Category Archives: Comedy

Hello Down There (1969, Jack Arnold)

Hello Down There is a family comedy. Its target audience is families who want to see a sexy mom Janet Leigh and sexless teenagers. I think it’s for dads who somehow got stuck taking their tweens to the movies in the late sixties? When the movie starts, it almost seems like Leigh’s going to play a big part. She's scared of the water, the movie’s about her husband Tony Randall dragging her into an undersea house to see if a regular American family can inhabit it. Of course, they’re not a regular American family because Randall’s a genius underwater engineer, Leigh’s a burgeoning romance novelist (because she’s a sexy mom), their kids (Kay Cole and Gary Tigerman) are in close-to-signing terrible mainstream hippie rock band, and… actually, no, they don’t have any pets.

Eventually they get a pet for two scenes when they’re living in the underwater house and a seal gets down there and becomes Leigh’s sidekick. It’s kind of a good scene. There’s potential. It never pays off, but potential’s rare in Hello Down There so you take what you can get.

The movie opens with millionaire underwater construction industrialist Jim Backus (in a godawful performance) going down in a submarine to see what his chief designer engineer Randall has been working on. The underwater house. It’ll solve overpopulation problems. Except Backus, being a millionaire industrialist, had no idea what Randall was working on and Backus thinks it’s stupid. Backus likes smarter projects; he loves Ken Berry’s idea to vacuum up the ocean floor and collect all the gold. Because there’s lots of gold there.

Oh, yeah, Hello Down There is for families all right… dumb ones.

Or maybe it’s just for dads who really liked Janet Leigh and needed an excuse to see her in something family-friendly?

Anyway, Randall has to promise Backus he and his family will live down there for thirty days, which Backus assumes is impossible because Leigh’s afraid of water and Backus is a little too interested in Leigh. Because he’s a creep in addition to being an idiot.

Leigh freaks out then goes off for some alone time and comes back in lingerie—chaste lingerie but lingerie—to seduce Randall as her way of apologizing for not getting over the aqua phobia immediately upon his request. They get interrupted by the kids, who don’t want to go because their band is about to hit it big with record producer Roddy McDowell (also godawful but not as embarrassingly as Backus). So they bring the band along. The rest of the band is Richard Dreyfuss, who’s better at lip synching than acting here, and Lou Wagner, who dresses like a court jester hippie and does nothing else.

Will the family make it? Will the band make it? Will there be a disappearing hurricane, dolphins, a shark attack, Tony Randall fighting a shark, Charlotte Rae playing one of her first housekeepers, an underwater rescue sequence, lots of crappy music montages, lots of mansplaining, shirtless Tony Randall separate from shark fight, and Merv Griffin? No spoilers but it’s not like you can just make up such a strange list.

Oh, yeah, there’s also Arnold Stang, who apparently drowns because the movie forgets about him. And a whole subplot about the U.S. Navy being too stupid to figure out there’s the underwater house, even though it presumably took a while to build and you’d think they’d notice because it could be the Soviets or whatever.

On the other hand, why blame screenwriters John McGreevey and Frank Telford… there’s no way to make this one good. It’s a bad production, with lousy music (courtesy Jeff Barry), lousy photography (Clifford H. Poland Jr.), questionable special effects, and occasionally bad, barely mediocre direction from Arnold. Ricou Browning directs the underwater sequences, which are bad when they’re a nature film and boring with establishing shots… but awesome when it’s action. There’s that Tony Randall vs. shark sequence (fingers crossed it was former Creature from the Black Lagoon Browning doing the uncredited underwater stunt work).

Everyone except the kids, who range from bad to worse, and Leigh just mug their way through the film. Randall included. Leigh doesn’t have much to work with, but at least she doesn’t just give up like everyone else. It’s an embarrassing movie, but she’s got nothing to be embarrassed about with it.

As opposed to literally everyone else involved. It tries to be a ninety-minute sitcom and fails. Not even shark fighting and a drunk Rae can save it.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Jack Arnold; screenplay by John McGreevey and Frank Telford, based on a story by Art Arthur and Ivan Tors; director of photography, Clifford H. Poland Jr.; edited by Erwin Dumbrille; music by Jeff Barry; produced by George Sherman; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Tony Randall (Fred Miller), Janet Leigh (Vivian Miller), Roddy McDowall (Nate Ashbury), Jim Backus (T.R. Hollister), Ken Berry (Mel Cheever), Charlotte Rae (Myrtle Ruth), Kay Cole (Lorrie Miller), Richard Dreyfuss (Harold Webster), Lou Wagner (Marvin Webster), Gary Tigerman (Tommie Miller), Arnold Stang (Jonah), Harvey Lembeck (Sonarman), and Merv Griffin (Himself).



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Wonder Boys (2000, Curtis Hanson)

Wonder Boys has a very messy third act. The film takes place over a weekend, Friday afternoon to Sunday afternoon; it’s the annual writers conference at an unnamed Pittsburgh university, which kicks off some of the film’s events, lines up some other ones, but is really just an excuse for exposition. It’s fine—it’s great exposition—but it’s somewhat redundant because lead Michael Douglas narrates the whole movie anyway. The film’s about how and why Douglas ends up playing hooky from the conference, even though it’s never clear how involved he was supposed to be. Douglas’s professionalism, which is at least seems ostensible at the beginning of the film, slowly evaporates as events start getting… weird.

Unfortunately the first thing to get weird is super-cringey. The film’s from 2000 and it doesn’t think it’s being transphobic and it actually gets somewhere very interesting with the subplot, but… it’s super-cringey. And kind of makes the three generations of Wonder Boys—Douglas, Robert Downey Jr., Tobey Maguire—seem like dicks. It makes Downey icky when he’s supposed to be lovable.

Downey’s Douglas’s agent. They both got famous when Douglas wrote his first (and only) novel. He’s been working on his new one for seven years. It’s over two thousand pages. Maguire is one of Douglas’s students; his best student, who already has a finished novel. And is really weird. He’s not so much moody as peeking at the world from his Nietzschean hole in the ground. The film’s at its best when Douglas and Maguire are bonding. It’s at its funniest when Douglas and Downey are mugging. It’s got the most potential when Douglas is canoodling (or trying to canoodle) Frances McDormand. McDormand is the chancellor of the school. She’s married to Richard Thomas, who’s the chair of the English department and Douglas’s boss. Douglas and McDormand are in love. Douglas’s wife has left him that very morning for unrelated martial strife; McDormand just found out she’s pregnant. Maguire might be suicidal (the movie drops this one hard, like it doesn’t want to take the responsibility). Downey’s about to lose his job (but doesn’t care so it’s a throwaway subplot; also he’s—unfortunately—a glorified guest star). There’s a lot going on.

Throw in stolen movie memorabilia, a blind dog, Katie Holmes as Douglas’s student and lodger who thinks she understands her grandpa-aged crush, and a stolen car. Not to mention Douglas’s unseen wife, who hangs over the narrative but has absolutely no presence. It’s impossible to imagine Douglas married, not to mention anyone else living in his de facto flophouse. Beautifully designed de facto flophouse, but flophouse nonetheless. So the ethereal wife is a problem. And Holmes is a problem. She’s trying to make time with Douglas and he’s aware but completely disinterested. He likes women closer to his own age—McDormand’s only thirteen years younger versus Holmes’s thirty-four. Presumably the phantom wife is somewhere in middle. But Holmes, who either gets to be really insightful or really thin—she’s flirting with Rip Torn, who’s—you know—forty-some years older—never seems to realize Douglas isn’t into her that way. He’s not into her any way. It’s hard to believe they live in the same house.

The film doesn’t exactly have plot holes, it just often has soft plot details. Director Hanson and screenwriter Steve Kloves gloss over things they shouldn’t, then somehow lose track of what the film’s supposed to be doing. During the second act, it falls completely in love with the supporting cast—Maguire in particular, which is fine and dandy because Maguire’s great—but then it chucks him in the third act to bring Downey back in. Okay, Downey’s really good, really fun (not great because he doesn’t have the part), but… wasn’t Maguire supposed to be important. Then it turns out Downey’s not important. What’s important is something the film’s had the opportunity to focus on and hasn’t. Intentionally avoided it, actually, which maybe is supposed to be a metaphor for pot-addled Douglas’s indecision—the film’s also got some really dated pot politics—but it’s a miss. Douglas is phenomenal and a great protagonist, but his narration doesn’t add anything to the film. The occasional smile, the tiniest bit of context for some exposition or another, but there’s never anything important in it.

Especially not after Douglas loses his agency in the third act.

But the script’s still good. It’s a complete mess, plotting-wise, but the scenes are great. The pacing is great. And Hanson knows how he wants to shoot the conversations. There’s a lot of beautiful direction, with outstanding photography from Dante Spinotti. Cool but warm photography, intense but natural. It’s a great looking film. Dede Allen’s editing is great, especially since Hanson’s composing these wide Panavision shots and the cuts between angles ought to be jarring. They’re not. They’re perfectly timed. Sublimely timed. Solid music from Christopher Young, mostly emphasis stuff. There’s a great soundtrack for the film, including an original Bob Dylan song. Though it’s hard to imagine any of the Wonder Boys listening to Bob Dylan.

Going through the acting again. Douglas and Maguire are phenomenal. McDormand’s great. Downey’s good. Rip Torn’s fun. Holmes gets a crap part. Richard Thomas gets cast way too perfectly as a cuckold.

Wonder Boys is, problems and all, outstanding. It’s just frustratingly close to exceptional and when Hanson and Kloves so completely bungle the third act… it takes some real damage. But it’s still outstanding though. And Douglas and Maguire’s performances are exceptional… the parts just don’t end up being so.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Curtis Hanson; screenplay by Steve Kloves, based on the novel by Michael Chabon; director of photography, Dante Spinotti; edited by Dede Allen; music by Christopher Young; production designer, Jeannine Oppewall; produced by Hanson and Scott Rudin; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Michael Douglas (Grady Tripp), Tobey Maguire (James Leer), Frances McDormand (Sara Gaskell), Robert Downey Jr. (Terry Crabtree), Katie Holmes (Hannah Green), Rip Torn (Q), Richard Knox (Vernon Hardapple), Jane Adams (Oola), Alan Tudyk (Traxler), and Richard Thomas (Walter Gaskell).


Malcolm (1986, Nadia Tass)

Malcolm has strange plotting. The film runs just ninety minutes—like you don’t really believe that official ninety minute runtime and it doesn’t feel like they’re rounding up from eighty-nine either. The film’s light and it seems to be coming from the drama. There really isn’t any. There’s charm instead. Almost cuteness.

The title Malcolm is Colin Friels, a thirty-ish Autistic man (though the film never describes his diagnosis or even if anyone understands he’s got one—1986 after all) who lives alone since his mother’s died. He’s a mechanical genius with a fascination about Melbourne’s trams. He even works for the trams for a while… but off-screen. The movie opens with him getting fired for building his own one-person tram. Strapped for cash, he has to bring in a lodger. He takes the first one who comes to see the room–John Hargreaves.

At this point, Malcolm seems like it’s going to be about kindly neighborhood shop owner Beverley Phillips getting Friels to socially develop thanks to Hargreaves. It seems like it for about three minutes, which is a long time in Malcolm. But then Hargreaves brings home girlfriend Lindy Davies and she stays. Like a day after Hargreaves comes in. It isn’t clear why Hargreaves and Davies weren’t just looking for a place together. Character motivations are not writer (and cinematographer) David Parker’s strong suit. Neither is the cinematography, just to get it out of the way. Malcolm has very flat cinematography. The film’s able to get through the flat lighting and the script’s absence of characters’ ground situations because of director Tass. She’s okay with composition, but she’s great at directing her actors. Friels, Davies, and Hargreaves all turn in these fantastic performances and, along with the mood (which is the script, is the direction), make Malcolm work. Even though both Friels and Davies kind of get the story focus shaft. It instead concentrates on Hargreaves, which doesn’t make any sense because the whole point of his life being different than before is specifically because of what Friels and Davies are now doing in it.

Hargreaves is really good. He gives the best performance in the film, which he shouldn’t, but he isn’t able to transcend the script. The part isn’t good enough. The closest the movie gets to dramatics often involves Hargreaves saying something shitty about Friels behind his back and Davies giving him hell for it, leading to offscreen bonding between Hargreaves and Friels. Eventually Hargreaves has some personal growth and isn’t a dick to Friels anymore but we sure don’t get to see it. There’s the potential for character development, then there’s a jump ahead past it. Multiple times. Parker and Tass are too obvious in what they’re not addressing. They draw attention to what they’re not doing and then still manage to be too deliberate in how they showcase the gadgetry.

After Davies moves in, Friels starts making different gadgets and machines to impress Hargreaves because apparently Friels thinks he’s cool. Or something. We never find out because whenever anyone wants to have a serious talk with Friels, they do it offscreen so Parker doesn’t have to write the dialogue. After the first act, Friels basically becomes a (necessary) third wheel in Davies and Hargreaves’s story, which is mostly from Davies’s perspective because Hargreaves doesn’t do anything interesting on his own. Not even when he does things on his own; the movie can’t make them seem interesting.

Hargreaves has a scummy bar friend—an astonishingly third-billed Chris Haywood, who gets about four minutes on screen and never a close-up. Haywood’s just around for when Hargreaves needs to do something away from Friels and Davies. Until Hargreaves reaches the point he realizes he’s got to grow and then he just runs away to different areas of the house.

Another success of Tass’s direction is the lack of claustrophobia, even when there ought to be.

Whenever Friels shows Hargreaves a new gadget, it’s an action set piece. They’re really cool sequences, often involving remote controlled cars or objects. Editor Ken Sallows always cuts the action well. They’re the film’s pay-off moments and they work.

But they really shouldn’t be the film’s pay-off moments. They supersede the characters. For the finale the actors don’t even get to participate in the big action sequence.

It’s a great sequence though and when the actors do come back, they’re able to make up for the lost time goodwill-wise.

Malcolm doesn’t succeed in spite of itself, it just doesn’t aim high enough. It also adjusts its aim lower as the film goes on. Its potential deflates as it goes.

But it’s really cute, really charming, often rather funny. Excellent performances from Hargreaves, Friels, and Davies. Nice score from Simon Jeffres.

Just wish the script were more interested in the characters.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Nadia Tass; written and photographed by David Parker; edited by Ken Sallows; music by Simon Jeffes; produced by Tass and Parker; released by Hoyts Distribution.

Starring Colin Friels (Malcolm), Lindy Davies (Judith), John Hargreaves (Frank), Beverley Phillips (Mrs. T), Judith Stratford (Jenny), and Chris Haywood (Willy).


This post is part of the Blizzard of Oz Blogathon hosted by Quiggy of the Midnite Drive-In.

To Die For (1995, Gus Van Sant)

To Die For’s got one of those effortlessly smooth but obviously intricate narrative structures. Screenwriter Buck Henry is adapting a novel, which author Joyce Maynard structured with many different first person accounts. Van Sant and Henry and editor Curtiss Clayton keep the sense of different perspectives—including some interview sessions where someone is obviously making a documentary, maybe not even necessarily the same documentary between interviewees—but the film’s never actually first person. There’s always a narrative distance. Because To Die For only shows so much of its characters. They’re all still mysteries at the end. The film’s got a very definite, very dark sense of humor and it’s never clear just how much Van Sant and Henry are bending reality.

For example, Tim Hopper and Michael Rispoli’s almost entirely dialogue-free police detectives. They’re absurdly intense, emphasis on the absurd. Only Van Sant never plays them for laughs. They cut through the film, their absurd unreality somehow realer than what’s been going on in the film.

To Die For is about cable access weatherperson Nicole Kidman seducing a teenage boy (Joaquin Phoenix) to kill her husband (Matt Dillon). The first act of the movie covers the basic setup and then how Kidman and Dillon got together and how their families clash. Dillon’s Italian, Kidman’s a WASP. It’s quite wonderfully never clear what attracted Kidman to Dillon. Apparently she really did “go wild” for him, but then he got in the way of her career. In addition to her nightly weather duties, Kidman’s making a documentary about local teenagers, including Phoenix. Once Dillon decides it’s time for Kidman to start popping out babies—he gave her a year—well, Kidman starts having sex (apparently a lot of sex, which isn’t initially clear and adds a bunch of layers to things in hindsight) with Phoenix, the end plan being getting Phoenix to kill Dillon.

The film almost entirely shows Kidman’s planning the murder from Phoenix and Alison Folland’s perspectives. Folland is one of the other teenagers in the documentary. Kidman’s documentary, not the pseudo-documentary narrative device. Casey Affleck is the third kid. Folland just wants a friend, Phoenix is in love, Affleck is an ass. They’re all poor, all neglected or abused, all dumb. Affleck gets assigned the project (by Henry, who cameos as their school teacher), but Folland and Phoenix sign up. They’re the only two in the class who don’t see Kidman is a little too much. There’s something clearly off about her.

Unfortunately for everyone involved, that off is she’s an undiagnosed sociopath, something no one suspects—including her—because her parents have spoiled her for so long. Their pampering of Kidman hid it, which the film momentarily and brilliantly addresses when Kidman freaks out dad Kurtwood Smith, who until then seems like it’s completely aware of her peculiar personality. Kidman’s obsessed with wanting to be a newscaster, which motivates every action until she realizes she doesn’t have to be a newscaster to be famous. It’s another of the film’s awesome little character development moments, when Van Sant and Henry reveal they’ve been discreetly layering in an arc, using the pseudo-documentary structure to give it some extra kick. Sometimes for humor (not laughs, humor), sometimes just because.

There are seven concurrent narrative layers. They all take place sometime after the events. There’s Illeana Douglas (as Dillon’s sister who always knew Kidman was bad news); she’s being interview for a documentary. There’s Phoenix in prison. There’s Folland not in prison. Then there’s the parents on a daytime talk show—just the straight talk show footage—Smith and Holland Taylor as Kidman’s parents, Dan Hedaya and Maria Tucci as Dillon’s. Susan Traylor plays Kidman’s sister, who never has anything to say but always has this knowing look. There’s Wayne Knight as Kidman’s boss at the TV station. Then there are the flashbacks. And, finally, there’s Kidman narrating to the camera.

Only she’s not confessing so her material is very different. The reality she presents is very different from what we see transpire. Maybe it’s never clear with Taylor, but Smith seems to know Kidman’s guilty.

Listing the best performances in the film is basically just like listing the cast. Kidman and Phoenix are both phenomenal. And even though they have a bunch of scenes together and Kidman’s manipulating him and Phoenix is bewitched, their character arcs are entirely separate and so are their performances. They don’t have “chemistry” because it’s not possible for them to have it in those conditions. Folland’s great. Douglas is great. Knight’s great. Smith’s great. Affleck, Dillon, Hedaya, Taylor, Tucci; they’re all good. They just can’t compare. They don’t get the material, though there’s always this implicit material. Like Traylor’s looks, whatever they mean.

Good photography from Eric Alan Edwards, good production design from Missy Stewart, perfectly matched Danny Elfman score (it’s a constant, emotive, supportive but never ambitious score). To Die For’s technicals excel. Everything about it excels, especially Kidman, especially Phoenix, especially Van Sant, and especially Henry.

It’s gang busters.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Gus Van Sant; screenplay by Buck Henry, based on the novel by Joyce Maynard; director of photography, Eric Alan Edwards; edited by Curtiss Clayton; production designer, Missy Stewart; music by Danny Elfman; produced by Laura Ziskin; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Nicole Kidman (Suzanne Stone), Joaquin Phoenix (Jimmy Emmett), Alison Folland (Lydia Mertz), Casey Affleck (Russel Hines), Illeana Douglas (Janice Maretto), Wayne Knight (Ed Grant), Kurtwood Smith (Earl Stone), Holland Taylor (Carol Stone), Dan Hedaya (Joe Maretto), Maria Tucci (Angela Maretto), Susan Traylor (Faye Stone), Tim Hopper (Mike Warden), Michael Rispoli (Ben DeLuca), Gerry Quigley (George), Buck Henry (Mr. H. Finlaysson), and Matt Dillon (Larry Maretto).