Archive

2011

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.

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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).

  

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.

Who would have expected this creepy gem to have come from Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk, writers and producers of Glee?   Available on Netflix streaming, this 12 episode ghost story is frightening, well-paced, extremely well-acted and on occasion, darkly funny.

The set-up is familiar. Husband and psychiatrist Dylan McDermott and wife Connie Britton flee Boston for LA with their teenage daughter (Taissa Farmiga) after McDermott’s long-term affair with a younger woman (Kate Mara) is revealed. They, of course, find the perfect home at the perfect price, save for an overbearing neighbor (Jessica Lange) who is more than a little tied to the house. It is soon revealed the home is the resting place of numerous decidedly restless ghosts.  It’s even a stop on an L.A. “Murder House” tour.

The writers overcome the central problem of any haunted house yarn by first emphasizing the financial duress of the inhabitants (they don’t have the resources to live elsewhere) and then, when anyone in their right mind would live in a cardboard box rather than stay, credibly demonstrating that each family member is possessed in different ways by the ghosts who haunt the place.  It sometimes feels like too much of a stretch, and all the balls in the air can be an obvious distraction, but these are nits.  

The series is also graced with a plethora of strong character actors, too many to name, but a few notables include Eric Stonestreet (Modern Family), Zachary Quinto (Star Trek), Frances Conroy (Six Feet Under), Dennis O’Hare (Michael Clayton, True Blood), Morris Chestnut (Boyz n the Hood) and Mara (House of Cards). These characters – tied to the house but with differing agendas – provide the backbone of the series. 

It’s also clever. For example, Frances Conroy plays the housekeeper, and to Britton, she appears as a stern but reliable partner in the bitter war she is having with her husband.

But to McDermott, the housekeeper presents as a much younger Alexandra Breckenridge, posing a larger problem for the straying husband

 

An example of the perverse humor – when Farmiga catches her father in a compromising position with the cleaning lady, she sees Conroy, not Breckenridge.

Co-written by Jay Baruchel (of Knocked Up and Tropic Thunder) and Evan Goldberg (writer of Superbad and Pineapple Express), this comedy has a Judd Apatow feel and a direct lineage to Slap Shot. Seann William Scott (Doug Glatt) plays a dim but lovable lunk in Canada who is recruited as a goon by the Halifax franchise after he dismantles an out-of-control hockey player who jumped into the stands. He soon finds his purpose, his love, and his destiny, in the form of the greatest enforcer of all, Ross Rhea (Liev Schreiber).  In the process, he coalesces a fractured club.

This is a clever meld of sports schmaltz and sharp, crude comedy, unfairly overlooked. Scott is supremely disciplined in playing a sweet dolt. We get none of his smirk from the American Pie movies, which makes his elevation from the ranks of security guard and bouncer to hockey hero touching and sweet. When his love interest (Allison Pill) runs up to him crying after breaking up with her boyfriend, he asks “Did you just see Rudy?” and you believe the question is sincere. When Pill, a hockey player groupie, tells him, “You make me wanna stop sleeping with a bunch of guys,” he replies, “That’s the nicest thing anyone’s ever said to me” and it seems so.

The hockey itself is not particularly realistic but, like Slap Shot, director Michael Dowse handles the speed, fluidity and violence of the game well and largely for comedic effect.  Goldberg and Baruchel even include their own version of the Hansen brothers, two Russian jokesters who plague the team’s insecure goalie.

Great fun.

 

The buzz was so strong I couldn’t resist, so I queued up the discs for Season 1 and me and the wife settled in. What was not to like? I’d been impressed by Damian Lewis ever since his turn as Captain Winters in Band of Brothers, and The Manchurian Candidate set-up was intriguing. Better, the series started off with a bang as Sgt. Nicolas Brodie (Lewis), a Marine held in captivity by al Qaeda for 7 years, calls his wife (Morena Baccarin) to tell her he’s been rescued just as she is dismounting her lover, Lewis’s Marine buddy.  The CIA operative who suspects his allegiance, Carrie Matheson (Claire Danes), is so committed that when her boss Saul Berenson (Mandy Patinkin) threatens to expose her excess, she offers him her body.   So far, so good.

But boy does this show get ragged, if not in a hurry, eventually. There are many reasons.

1) Could an American be turned against his government ala’ Laurence Harvey? Sure. He could be a ticking time bomb. But could an American be turned into a ideologically driven, pray-to-Allah daily in his garage Muslim who has accepted in his marrow that he must strike the blow against his homeland? Perhaps, but with absolutely no backstory on Lewis’s character, and the thin gruel provided as his impetus, the leap is too far.

2) As Lewis’s Javert, Danes is a bi-polar freakout queen who regularly tests the limits of her family friends, coworkers and meds. She is singularly miscast, laughably over-the-top, made even more annoying by her love of jazz (which, we’re led to believe, is intricate and riffy like her mind), and is horribly written. My favorite line is when she directs the apprehension of a dangerous sniper, warning other agents over the radio that he is to be considered armed and extremely dangerous. When her mentor tells her to be careful, she responds, “this is not my first polka.”

I’ll concede.  Her signature move – the bug eyes and quivering trout mouth – is pretty awesome.

 

She is wonderfully lampooned here by Anne Hathaway in this SNL skit, but upon reflection, it’s not so much a goof as a faithful rendition.

3)  Danes is presented as a tough cookie, but she soon lapses into a simpering “I never got asked to the prom” victim and it becomes more and more difficult to take her seriously as a CIA pro.

4) Danes’ mentor, Mandy Patinkin, is as interesting as Carlton your Doorman but that doesn’t prevent a pretty involved, sleepy subplot about his wife leaving him.

5) There is actually a line where the al Qaeda man who has turned Lewis says, “And they call us the terrorists.”

6)  Apparently, if you are going to authorize a drone strike on a school, it is always best CIA practices to videotape the Vice President, the deputy CIA director and the Secretary of Defense making that decision.

On the upside, the sister of our good friend is in the show, and whenever she appears, we point and remark at how similar the two are in appearance and mannerism.  Every time.

Ah, the corruption of celebrity.

Okay, technically, this BBC production is not a film, but I have watched both seasons, the second of which is currently on demand on the BBC channel, and they merit a good recommendation.

The competition to theater releases from television series, mini-series and films is stiff.  My unscientific list, just from HBO, demonstrates that as a “studio” it is as prolific and successful as any —

SERIES OR MINI-SERIES
The Sopranos
Rome
John Adams
Deadwood
Angels in America
Game of Thrones
The Wire
Boardwalk Empire

FILMS
Taking Chance
Barbarians at the Gate
Too Big to Fail
Into the Storm
Path to War
61*
Wit

If I haven’t listed an HBO series, mini-series or film, it is not that I made an omission – it means that some of what HBO puts out, like Treme and Hung and Carnivale, isn’t all that great.  But the network’s hit-to-miss ratio is impressive.

BBC’s output is similarly strong and pre-dated HBO’s reign. The Hour is a lovingly detailed show depicting the creation of a BBC television news program in 1956.  In season 1, we were introduced to producer Bel Rowley (Romola Garai), anchor Hector Madden (Dominic West of The Wire) and reporter Freddie Lyon (Ben Whishaw, James Bond’s new Q) as they developed the program while investigating Cold war intrigue. Season 2 brings us police corruption intersecting with a high-level blackmail scheme. The look is very time-specific and classic, and because of that, The Hour has been favorably compared to Mad Men, but it is much more story-driven and deliberate.

I realize television viewing time is limited by so many strong options. Much to the consternation of many folks who have highly recommended certain shows, I haven’t been able to tackle Homeland, Breaking Bad, or Justified, having committed to Downton Abbey, Sherlock and, for a time, The Walking Dead. If you can fit The Hour into the schedule, you won’t regret it.