Thursday, August 27, 2009

the day Dustin Hoffman met George Clooney's uncle

On Tuesday night I watched Sydney Pollack's Tootsie (1982) at Butler Field in Chicago's Grant Park. It was the final film in this summer's Chicago Outdoor Film Festival (in July I saw Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard), and the first time I'd seen Pollack's best film on a big screen, with an appreciative audience.

Yesterday I discovered the following Late Show With David Letterman clip from December 22, 2008, on YouTube.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

sassy cannibals spawning, preaching, living, and loving

Gospel According to Harry is a 1994 art film by Polish filmmaker Lech Majewski that debuted on DVD last year courtesy of Kino Video. The back of the DVD box says, "Years before the Lord of the Rings trilogy catapulted him to international superstardom, Viggo Mortensen (Eastern Promises, A History of Violence) played Wes, a young husband locked in co-dependent discontent with his beautiul and needy wife Karen (Jennifer Rubin — The Doors)."

Once you watch the film, though, Wes comes across as much more needy than Karen, praying to God that she'll return to him after she moves out. In the early scenes he's portrayed as an anger-prone layabout who refuses to buy life or health insurance, so it's not too hard to side with Karen when she leaves. And once she returns, he quickly takes her for granted again. Is she considered needy simply because she needs love?

The Gospel DVD contains audio commentary by Majewski, who doesn't acknowledge Rubin when she first appears on-screen, but once Mortensen shows up a minute or two later, he has plenty to say about the actor and the experience of working with him.

I snagged my copy of Gospel last year at the Chicago Reader, where I used to work. More recently I came into possession of a DVD of C.H.U.D. (1984) and a VHS copy of Piranha II: The Spawning (1981), which delivers the kind of quality you'd expect from the title, even though the Jaws rip-off was directed by Oscar winner James Cameron. (The video box uses a comma in the title instead of a colon. It's the idiosyncrasies I love the most.)

Avatar, which is set for release this December, will be Cameron's first feature film since 1997's Titanic, and it appears to have elements in common with Aliens (1986), the second sequel he directed for which he had nothing to do with the original film. (He did direct 1984's The Terminator and its first sequel, 1991's Terminator 2: Judgment Day, but not the subsequent two installments.) Similarly, Piranha II has elements in common with Cameron's The Abyss (1989) and Titanic—namely, scenes where characters explore ships that have sunk to the bottom of the ocean.

I watched my found copies of Piranha II and C.H.U.D. back to back last Saturday. I got a kick out of the fact that the killer flying piranha and the Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dwellers weren't the real bad guys in either film—the good ol' U.S. government was the true source of all evil. (Sorry to ruin it for you.) In Piranha II a military experiment in the Caribbean has gone awry, and in C.H.U.D. the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has been storing toxic waste below the streets of New York City, turning homeless "mole people" who live in the subway tunnels into CHUDs.

I also watched a Reader-appropriated copy of My Sassy Girl (2008), an American remake of a Korean romantic comedy, starring Elisha Cuthbert of 24 and Jesse Bradford of the upcoming I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell, which, judging by the trailer, will be shown in hell on a constant loop for eons to come.

In one scene Cuthbert's character, Jordan, whose "sassiness" extends into the realms of complete self-absorption, binge drinking, irrational anger,
mind games, and borderline mental illness, demands that the stationmaster at a New York City Subway stop broadcast an announcement over the station's loudspeakers to Charlie (Bradford), who's on the platform below. The stationmaster begins to make the announcement when Jordan interrupts her to ask, "What kind of diction is that? How could anyone possibly understand you?"

The stationmaster is black. Jordan is white. But it's not a racial insult, alright? This is a bad romantic comedy, after all, where everyone gets along with everyone else unless they're fighting about love. It is a class thing, though, because Jordan is the daughter of a rich doctor and the stationmaster works nights in a loud, smelly pit just to keep food on the table.

The stationmaster sarcastically informs Jordan that she doesn't have to make the announcement at all, at which point Jordan barges into her booth and says, "I would rather if you're going to do something nice for someone that you do it properly—and well." C'mon, be a friend, lady!

The stationmaster replies, "This PA system is 50 years old. If the queen of England made the announcement, you wouldn't understand it." Jordan volleys back with "The queen of England wouldn't step foot in this shithole." But the queen of Sassy would, and she's not happy with what she sees, not to mention the customer service she gets when she makes "nice" requests.

The microphone is left on during this exchange, and director Yann Samuell cuts to the reactions of the people on the platform below. A few look confused, but most of them are heard laughing, with white faces dominating the screen. It's a racially charged scene, if unintentionally so.

Jordan then delivers a drippy personal message over the PA to Charlie, who, instead of cringing and covering his face with his coat, races to the stationmaster's booth to find her. Right before he gets there, Jordan shows her gratitude to the stationmaster by calling her a "rat-faced woman," her voice still ringing out over the PA system.

This scene doesn't take place at the end of the film, when desperate moves are often made by characters in rom-coms to ensure that they end up with the boy or girl of their dreams. It's just another instance of Ms. Sassy wanting what she wants right now and expecting someone to give it to her.

Gospel According to Harry director Lech Majewski might charitably describe Jordan as "needy," but if by the end of My Sassy Girl you're ready for the "rat-faced woman" to turn into a human-size rat and team up with a CHUD to devour her, you're not alone.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

the unfunny father of humor

Every month the management staff of my apartment building slips a bulletin under each tenant's door to let us know about holiday celebrations, shopping excursions for the senior citizens, "movie night," and other community events originating in the building. The bulletin is often padded out with "this date in history" trivia that's always worth reading, including the following factoid:

Aug. 16—The Original Funny Man. By many accounts, English comic actor Joseph (or Josias) Miller of London's Drury Lane Theatre was a popular favorite, known for his boisterous wit. When he died on this date in 1738, leaving his family in poverty, his friend John Mottley decided to collect all the jokes attributed to Miller and publish them. The proceeds from the book were to go to Miller's family. Joe Miller's Jests, first published in 1739, was 70 pages long, contained 247 jokes, and represented the first published professional humor. After numerous revisions and expansions, it contained more than 1,500 jokes that some experts cite as the foundation of all modern movie, television, radio and stage humor. Some are reluctant to give Miller all the credit, however; they say Miller wasn't a true comedian at all, but that he was always credited with everyone else's wit. According to one historian, Miller's friends gave him credit for jokes because he was actually quite grave and humorless.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

America's first daddy-daughter anchor team

There once was a little girl named Sophie, who became the world's youngest news anchor at the tender age of two. Though she was just one half of WGCM's latest anchor team—the other half being her dad, Michael—it was still a lot of pressure for someone who couldn't read yet or even pronounce the last letter of "anchor."

Luckily, Sophie was up to the challenges that lay ahead.


For one thing, she was mighty cute, which always helps on TV. She was also a natural when it came to "happy chat," an essential part of any local newcast. Sophie loved to talk about puppies and trees and twinkling little stars and the sounds barnyard animals make, not to mention her grandparents and her mommy and daddy and her big sister, Olivia, who was four. Olivia was Sophie's biggest influence when it came to being informative, inquisitive, and mighty cute.

Plus, Sophie had an advantage that older news anchors would never have: she could make any piece of bad news seem okay just by smiling or laughing.

Has the economy got you down? Just let WGCM cut to a tight close-up of Sophie telling you the numbers she knows.

Tired of hearing how high school literacy rates keep dropping? Listen to Sophie as she recites her ABCs in her own unique fashion.

Infuriated by stories about crime and punishment being followed by silly "lighter side" items about water-skiing squirrels? Well, at the very least, Sophie is
much more adorable than a squirrel, especially when she's splish-splashing in the tub with her rubber ducky.

When she heard that people were accusing WGCM of putting her on the air as some sort of stunt to boost their ratings—"a shameless attempt to trivialize serious issues," said one newspaper columnist—Sophie laughed. Then she cried. She didn't know what "stunts" or "ratings" or "issues" were.

Sophie was confused!

Were people mad at her? What did she do wrong? She didn't want anyone to be mad—ever—especially not at her. (Besides, she had no idea she was editorializing when she said "I lahhv you" at the end of certain stories. She was just expressing herself.)

Sophie knew what she had to do. After just one six o'clock newscast, she retired from journalism. But in a surprising turn of events (some in the TV news business would even call it "shocking"), a story in the local newspaper implied that she was forced out—not by WGCM, but by her fellow anchor.

Michael defended his actions in a written statement: "I don't know why, but I forgot for a minute that Sophie has to take a bath and go night-night by eight o'clock. I wouldn't be able to look her in the eye again if I kept her up for the eleven o'clock news every night. Besides, she'd probably be pretty crankypants at that hour."


Sophie's mom, Heather, responded in a phone interview: "I finally find time to take a short nap while Michael's watching Sophie, and the next thing you know I'm watching her—on TV!"

And so a brilliant career ended almost as soon as it began, but that was okay. There would be plenty of opportunities for Sophie to shine in the years ahead, just like her big sister, who was well on her way to becoming a prima ballerina.

In fact, Olivia gave Sophie the best compliment of all: "You are the bestest little sister and local news anchor in the whole wide world, and I love you very very much, even if you never win a local Emmy."

That made Sophie very very happy. And then she went night-night.

[The writer would like to make the following correction to the third paragraph: Olivia is four and a half. The writer regrets the error and any inconvenience it may have caused.]

Saturday, August 1, 2009

"51 Going on 15"

I run my own business. I make my own hours. I'm my own boss and my own man.

There's this coffee shop down the street from where I live. I go there when I need to get out of the house for a few hours. Or sometimes I'll stay the entire day. It's great—I'll buy one cup of coffee and stay for eight hours. And sometimes on the weekends I'll come in for a few hours and not order anything at all. Nobody says anything. It's mostly college girls behind the counter, so they're not gonna say anything. Sometimes I put on my sunglasses when I'm there so I can check them out without them knowing. The one with the black hair—I'd definitely fuck her.

The woman who runs the place is this tiny Chinese lady, or Vietnamese or Korean or something. I told her I own my own business, so we have that between us. You can tell she's impressed.

Get this—lately I've been taking my shoes off and propping them up on the couch in the back. I swear to God, nobody says anything. It's great.

There was this one time when a guy behind the counter told me to watch my language when my Mac started fucking up. But that prick was a fucking asshole. Trying to prove himself or something, show me who's boss. Yeah, you're a big man, mister minimum wage plus tips. I go through computers like some people go through underwear. Guess who can't afford a new computer every six months? You, motherfucker. Maybe if you kept your mouth shut, you'd get more tips. What do you think?

When he told me to stop saying "fuck," I left. I didn't have to take that shit. I'm my own man. So I went home.

My wife was out of town again. The house can be kind of lonely without her. When the cat died back in January she was out of town, so she blames me for it. I never liked that cat. But he kept me company.

I make a lot of calls. Not everyone calls me back.