Tag Archives: Fred Willard

Waiting for Guffman (1996, Christopher Guest)

Waiting for Guffman is a story of dreams and dreamers. Director (co-writer and star) Guest opens the film with shots of a small American town, Blaine, Missouri. It’s a town with a lot of history and a lot of heart. Sure, it’s all absurd history, but those absurdities just make the heart beat stronger. Guffman is a mockumentary, starting with the town council going on and on about their sesquicentennial (150th anniversary) celebration. It takes Guffman a while before it gets to the actual storyline.

Because there’s all that absurd history and absurd councilpeople to get through.

There’s going to be a play at for the celebration, directed by a flamboyant, artistically inept New York emigrant (Guest), starring a bunch of local dreamers. Fred Willard and Catherine O’Hara are the town travel agents, who also regularly star in Guest’s productions. Willard’s a jerk and O’Hara drinks too much. Neither are talented. Parker Posey is another member of the regular troupe. She’s not talented. Eugene Levy (who also co-wrote the film) is a dentist who wants to be an entertainer. He’s not talented. Matt Keeslar works at the family scrapyard–he’s a hunk who Guest enlists to star then fawns over. He’s not talented. Then there’s Bob Balaban as the high school music teacher who thinks he should be in charge of the production and resents Guest.

Everyone is hilarious. Keeslar least, but he’s still really funny. He’s got a reaction part and he never gets to be in on the joke (of Guest fawning over him). Willard, O’Hara, Guest, Levy, Posey, Balaban–they’re all phenomenal. Much of Guffman is adlibbed and you can just see the actors spark these great ideas and run with them as the scenes unfold. It’s awesome.

Guest is probably the best during these scenes; he’s got the most to do–he’s directing the production, after all–though everyone with a lot of material gives him a run for the money. Meaning everyone but Balaban. He’s sort of an extended cameo, which Guest (as director–of the film, not the stage production in the film) uses to great effect.

But then it’s showtime and Guffman switches gears. Now it’s this absurd stage production and the actors are playing their absurd characters playing these absurdly (and now–intentionally–poorly) written parts. The councilpeople return to do the mockumentary interview spots because, presumably, the leads’ characters are too busy performing. The film mostly gets away with the change in tone, with Guest throwing in some backstage character moments for the actors but never quite enough.

The shift changes the film’s energy and knocks the narrative distance out of whack. Even though Guest establishes the mockumentary device and occasionally the actors even acknowledge it in their performances, it’s gone from how the stage production occurs. Without constant hilarity to distract, the mockumentary device’s problems become a lot more apparent.

When the film wraps up in an epilogue, Guest and company go back to trying to make it funny. They mostly succeed, but the pacing of the jokes is different. Guest and editor Andy Blumenthal cut the epilogue with a different pace–they’re trying to get done, trying to get to the right jokes to close out Guffman.

It works, it just doesn’t match the first act. Guffman suffers from being too funny without strict narrative pacing–even absurd pacing–and not funny enough when Guest has to implement it.

Uneven or not, Guffman’s hilarious, well-directed, and phenomenally acted.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Christopher Guest; written by Guest and Eugene Levy; director of photography, Roberto Schaefer; edited by Andy Blumenthal; music by Guest, Michael McKean, and Harry Shearer; production designer, Joseph T. Garrity; produced by Karen Murphy; released by Sony Pictures Classics.

Starring Christopher Guest (Corky St. Clair), Fred Willard (Ron Albertson), Catherine O’Hara (Sheila Albertson), Parker Posey (Libby Mae Brown), Eugene Levy (Dr. Allan Pearl), Matt Keeslar (Johnny Savage), Lewis Arquette (Clifford Wooley), and Bob Balaban (Lloyd Miller).


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Silver Streak (1976, Arthur Hiller)

Silver Streak is a wonderful film. It opens with all these little scenes on a train between Gene Wilder and Ned Beatty and then Jill Clayburgh. At this point, Streak seems like a very intelligent romantic comedy. There’s no drama yet, just excellent dialogue from Colin Higgins’s script. If he didn’t write it for Wilder–who Higgins and director Hiller deftly turn into a leading–and Clayburgh, it feels like he did anyway. Wilder and Clayburgh have completely different acting styles and they clash and the script mashes them together and it works. Clayburgh disappears for a while soon after this scene, so it has to establish her and it does.

So Wilder’s then off on his own in what’s now an action adventure picture. Higgins’s events perturb in the most outlandish way–one’s always expecting Wilder to have to fully explain himself, but he never does. Instead, Higgins and Hiller leave that absurd summary for the viewer to tell someone else for word of mouth value.

And then there’s Richard Pryor. He and Wilder have to hit it off immediately, they have to become Butch and Sundance in a conversation. Hiller’s got to get it right, Higgins has to get it right and the actors have to get it right. They do.

The film’s only letdown–all the acting’s fantastic and the script’s consistently marvelous–is Hiller. He does an outstanding workman job, but he’s never sublime.

Silver Streak is a masterpiece. Mainstream American filmmaking doesn’t get much better.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Arthur Hiller; written by Colin Higgins; director of photography, David M. Walsh; edited by David Bretherton; music by Henry Mancini; production designer, Alfred Sweeney; produced by Thomas L. Miller and Edward K. Milkis; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Gene Wilder (George Caldwell), Jill Clayburgh (Hilly Burns), Richard Pryor (Grover T. Muldoon), Patrick McGoohan (Roger Devereau), Ned Beatty (Bob Sweet), Clifton James (Sheriff Chauncey), Ray Walston (Mr. Whiney), Stefan Gierasch (Professor Schreiner), Len Birman (Chief), Valerie Curtin (Plain Jane), Lucille Benson (Rita Babtree), Scatman Crothers (Ralston), Richard Kiel (Reace) and Fred Willard (Jerry Jarvis).


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Salem's Lot (1979, Tobe Hooper)

During Salem’s Lot’s finale, Hooper gets this amazing physical performance out of Bonnie Bedelia as she is exploring the vampire’s lair. At that moment, I realized Hooper was intentionally making Lot palatable for a television audience—he could have made the entire three hours terrifying, but he was handicapped by the format.

The miniseries issues are rampant. Screenwriter Paul Monash can write, but he’s drowning in nonsense from the novel. The first half has two characters—played by George Dzundza and Julie Cobb—whose story takes up nearly a fourth of the film… They don’t even appear in the second half. Their story in the first half does nothing to further the story. It’s just crap Stephen King had in the novel and Monash was stuck including it.

Lot had a shorter, theatrical European cut—it’s incomprehensible, which is a surprise—the full version is so fatty, a good editor should’ve been able to lop off an hour without any negative effect.

Except for poor James Mason, who’s fine in the first half and goofy in the second, the acting is nearly all good. Bedelia’s amazing, lead David Soul is surprisingly good. Dzundza is a little broad, but Ed Flanders, Kenneth McMillan and Lew Ayres make up for it.

Hooper saves his enthusiasm for the second half—including a couple lovely Hitchcock homages. It’s too bad he didn’t sustain it throughout.

Without the weak ending and the awful Harry Sukman score, it would have been better. As is, it’s decent.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Tobe Hooper; teleplay by Paul Monash, based on the novel by Stephen King; director of photography, Jules Brenner; edited by Tom Pryor and Carroll Sax; music by Harry Sukman; production designer, Mort Rabinowitz; produced by Richard Kobritz; released by the Columbia Broadcasting System.

Starring David Soul (Ben Mears), James Mason (Richard K. Straker), Lance Kerwin (Mark Petrie), Bonnie Bedelia (Susan Norton), Lew Ayres (Jason Burke), Julie Cobb (Bonnie Sawyer), Elisha Cook Jr. (Gordon ‘Weasel’ Phillips), George Dzundza (Cully Sawyer), Ed Flanders (Dr. Bill Norton), Clarissa Kaye-Mason (Majorie Glick), Geoffrey Lewis (Mike Ryerson), Barney McFadden (Ned Tibbets), Kenneth McMillan (Constable Parkins Gillespie), Fred Willard (Larry Crockett) and Marie Windsor (Eva Miller).


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WALL·E (2008, Andrew Stanton)

WALL·E might be the first major Hollywood production not to feature a speaking protagonist in a while. I can’t remember the last one. WALL·E, the robot, makes some emotive sounds and mispronounces his girlfriend’s name, but he communicates through action, not through verbalization. It’s rather effective, since the robot’s supposed to be adorable and Pixar’s animation team goes above and beyond. The robot’s utilitarian in design, but everything else is precious (though the eyes aren’t particularly pragmatic).

The first half of the film is a solid, interrupted romance, with WALL·E finding a girl robot, Eve, who’s beginning to return his affections. Until he, inadvertently, causes her to shut down. This development doesn’t just make the opportunity for lots of cute scenes with the concerned WALL·E, but it also kicks off the rest of the narrative. WALL·E‘s got an interesting narrative–it’s a little short, but it’d be hard without dialogue to flesh it out and dialogue would ruin it–with two plots (the fate of WALL·E and Eve and the fate of the human race) intricately tied, but still somewhat unconnected. It’s because the moving parts of WALL·E are the romance (which reminds a lot of Broadway Danny Rose in that simple, but staggeringly affecting way). The human race and its problems mostly concern Jeff Garlin being really funny as the primary human character.

But director Stanton takes an approach to the future–and particularly the space–I haven’t seen in quite a while. There are lots of homages (2001) and references. The scenes on the decimated future Earth, polluted to all hell through mismanagement from a Wal-Mart stand-in–WALL·E‘s not just pro-environmentalist, it’s one of the most anti-corporate mainstream films I’ve ever seen… coming from Walt Disney Pictures no less–remind immediately of A.I. The references I expect, but Stanton’s enthusiasms for directing space scenes–or the wonderment one can experience thanks to a light bulb–is something special. The light bulbs and the like aside, Stanton’s space scenes remind of Robert Wise’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture in terms of raw excitement. Stanton fully utilizes the technology, but for the story. WALL·E contains a dance scene, probably as close as we’ll get to seeing Jeannot Szwarc’s tragically unfilmed ballet for Supergirl, and it’s a perfect example of the art and technology working in unison.

The approach to the story, and how the filmmaking interacts with it, is what makes WALL·E so exceptional. There are no metaphors, no analogs, instead Stanton establishes WALL·E and the setting in five minutes or less and then everything plays out in it. WALL·E doesn’t garner sympathy because he’s an analog for a pining leading man, he garners it because he’s a little robot with a particular story.

Where WALL·E falters is in its attempt at reality. There’s live action footage of Fred Willard as the characters look into their past, along with a lot more live action clips. The way it works out is problematic… the future is CG animation, the past is reality. It’s a neat idea, but just doing as life-like CG as possible for the past–never breaking the film’s visual continuity–would have been far better. There are also some problems with how much information the film presents about this future setting. It dwells long enough to raise questions, but doesn’t want to address them (or even the raising of those questions, since many are non-Disney like).

WALL·E‘s probably Pixar’s best film (the only serious competition is Monsters, Inc., also from Stanton, but that film had third act problems) and it’s a definite achievement.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Andrew Stanton; written by Stanton and Jim Reardon, based on a story by Stanton and Pete Docter; directors of photography, Jeremy Lasky and Danielle Feinberg; edited by Stephen Schaffer; music by Thomas Newman; production designer, Ralph Eggleston; produced by Jim Morris; released by Walt Disney Pictures.

Starring Ben Burtt (WALL·E), Elissa Knight (Eve), Jeff Garlin (Captain), Fred Willard (Shelby Forthright), Macintalk (Auto), John Ratzenberger (John), Kathy Najimy (Mary) and Sigourney Weaver (Ship’s Computer).


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