against it to startle us all). Composer Carter Burwell started his partnership with the Coens on this film, and his score is primarily solo piano, sparse and ominous.  Hedaya is the embodiment of the cowardly cuckold, but he seethes, almost a human pressure cooker. Walsh’s sleazy dick is repellant. He almost oozes, but he’s canny, using his “aw shucks” as a way to get the advantage. Getz and McDormand are weaker. Getz just doesn’t project and while I respect the Coens for eschewing the expected sultry, bored kept woman, McDormand’s character requires some charisma and sexuality to justify the risks taken on her behalf. She’s never been that kind of actress and here, she’s flat.

Still, this is a very good film, and as a debut, it’s all the more impressive, presaging the brilliance of Fargo.

Cards on the table, I never read Tolkien, and I associate people who did (and do) with weirdos from high school who played Dungeons and Dragons and/or attend Renaissance festivals. I realize this is a blinkered view, but there you have it. I also watched the first two Lord of the Rings movies in the theater, fell asleep in both, woke up, and then fell asleep again (only two other films have elicited such a reaction – Gandhi and Passage to India – which suggests a weariness brought on by geography rather than production). I turned off the third Lord of the Rings DVD when the good guys enlisted very large trees and un-killable ghosts as their allies.

Since that time, my son has grown up, and he urged me to watch The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. My initial try was on a flight to LA, but after a decent setting of the scene (the dwarf king gets gold fever and a big dragon with a bigger gold fever fucks his kingdom up), the film quickly became wearying, as dispossessed dwarves arrive at the home of Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), eat all his food, sing a sad song and head off on what promised to be a very long, tiresome adventure. I tried again with my son on Sunday, and we got perhaps an hour into the film when Bilbo and the dwarves run into three giants (they look like the troll in Harry Potter, but they talk about what they are going to cook and eat in silly voices just south of Jar Jar Binks). A big fight ensues.  Dwarves are tossed about like ragdolls yet never injured, and the trolls are furiously hacked but never bleed. Bilbo is captured and a Mexican standoff ensues – the dwarves have to drop their weapons or Bilbo will be ripped to pieces. The dwarves drop their weapons, and in the next scene, half are being slow-roasted over a spit and the other half are trussed up for later cooking.

That was the deal these idiots made? Spare Bilbo and in return, the giants can slow roast and eat ALL of you?

I had no intention of continuing with this unexpected adventure any further. It didn’t help that my son qualified his recommendation with ”it’s a good movie if you’re in those great lounge chairs at the Courthouse theaters and you have all the Coke and candy you want and you have nothing better to do.” Or that after that very scene, he remarked, “still about 2 hours to go.”

Killing Them Softly - Wikipedia
The Assassination of Jesse James was a wildly impressive American debut by director Andrew Dominik, but the director’s dreamlike, meditative style does not lend itself to a basic, gritty crime story. This tale of a hitman (Brad Pitt) laboring under the fiscal corner-cutting and meddling of his employers on a pedestrian job is dull, and no amount of pretty slow-motion photography can change that fact. The story is also awkwardly juxtaposed against the 2008 financial crisis and the ascendance of Obama, seemingly all for one supposedly killer line by star Pitt that closes the film. Specifically, referring to Obama’s victory speech, Pitt rejoins: “This guy wants to tell me we’re living in a community? Don’t make me laugh. I’m living in America, and in America, you’re on your own. America is not a country; it’s just a business. Now fucking pay me.”

Oof.  I mean, wince.  Sigh. Then, oof.

If the movie has worth, it is to see James Gandolfini (as a hitman who has lost his nerve) in one of his few post-Sopranos film roles.  

This biopic of Alfred Hitchcock’s making of Psycho attempts to juggle three stories:  the strain on the relationship between the director (Anthony Hopkins) and his wife (Helen Mirren), Hitchcock’s own perverse infatuations with his leading ladies, present and former (Scarlett Johannson as Janet Leigh and Jessica Biel as Vera Miles), and the actual making of the movie, with its unsettling, revolutionary ties to the Ed Gein murders.  Each of these threads is presented in a tepid and/or listless manner.

Hopkins and Mirren are quite good, but the script gives Hitch little to do but mope about his wife’s inattention, and Mirren’s near-dalliance with another writer (Danny Huston) is a bit uncomfortable.  Either the 68 year old Mirren, or Alma Hitchcock (she was 60 at the time of the making of Psycho) are too old for the communication of unquenched sexual urges necessary for the role.

As for Hitchcock’s own urges, the film cops out.  The director is shown as a peeping tom, and any darker heart is reflected only by his silly imagined conversations with Gein.  Leigh and Miles commiserate a bit on the director’s peculiarities, but nothing particularly upsetting is revealed, and neither actress is capable of delivering some deeper psychic injury or fear.  At best, they cluck, “oh, be careful.  You know old Hitch.” Given the director’s very disturbing behavior prior to, during and after Psycho, the wispy treatment seems cowardly. But even if the filmmakers were reluctant to travel that dark path, they missed many other opportunities to illuminate the eccentricities of the director. The lore has it that Leigh and Hitchcock were both unhappy with John Gavin’s work in his love scene with the former, and that Hitchcock instructed her to “take matters in her own hands” to amp up the passion. Yet this gem of a vignette is left out?

Finally, there is the risky making of Psycho, a film Hitchcock bankrolled himself when the studio became leery over the subject matter.  Hitchcock is ostensibly based on Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho by Stephen Rebello. which I have not read but hope is more interesting than was portrayed in the film.  The making of the film is characterized as worrisome at times. The director’s financial stress is shown, and he pouts when his wife is away, but that’s about it. Nothing of Hitchcock’s craft is developed, and some of the hurdles, such as the fight with the censors over the shower scene, are played mainly for laughs. So much is missed.

Take Rebello in a 2010 interview:

But she is killed in the shower in the novel. In fact, Hitchcock told many people that he was most attracted by Bloch’s notion of a murder coming out of the blue in an everyday, confined setting—the shower, where we feel relaxed and complacent but where we’re utterly vulnerable.  Hitchcock was thrilled with the idea of shocking audiences by casting a major star as the heroine and killing her off so early in the picture. That violated every Hollywood rule. Bloch’s heroine has her head cut off in the shower, not exactly the kind of thing that even Hitchcock could have gotten away with, even if he had been tempted. Bates in the novel is middle-aged, pudgy, alcoholic, brooding, unattractive, repugnant. He also has extensive conversations with his mother, which would have been fatal and a cheat on film. Casting Anthony Perkins was a lucky masterstroke; he’s as charming, attractive, sad, perverse, and lethal as earlier Hitchcock killers like the one Joseph Cotten played in Shadow of a Doubt and Robert Walker played in Strangers on a Train. Perkins had already worked with top directors like William Wyler, Anthony Mann, and Stanley Kramer, and Paramount had spent lots of money promoting him as a successor to the late James Dean or comparing him to the young James Stewart or Henry Fonda. Although he had become a teen idol and even made some hit records, things hadn’t quite clicked and, at the time, Perkins felt typecast and owed Paramount a movie. Hitchcock could hire him inexpensively. It was a perfect storm.”

There is so much here, but the film merely gives us Hitchcock cackling at killing Leigh early and the tut-tutting over the ghastly plot, with Alma disapproving, the powers that be huffing “You can’t do that!” and Hitch gleeful as the bad little boy.

One added point.  As noted, Johannson and Biel are pedestrian, but they aren’t the only ones.  The bullying studio head is played in embarrassingly broad fashion by Richard Portnoy, James D’Arcy’s Anthony Perkins is an impression rather than an embodiment, and Ralph Macchio is unfortunately unearthed for a short scene as the writer, Joseph Stefano.  The Karate Kid is not missed.  And I can watch Robocop only so often to remove the taste of yet another Kurtwood Smith uptight authority figure performance.

At the end, you’re left with a damning question – why make this picture?  It does little to communicate Hitchcock’s demons or his genius, it meanders and plays it safe, an unfortunate testament for a cinematic trailblazer. One that should not have been delegated to director Sacha Gervasi, whose resume’ is anchored by his 2008 documentary of a Canadian metal band, Anvil: the Story of Anvil.

From third through about sixth grade, I suffered night terrors. I was also an intrepid sleepwalker. The former malady evinced itself in my waking up, eyes wide open and fully cognizant of my surroundings, but in abject fear. That fear sent me running to the place I deemed safest. At home, it was my mother’s room, though my brothers made great sport in waylaying me as I sped down the hall screaming. If I spent the night at a friend’s house, their parents were also at risk. That I was invited back after one of these episodes is a testament to their patience and generosity. Crying and screaming, I’d burst through the door and launch myself onto their bed, hands covering my face. Something was after me, I couldn’t look at it, and I could only be coaxed out of the nightmare by soothing words and television. I watched a lot of Johnny Carson growing up.

During that same time, on other occasions but less frequently, I would sleepwalk. However, I didn’t confine my travels to the house. Instead, I would get out of bed and walk around the neighborhood. I recall the misty feel, the trance-like state, and the absolute inability to stop myself. I’ve often wondered what someone would have done had they seen me out at 2 am, on a cold December morning, ambling around like a zombie in my pajamas. But I was never spotted, always ending up in my own bed. The only proof of the occurrence was my vague recollections, dirty and/or bloody feet and the times I started the evening at a friend’s house down the block, only to be listed as AWOL by his mother in the morning. My mother would see the front door wide open, and find me in my own bed.

Insidious uses the realm of sleep to create (or, in my case, re-create) a terrifying world where, presumably, children like me go when afflicted. The son of Rose Byrne (Bridesmaids) and Patrick Wilson (Little Children) sleepwalks to the attic, bumps his head, and falls into an inexplicable coma. Only, it is not a coma. Instead, he has drifted into what is later explained as “The Further,” a dream-state that is unfortunately populated by the restless dead, who hope to capture the boy simply because they thirst for his life, and more dangerous demons, who want his body to re-enter the world and wreak havoc. Modern medicine fails, the less-conventional expert steps in, and away we go. It is revealed that Wilson suffered night terrors as a boy, and the unwanted attentions of this particular demon as a child:

Wilson is sent in to get his son.

Director James Wan’s (Saw, The Conjuring) world is creepy (the two demons in particular); the scares are initially restrained, but plentiful, and meted out in increasing doses; and the acting first-rate. As the mother, Byrne is sympathetic and appropriately destabilized, and Wilson plays the father as truly scared and vulnerable – he is gripped by initial cowardice and denial; he does not want to go back to the world that so plagued him as a child. The medium (Lin Shaye) is compelling and her two researcher assistants provide necessary comic-relief without being obtrusive – this is the same set-up as Poltergeist minus the over-the-top “This house is cleeeeeeeeeeeeaaaaan” nonsense.

The film’s primary strength is its patience. As Wan explains:

Between ‘Saw’ and ‘Paranormal Activity’, along with the ‘Blair Witch Project’, it’s been proven time and time again that the scariest movies are ones that are made outside of the studio system, where you have the control to say, “You know what? I’m not going to open the movie with a big, scary action set piece. I’m just going to slowly build characters and get you sucked into the family, get you liking the characters before things start to happen.”

If there are weaknesses, they are slight: the set-up is very derivative, the middle third is rushed, the revelation of Wilson’s demon in childhood photos is too overt, and Barbara Hershey (as Wilson’s mother) is wasted. To amp up the intrigue, Wan should have used Hershey in flashback, a helpless single mother trying to cope with her spooky son.

True, the movie hit home, but even without my sleep disturbance past, I’d have been won over, because Wan and writer Leigh Whannel credit The Changeling, an as yet unreviewed filmvetter favorite.

Beware of Mr. Baker - Wikipedia

Back in the Eisenhower administration, I was in a band blessed by a distinctive lead singer, a virtuoso guitarist and a very strong rock drummer.  I was pretty much in awe of their playing (I was a passable rhythm guitarist converted to a fledgling bass player and mainly tried to stay out of the band’s way). Watching Beware Mr. Baker, a documentary on the life of legendary Cream and Blind Faith drummer Ginger Baker, his musicianship (a maniacal blend of jazz and African styles), reminded me of the fact that a crapload of really gifted players are drawn into pop music.  Of those players, I’m most fascinated by the work of drummers, be it Keith Moon’s “lead” drumming or Ringo’s Starr’s apt choices on a few cuts (Rain, Tomorrow Never Knows), perhaps because it is an instrument I cannot even comprehend.  Who the hell can move their arms and legs at the same time to a musical purpose?  It’s witchcraft, I tell you.

Baker was shockingly adept and seemingly original (I say “seemingly” because my knowledge of the history of drumming is lacking). Yet, as the documentary points out, he was also mercurial, peripatetic and volatile, which is a nice way of saying he was a drug-addled dick who plagued his bandmates (Eric Clapton is interviewed and while kind to Baker, seems almost like a hostage survivor), tortured his family, pissed away any goodwill he may have engendered and split town when things got hairy.

Now, he is a cantankerous, chain-smoking recluse in South Africa, whinging on about the injustices delivered to him, or just generally shitting on all but a few folks he respects. This may have been a recipe for boredom, but documentarian Jay Bulger intersperses Baker’s snide reminiscing with impressive footage of his playing days, interviews with contemporaries and family that are refreshingly non-hagiographic, and inventive animation.

The result is an engaging, occasionally illuminating documentary about a talented asshole.