Insomnia File #36: Punchline (dir by David Seltzer)


What’s an Insomnia File? You know how some times you just can’t get any sleep and, at about three in the morning, you’ll find yourself watching whatever you can find on cable? This feature is all about those insomnia-inspired discoveries!

Last night, if you were up at 12 midnight and couldn’t get to sleep, you could have turned over to Movies TV and watched the 1988 film, Punchline.

Sally Field is Lilah, a New Jersey housewife who, in between getting her children ready for school and helping her husband (John Goodman) throw dinner parties, is pursuing a career as a stand-up comedian.  Everyone says that she has a lot of stage presence but she struggles with her material.  She’s even resorted to buying jokes from a seedy man who hangs out in a grimy diner.

Tom Hanks is Steve Gold, the youngest member of a family of doctors.  When we first meet Steve, he’s getting kicked out of medical school for cheating on an exam.  That’s probably for the best, though.  Steve doesn’t want to be a doctor.  He wants to make people laugh!  Every night, he performs at a comedy club known as the Gas Station.  Audiences love him almost as much as he hates himself.

Together … they solve crimes!

No, actually, they don’t.  I wish they had but they don’t.  Instead, in the tradition of A Star is Born, Steve ends up mentoring Lilah and helping her develop her own voice as a comedian.  Lilah attempts to balance her loyality to her family with her friendship with Steve.  It’s not always easy, largely because Steve isn’t exactly emotionally stable.  On stage, Steve may be in control but offstage, he’s frequently selfish and self-destructive.  Complicating things is the fact that, even as he watches her talent threaten to eclipse his own, Steve thinks he might be falling in love with Lilah.

Punchline is an uneven movie, largely due to the fact that, while one role is perfectly cast, another one most definitely is not.  Not surprisingly, Tom Hanks is believable as a stand-up comedian.  It’s not just that he’s obviously comfortable on the comedy club stage.  Hanks also shows that he knows how to tell a joke.  To put it simply, he has good timing.  As played by Tom Hanks, you can look at Steve Gold and imagine people actually paying money for him to make them laugh.

But then you’ve got Sally Field.  At no point is Sally Field believable as a stand-up comedian.  That’s not so much a problem at the beginning of the film when Field is supposed to an inexperienced amateur.  But, as the film progresses, we’re asked to believe that Lilah could conceivably win a spot on television over Hanks and there’s nothing about Field’s performance that suggests that would be possible.  When we laugh at Sally Field’s jokes, it’s because she’s Sally Field and she’s talking about multiple orgasms.  However, the comedy club audience doesn’t know that she’s Sally Field.  Instead, they just know that she’s a comedian who has absolutely no timing.

Much like The Comedian and the Showtime TV series I’m Dyin’ Up Here, Punchline is one of those films that really goes overboard with the audience reaction shots.  The only thing worse than listening to an unfunny comedian is then being assaulted by a shot or the sound of an audience dying of laughter.  If someone’s not funny, showing some random guy doing spit take isn’t going to help.  One thing that directors rarely seem to take into account is that laughter is rarely neat.  It’s rare that a huge group of people both start and stop laughing at the exact same moment.  There’s usually a stray chuckle or two to be heard, both before and after the punchline has been delivered.  Even Tom Hanks, who actually is funny in the movie, is sabotaged by one scene where a group of patients at a hospital are way too amused by his act.

The film’s a bit too long and it takes its dramatic moments way too seriously but it’s almost worth watching for Tom Hanks. Hanks plays a real bastard in Punchline but you still care about Steve because he’s a likable bastard.  As you watch the film, you hope Steve becomes a star even if he doesn’t really deserve it.   I mean, he’s Tom Hanks!

Previous Insomnia Files:

  1. Story of Mankind
  2. Stag
  3. Love Is A Gun
  4. Nina Takes A Lover
  5. Black Ice
  6. Frogs For Snakes
  7. Fair Game
  8. From The Hip
  9. Born Killers
  10. Eye For An Eye
  11. Summer Catch
  12. Beyond the Law
  13. Spring Broke
  14. Promise
  15. George Wallace
  16. Kill The Messenger
  17. The Suburbans
  18. Only The Strong
  19. Great Expectations
  20. Casual Sex?
  21. Truth
  22. Insomina
  23. Death Do Us Part
  24. A Star is Born
  25. The Winning Season
  26. Rabbit Run
  27. Remember My Name
  28. The Arrangement
  29. Day of the Animals
  30. Still of The Night
  31. Arsenal
  32. Smooth Talk
  33. The Comedian
  34. The Minus Man
  35. Donnie Brasco

Insomnia File #24: A Star is Born (dir by Frank Pierson)


What’s an Insomnia File? You know how some times you just can’t get any sleep and, at about three in the morning, you’ll find yourself watching whatever you can find on cable? This feature is all about those insomnia-inspired discoveries!

If you found yourself awake and unable to sleep at 2:30 this morning, you could have always turned over to TCM and watched the 1976 film, A Star is Born. 

A Star is Born gets off to a good start by having Gary Busey give Kris Kristofferson a hit of cocaine.  As I pointed out on twitter, no movie that starts with Gary Busey offering cocaine to Kris Kristofferson can be all bad.

Anyway, Kris is playing John Norman Howard.  John Norman Howard is a big 70s rock star, which means that he has a beard and a bad case of ennui.  Despite all of the cocaine and whiskey, his career is on a downward spiral.  Part of the problem appears to be that he only sings one song and, half the time, he still can’t bring himself to remember all of the lyrics.  The song opens with John growling, “Are you a figment of my imagination or am I one of yours?” and John always ends up storming off stage before we can hear the rest of it.

Anyway, John ends up at this club in Hollywood that looks a lot like the place that Ryan Gosling opened up at the end of La La Land.  While at the club, John gets into a fight with Robert Englund (who I assume was playing a young Freddy Krueger) and totally interrupts the performance of the Oreos.

Who are the Oreos?   They’re a folk-singin’ power trio.  There’s One (Venetta Fields) and Two (Clydie King).  (According to the credits, that’s actually their names.)  And then there’s Esther Hoffman, who has a truly horrid perm and who is played by Barbra Streisand.  One and Two are black.  Esther, who stands right in the middle whenever they perform, is white.  And they’re called The Oreos!

Uhmmm, yeah…

Anyway, we really don’t learn anything about One or Two, beyond the fact that they are totally and completely devoted to Esther.  When Esther gets them fired from recording a cat food jingle, they just smile and laugh.  Sure, why not!?  After all, it’s not like struggling musicians need money or anything.  When Esther interrupts a performance to yell at John, One and Two smile and laugh.  When Esther, under John’s tutelage, becomes a big star and basically abandons the Oreos, One and Two show up at a recording session and smile and laugh.

Last night was my first time to actually see A Star is Born, though I had heard and read quite a bit about it.  Of all the versions of A Star is Born, this one made the most money at the box office but it also got the worst reviews.  Reportedly, the film’s production was a trainwreck with Barbra Streisand and then-boyfriend Jon Peters fighting with … well, everyone.

And yet, like so many cinematic trainwrecks, you simply cannot look away from it.  This version of A Star is Born gets so many things wrong that it becomes rather fascinating to watch.  Perhaps the scene that epitomizes A Star is Born comes when John refuses to perform his one song at a benefit concert and instead, brings out Esther and has her perform her songs.  First off, John’s hard rock band suddenly transforms into a Broadway orchestra and John’s audience — who presumably had paid money to hear that growling song about imagination — is overjoyed to instead have to listen to Esther’s style of lite pop/rock.  (Actually, to even call it rock is to needlessly stretch the definition of rock to its breaking point.)  Making the scene even more bizarre is that 1) John is basically exploiting a benefit concert to launch Esther’s career and 2) since the concert was being performed to support the American Indian Movement, the disembodied head of a Native American woman keeps appearing over Esther’s shoulder while she’s performing songs that have absolutely nothing to do with the cause that the concert is supposedly supporting.  It’s kind of the cinematic equivalent of that Kendall Jenner Pepsi commercial.

Anyway, things get even better when John buys an empty field and, in a ten minute montage, John and Esther literally build a house.  Seriously, I’m not kidding.  At no point do we see anyone other than John and Esther working on that house and yet, within a matter of minutes, they have an adobe mansion to live in.  I had no idea it was so easy to build a house.  It makes me wonder why people waste money buying houses when they can just buy an empty field and build their own.

(Maybe they’re scared of the poltergeists.  Imagine how different this version of A Star Is Born would have been if it ended with Esther grabbing John and screaming, “YOU MOVED THE HEADSTONES BUT YOU LEFT THE BODIES, DIDN’T YOU!?  YOU LEFT THE BODIES!”)

Kris Kristofferson is well-cast as John Norman Howard but the film is pretty much centered around Barbra.  That, in itself, wouldn’t be a problem if not for the fact that Barbra is completely miscast.  She’s a great singer but she’s not a rock singer.  You never believe that the same people who want to hear John sing his one song would also want to hear any of Esther’s songs.  The fact that the film is basically 140 minutes of everyone insisting that Esther is the future of music only reminds us of the fact that she’s not.  Her style is throwback to the past, which is one reason why everyone’s grandmother loves Barbra Streisand.

This wouldn’t be such a big deal if Barbra and Kris actually had any chemistry but they really don’t.  There’s a scene where Barbra and Kris take a bath together and Barbra puts makeup on Kris’s face.  Between two people who have chemistry, that would be sexy and sweet.  Between Kris and Barbra, it’s just kind of icky and you find yourself wondering who took the time to light the hundreds of candles surrounding them.  Whenever Barbra and Kris kissed, I worried for her just because all I could think of was the stubble burn that Esther would have to deal with later.

Yet, in the end, the film makes so many mistakes that it becomes one of the most watchable movies ever made.  It may not be good but it sure is entertaining.

Previous Insomnia Files:

  1. Story of Mankind
  2. Stag
  3. Love Is A Gun
  4. Nina Takes A Lover
  5. Black Ice
  6. Frogs For Snakes
  7. Fair Game
  8. From The Hip
  9. Born Killers
  10. Eye For An Eye
  11. Summer Catch
  12. Beyond the Law
  13. Spring Broke
  14. Promise
  15. George Wallace
  16. Kill The Messenger
  17. The Suburbans
  18. Only The Strong
  19. Great Expectations
  20. Casual Sex?
  21. Truth
  22. Insomina
  23. Death Do Us Part

Embracing the Melodrama Part II #58: An Unmarried Woman (dir by Paul Mazursky)


Unmarried_womanI have mixed feelings about the 1978 best picture nominee An Unmarried Woman and I really wish I didn’t because this is one of those films that I really want to love.

Erica (Jill Clayburgh, who did not win the Oscar that she deserved for this film) appears to have the perfect life.  She works at an art gallery in New York.  She has smart, sophisticated friends.  She has an accomplished teenager daughter (Lisa Lucas).  She has a beautiful apartment.  Early on in the film, she wakes up and literally dances from her bedroom to the living room and back again.

And, of course, she has a husband.  His name is Martin and he’s a successful stock broker.  Of course, there are hints that everything might not be perfect.  She and Martin are a cute couple but they’re not exactly passionate.  One need only watch Erica carefully wash dogshit off of Martin’s expensive running shoes to tell who is getting the most out of the marriage.  Add to that, Martin is played by Michael Murphy and, as anyone familiar with 70s cinema knows, Murphy specialized in playing well-dressed, outwardly friendly heels.  And, of course, the film is called An Unmarried Woman and the title can’t be true as long as Erica’s married.

So, you’re not exactly surprised when Martin suddenly breaks down in tears and tells Erica that he’s fallen in love with a younger woman and that he’s leaving her.

The rest of the film deals with Erica’s attempts to adjust to suddenly being an unmarried woman and a single mom.  We follow as she struggles to get back her confidence.  The scenes of Erica dealing with her suddenly rebellious daughter really struck home to me, largely because I’m a rebellious daughter of divorce myself.  There’s a few great scenes of Erica turning to her girlfriends for support.  (Importantly, one of Erica’s friends is happily married, as if the film wants to make sure that we understand that not all marriages are as bad as Erica and Martin’s.)  We watch as Erica starts dating again, having a memorable one-night stand with the obnoxious but oddly likable Charlie (Cliff Gorman).  Finally, she ends up dating a rugged, bearded artist (Alan Bates) and she has to decide whether she wants to remain independent or not.

And it’s all amazingly well-acted and fun to watch but I have to admit that I was a little bit disappointed the first time that I saw An Unmarried Woman.  For some reason, I couldn’t bring myself to like it as much as I wanted.  The more I thought about it, the more clear my issue with it became.

As a character, Eric was simply too wealthy.

As I watched Erica struggle with being an unmarried woman, it was hard for me not to compare her struggles with the struggles that my own mom had to deal with after her divorce.  The film, and specifically Clayburgh’s lead performance, got so much right.  But there’s a difference — a huge difference — between an unmarried woman who has an apartment in Manhattan and a dream job at an art gallery and a woman like my mom who worked multiple jobs, spent hours worrying about how to pay the bills, and who had to do all of this while dealing with four stubborn daughters.  And so, whenever I saw Erica talking to her therapist about how upset she was over suddenly being single, there was a part of me that wanted to say, “Try doing it while living in South Dallas and having to deal with a brat like me.”

The second time that I watched An Unmarried Woman, I was able to better appreciate the film.  Now that I knew that Erica’s experiences were not going to be universal, I could focus on Jill Clayburgh’s great performance in the lead role.  I could marvel at how marvelously wimpy Michael Murphy was in the role of Martin.  I could laugh at Cliff Gorman’s comedic performance.  As for Alan Bates as that bearded artist — well, sorry, that still didn’t work for me.  Eventually, I could accept Erica’s perfect apartment and her perfect job but suddenly introducing a perfect boyfriend who also happened to be a passionate and financially successful painter; it all felt like a bit too much.

But, in the end, An Unmarried Woman is a good film and a valuable historical document of its time.  If for no other reason, see it for Jill Clayburgh’s lead performance.

Horror on TV: Twilight Zone 4.4 “He’s Alive”


 

TheTwilightZoneLogo

Tonight’s episode of the Twilight Zone was originally broadcast on January 24th, 1963 and it’s one of the rare hour-long episodes of the original Twilight Zone. In He’s Alive, a very young Dennis Hopper plays Peter Vollmer, an aspiring Neo-Nazi who isn’t having much luck bringing fascism to America until he meets a mysterious benefactor who teaches him the tricks of the trade.

It’s a pretty good (if heavy-handed) episode, distinguished by both Dennis Hopper’s lead performance and a message that is probably even more relevant today than when the show was first broadcast.

This episode was written by Rod Serling and directed by Stuart Rosenberg.

Back to School #3: Blackboard Jungle (dir by Richard Brooks)


You really can’t write about high school films without writing about 1955’s Blackboard Jungle.  While the film is often cited as being the first movie to feature a rock song on its soundtrack (Bill Haley’s Rock Around The Clock is played at the opening and the end of the film), Blackboard Jungle should also be remembered for being one of the first and most influential examples of the dedicated-teacher-in-the-inner-city film genre.

Blackboard Jungle tells the story of Richard Dadier (Glenn Ford), a newly hired teacher at an inner city high school.  As soon as he arrives for his first day at work, he meets his co-workers.  Josh Edwards (Richard Kiley) is another new teacher and is convinced that he can reach the students by talking to them about his valuable collection of jazz records. Mr. Murdock (Louis Calhern) is a burned out old cynic who believes that none of the students at the school have a future.  As Dadier quickly discovers, most of his fellow teachers have more in common with Murdock than with either him or Josh.

At first, Dadier struggles to reach his students, the majority of whom don’t see why they should waste their time in English class.  The head troublemaker, psychotic Artie West (Vic Morrow) sees the new teacher as being a rival and Dadier’s attempts to reach another student, Gregory Miller (Sidney Poitier), are made difficult by the racial animosity that dominates the entire high school.  Soon, Dadier is being targeted by his students and his pregnant wife (Anne Francis) starts to receive anonymous letters that imply that Dadier is having an affair.  It all leads to a violent classroom confrontation in which Dadier’s students are finally forced to pick a side in the battle between the forces of education and the forces of chaos.  (If that sounds melodramatic — well, it is kinda.)

It’s a little bit difficult to judge a film like Blackboard Jungle today.  We have seen so many movies about idealistic young teachers trying to make a difference in the inner city that it’s pretty easy to guess most of what is going to happen here.  In order to appreciate Blackboard Jungle, it’s necessary to understand that the only reason why it occasionally seems predictable is because it’s such an incredibly influential film.  And there are still moments in Blackboard Jungle that can take the viewer by surprise.  The scene in which Ford lists off all of the racial slurs that he doesn’t want to hear is just one example.  It’s hard to imagine that scene appearing in a movie made today.  (If it did, it would probably be played for laughs.)

That said, the performances in the film hold up surprisingly well.  Glenn Ford is a compelling hero and he and Anne Francis make for a likable couple.  Despite being 28 years old and having already played several adult roles, Sidney Poitier is a convincing high school student and, not surprisingly, he makes for a convincing leader.  However, for me, the film was dominated by Vic Morrow.

As played by Morrow, Artie Turner is a truly frightening villain.  In previous films about juvenile delinquency, the emphasis was always put on why the delinquent went bad and usually, the blame was put not on the teenager but instead on the environment around him.  He had bad parents or maybe he listened to too much jazz but, ultimately, he was not lost.  He was merely damaged.  However, Artie Turner has no convenient excuses for his behavior.  His parents go unmentioned.  When he’s exposed to jazz, he responds by breaking all of Mr. Edwards’ records.  Among all of Dadier’s students, Artie is unique in that he cannot be reached.  He’s a force of pure destruction and ultimately, Dadier’s success as a teacher depends less on reaching Artie and more on convincing his other students to reject Artie as a role model.

Blackboard Jungle may be a film that feels very familiar but it’s still one worth watching.

Artie Turner Acting Out

Artie Turner Acting Out

 

The L.A. Film Critics Have Spoken


A whole lot of critics’ groups announced their picks for the best films and performances of the year today and the New York Film Critics are voting as I type.  I’m on lunch from work right now so a full list will have to wait until later tonight.  For now, I’m just going to share the choices made by the Los Angeles Film Critics.  The L.A. Critics are one of the big three as far as critics groups are concerned. 

As I’ve said before, I think professional film critics are overrated but I just love awards.  And, of course, all of these December awards tend to serve as a precursor for who and what will receive Oscar nominations next year.  At their best, these groups can remind Academy voters of films and performances that they might otherwise overlook.  Certainly, if Jacki Weaver receives a deserved nomination for Animal Kingdom, it’ll be largely due to organizations like the National Board of Review and the L.A. Film Critics.

Anyway, since my time is limited, I’m going to simply post the winners and then add a few comments on my own.

PICTURE:

  • “The Social Network”
  • Runner-up: “Carlos”

DIRECTOR:

  • Olivier Assayas, “Carlos,” and David Fincher, “The Social Network” (tie)

ACTOR:

  • Colin Firth, “The King’s Speech”
  • Runner-up: Edgar Ramirez, “Carlos”

ACTRESS:

  • Kim Hye-ja, “Mother”
  • Runner-up:  Jennifer Lawrence, “Winter’s Bone”

SUPPORTING ACTOR:

  • Niels Arestrup, “A Prophet”
  • Runner-up: Geoffrey Rush, “The King’s Speech”

SUPPORTING ACTRESS:

  • Jacki Weaver, “Animal Kingdom”
  • Runner-up: Olivia Williams, “The Ghost Writer”

SCREENPLAY:

  • Aaron Sorkin, “The Social Network”
  • Runner-up: David Seidler, “The King’s Speech”

 

FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM:

  • “Carlos”
  • Runner-up: “Mother”

ANIMATION:

  • “Toy Story 3″
  • Runner-up: “The Illusionist”

DOCUMENTARY / NON-FICTION FILM:

  • “Last Train Home”
  • Runner-up: “Exit Through the Gift Shop”

CINEMATOGRAPHY:

  • Matthew Libatique, “Black Swan”
  • Runner-up: Roger Deakins, “True Grit”

MUSIC/SCORE:

  • Alexandre Desplat, “The Ghost Writer,” and  Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, “The Social Network” (tie)

PRODUCTION DESIGN:

  • Guy Hendrix Dyas, “Inception”
  • Runner-up: Eve Stewart, “The King’s Speech”

NEW GENERATION:

  • Lena Dunham, “Tiny Furniture”

DOUGLAS E. EDWARDS INDEPENDENT/EXPERIMENTAL FILM/VIDEO:

  • “Film Socialism”

LEGACY OF CINEMA AWARDS:

  • Serge Bromberg, “Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno,” and the F.W. Murnau Foundation and Fernando Pena for the restoration of “Metropolis”

CAREER ACHIEVEMENT:

  • Paul Mazursky

The main news here, I guess, is just how well foreign language films did in the voting.  I haven’t seen Carlos and seeing as how I’m basically in fly-over country, I doubt I’ll get a chance to see it before the Oscar nominations are announced.  I do have Mother on DVD and I’m going to watch it sometime before the start of the new year.  It’s also nice to see some attention being given to A Prophet.

Obviously, I’m disappointed not to see more love for Black Swan but I guess it’s to be expected as Black Swan is one of those films that people either love madly or hate with a passion.  I think that’s why The Social Network will win big at the Oscars this year.  It’s well-made and offensive only if you’re 1) female or 2) Mark Zuckerberg.