Month: April 2014

Great Character Actors – Edward Everett Horton

Edward Everett Hortonby Mike Dub

Edward Everett Horton was one of the first great character actors of the sound era.  A veteran of the stage by the time he joined Hollywood in the early 1920s, Horton was one of the actors for whom the coming sound era was not a threat.  His pompously dim disposition and his pretentiously mannered diction were a perfect fit for the theatrical, dialogue-driven screwball comedies and musicals that exploded in the 1930s.  Equally at ease as a best friend or a romantic foil, Horton possessed a rare pathos that transcended the moral distinction or turpitude of his characters.  Whether a trusty companion to our hero or a conniving misogynist to a damsel in distress, he always seemed capable of eliciting more pity than malice.  He never played good guys or bad guys, necessarily, just men who, for one reason or another, failed to grasp the world around them.

Like many great comedians, Horton possessed phenomenal technique.  He will probably always be best known for his unique version of the double take.  What made his double take so wonderful is the length with which he could hold the transition from “first” take to “second” take.  His greatest epiphanies would not strike him suddenly like lightning, but would slowly wash over his frozen face, as though his brain were stuck in a holding pattern until it finally grasped the message.

 

In his funniest moments, though, it seemed he didn’t even get that much.  Here is where Horton offers his greatest acting maneuver: the triple-take.  When confronted with a particularly sharp jibe from a hero in a film, Horton would not just follow the familiar pattern of missing the point before getting it.  He would add a third layer, in which he fails to comprehend that which he just seemed to understand.  In other words, it’s: 1) I think I get it; 2) I get it now!; 3) I don’t get it.  That final piece, that concluding lack of comprehension, is what puts such a perfect cap on scenes, and why Horton plays such an excellent fool.  Someone clever sneaks in the last word, and Horton is left pondering its meaning.

 

Horton, however, was not just a triple-take specialist.  He crafted a complete character, of which that dimness was an integral facet.  His characters suffered comically from a severely inflated sense of cognitive dissonance.  Seemingly able to hold, at most, one line of thought in his mind at a time, his characters shot incessantly from one moral position to another.  When confronted with the unpopularity of an opinion, he could easily demur, if not vociferously defend the opposite position.  With this endless vacillation, Horton at his most cloying, exemplified the obnoxious righteousness of so many bosses, rivals, and even parents – representations that made it all the more satisfying to see their comeuppance when it came due.

 

His soft face, clownish smile, and rotund figure made him a perfect foil for chiseled hunks like Gary Copper (Design for Living) and debonair gentlemen like Herbert Marshall (Trouble in Paradise).  Conversely, his nearly complete lack of sex appeal fit in nicely as a nonthreatening best friend, most notably to Fred Astaire in the three best films of the Astaire-Rogers period: The Gay Divorcee, Top Hat, and Shall We Dance.  In these films, Horton proved a trusty sidekick to Astaire, helping him navigate through series of romantic and professional turmoil – when he wasn’t causing turmoil himself.

Beyond his physical and intellectual shortcomings, there is another reason why the Horton character was such an affable male companion.  Vito Russo, in his brilliant study of queer cinema, The Celluloid Closet, cites Horton’s characters as early, important examples of queer representation, albeit highly coded.  Shrouded in narrative subtleties and comic gestures, Horton’s characters were identifiable as homosexual, particularly to a gay audience.  In The Gay Divorcee, his most entertaining performance, Horton, in Russo’s words, becomes “an obvious instance of the barely restrained Code sissy, scrubbed on the surface yet brimming with tantalizing sexual and psychological ambiguities.”

In a key scene, laden with sexual innuendo, Horton engages in a brilliant exchange with a waiter played by Eric Blore.  Their patter is not only flirtatious, but serves as a sly reference to the kinds of coded speech gays and lesbians employed (and to some degree, still employ) to determine the orientation of a potential partner.  Of course, given Horton’s penchant for impenetrable dimness, the delight of watching the conversation comes in watching him struggle to decipher, perhaps along with some of the less hip audience members, what it is they are really talking about.

 

Though he holds over 180 acting credits, the prime of his career was in the early days of the talkies.  Because of his demeanor, his refined vaudevillian approach, and his willingness to perform in relatively risqué pictures, particularly as a “sissy” type, he was perfectly suited to the fresh, energetic screwball comedies of the 1930s, especially of the pre-Code era.  Lonely Wives, Trouble in Paradise, Design for Living, The Gay Divorcee, all remain among his finest performances, and all deal with sexuality in a casual frankness that wouldn’t be possible again until the 1960s.  As Russo points out, “The inspired lunacy of the professional sissies disappeared in the Forties….  Sissy characters did not disappear, but the delightful never-never land inhabited by… Horton and so many others disappeared like the movies they embellished.”  When the films in which he thrived stopped being made, the best of his work was behind him.

Horton still went on to make many films after the 1930s, popping up in such revered classics as Here Comes Mr. Jordan and Arsenic and Old Lace.  He also made appearances in a bunch of musicals of the 1940s, including Ziegfeld Girl and Busby Berkeley’s The Gang’s All Here.  While his performances remained solid and entertaining, and approached with the kind of professionalism a great performer carries, he would never match the spark of his ‘30s films.  Perhaps that owes as much to age as it does to the quality and style of his later films.

In any case, no matter the film around him, Edward Everett Horton consistently imbued his films with the most important quality a character actor can bring: his mere presence made every movie better.

DARE DANIEL – The Back-Up Plan

imagesThe Back-Up Plan (2010; Dir.: Alan Poul)

GRADE: F

By Daniel Barnes

The “and credit” is hallowed ground in the opening credits of any film, an honorable position of respect not to be bestowed lightly. Naturally, the film’s stars are always listed first in a movie’s credits, followed by the supporting actors and featured players, but it is those final acting credits – the “and credits” – that provide the last punch of pre-movie hype. Typically, the “and credit” is used to showcase the presence of venerated stars in small roles (“and Sean Connery as Professor Henry Jones”), or to spotlight a breakout performer (“and starring Robin Wright as The Princess Bride”), or even to assure franchise fans that they are still on familiar ground (“and Brad Dourif as the voice of Chucky”).

imagesTherefore, the “and credits” say a lot not only about a film’s star power, but about its self-conception regarding which of its elements might actually appeal to the public. So what does it say about Alan Poul’s utterly disgusting and dehumanizing romantic comedy The Back-Up Plan that the “and credits” are bestowed upon comedian Robert Klein and 1970s sitcom star Linda Lavin? It probably says that absolutely nothing in this miserable movie appeals to audiences, which is not a surprising revelation when you consider that the first spit-take joke comes less than three minutes into the story.

Jennifer Lopez and Michael Vartan Alex O’Loughlin, who have an obnoxious lack of chemistry together, headline The Back-Up Plan as star-crossed lovers Zoe and Stan.  When the film opens, Zoe has given up the search for “Mr. Right”, and has elected to start a family alone by getting artificially inseminated.  As she leaves the gynecologist’s office, Zoe gets into a cab at the same time as O’Loughlin’s smarmy Stan, which leads to one of the least cute “meet cutes” in cinema history.

But how did this “meet cute” even happen? We see the cab pull over across a couple of lanes to pick up Zoe, who enters the back seat through the passenger side. At the exact same time, Stan enters the back seat through the driver side, but it is unclear how he even got to the door in the first place. Was Stan hailing a cab from the middle of the street?  How he could not have seen Zoe, as he claims?  How could she not have seen him?  Is he a wizard or just a shape-shifter?  These are the sort of mental Moebius strips that usually afflict emotionally disturbed prisoners in solitary confinement, which is actually an apt metaphor for the experience of being forced to watch The Back-Up Plan.

imagesOf course, the taxi pulls away as Zoe and Stan argue over who should take the car, since cab drivers are notorious for hating cash fares. It is quite possible that the driver felt as I did, and simply could not stand to be around either one of them for another second. Zoe is a childish nitwit (at one point, she refers to Stan as “a stupid head”) with some incredibly low self-esteem, and Stan is a sleazy jerk accessorized into a hipster dreamboat. He’s a goat farmer who lives in New York, and although he is a complete stranger, he follows Zoe home and later accosts her at work, behavior that would seem terrifying if Stephen Trask’s twinkly score didn’t insist otherwise.

Although it approaches the audience with the “we’ve-all-been-there” wink of a For Better or For Worse comic strip, all of the concepts of “normal human behavior” in The Back-Up Plan are poorly calibrated. On their first date, Stan refers to his ex-girlfriend as “whore-ish,” which Zoe seems to find endearing. Zoe goes to visit a support group for single mothers the day after getting inseminated for the first time, and no one bats an eye. When Stan later feels “stressed out” by Zoe’s pregnancy, he stays up all night cooking hundreds of pancakes, which is something that a paranoid schizophrenic might do. Even the laws of science are debatable in the world of The Back-Up Plan – during one of the film’s many excruciating slapstick moments, a knocked-over candle causes a pizza to spontaneously burst into a flaming inferno.

Then there is the pet store that Zoe owns and never operates. I am completely fascinated by this pet store, and could go on for another two to three thousand words just on the insanity of her business plan. It is a cozy little mom-and-pop pet store in New York City with several full-time employees and no customers. Her business acumen is so bad that when Cesar “The Dog Whisperer” Milian makes an in-store appearance to promote his book, he draws maybe ten to twelve people, and has to ask Zoe to leave when she refuses to stop talking over him. Despite all of this, Zoe lives quite lavishly, which would seem to indicate that the pet store is just the front for an international drug laundering operation.  If only the studio had made that movie instead this one, I probably would have been spared the moment where Anthony Anderson admits to having sex with a pregnancy pillow.

And there is more, so much more – Anderson plays a Bagger Vance-esque “Magical Negro” of fatherhood, and he mentors O’Loughlin in the ways of child-rearing and annoying improv.  Stan calls another pregnant woman “Orca”  at one point, which Zoe, now well into her third trimester, regards with the blank submission of an abuse victim. More than anything, this movie hates women: the day after learning she is pregnant, Zoe is already devouring hot stew straight from the pot with her fists. She attends a support group called “Single Mothers and Proud,” and the women in it are predictably portrayed as man-hating loons. The single mothers are outraged when they discover Zoe has found love (because it’s a group for single mothers, duh!), but they forgive her in time for Zoe and Stan to attend one of the group member’s New Age-y births, a sequence whose only point is that not having a man makes women crazy.

Stan initially decides to pursue his relationship with Zoe and help raise her child, but after a series of idiotic misunderstandings, she calls it off.   However, when she learns that her grandmother (played by “and Linda Lavin”) has finally decided to marry her own long-time fiancée, that changes everything for some stupid reason. Suddenly, Zoe is frantic to reunite with Stan, and although the timeline of Zoe’s pregnancy is completely confusing due to post-test screening re-edits, they reconcile just in time for her to go into labor. After a brief flash-forward, we see that Zoe has given birth to twin babies, while Stan has opened up a little goat cheese shop right next door to Zoe’s pet store.  The heartwarming message: as the family gets bigger, the international drug laundering operation has to expand in kind.

There are a lot of unappealing aspects to The Back-Up Plan, but least appealing of all are the stars.  Lopez has squandered her natural charisma, as well as the promise she displayed in early roles in movies like Out of Sight and Blood and Wine, by churning out one unchallenging pile of crap after another. O’Laughlin is best known for his role in the recent Hawaii Five-O reboot, and while I was unfamiliar with him before The Back-Up Plan, he is not likeable at all here.  When you consider that the only qualifications for his role were making stupid faces and looking good shirtless, you wonder why the producers didn’t just cast Dan Cortese instead.  At the very least, he would have made for a better “and credit” than Robert Klein and Linda Lavin.

In Theaters (SF) – “Teenage”

indexTeenage (2013; Dir.: Matt Wolf)

GRADE: C-

By Daniel Barnes

*Opening today at the Landmark Opera Plaza in San Francisco, and the Landmark Shattuck in Berkeley.

Written by director Matt Wolf and John Savage, and based on a non-fiction book of the same name by Savage, the frustrating documentary Teenage forces a fascinating subject into an unworkable format. The film examines the creation of the teenager in the early 20th century through several different cultures (mostly German, British, and white American), showing how this “second stage of life” between childhood and adulthood didn’t really exist before the advent of child labor laws in the early 1900s.

index2Wolf traces this multi-country social evolution through the use of archival clips, flat re-creation footage, and a fairly insipid use of first-person narrators. The narrators, who include Ben Whishaw and Jena Malone, are supposed to represent the free-floating soul of teenage yearning and rebellion over the course of half a century, nameless nobodies who act and think as one sociocultural mass. However, this tactic just makes the movie feel impersonal and anecdotal, and leaves the level of insight shockingly low. “I loved having fun with my friends,” says one random nobody.

Interspersed into the film are a few more developed side stories that spotlight noted teenage rebels of their time, such as British tabloid magnet Brenda Dean Paul, or the Nazi-era “Swing Kid” Tommie Scheel. This is where Wolf incorporates his amateur-ish re-creation footage, intercut irony-free alongside the archival material which comprises the bulk of the picture. It is far from the only offensive narrative device in Teenage – for example, I have a highly personal pet peeve against documentaries that try to “spruce” up pre-sound film clips with sound effects and background voices, and that’s pretty much the entire movie here.

index3For all its fetishization of youth, Teenage evinces a Boomer-ish tendency to paint pop history in broad, condescending strokes. “Adults weren’t ready to integrate, but jitterbugs were,” says another random nobody. Rather than being revelatory, the film leans pretty heavily on racial and cultural stereotypes, and draws a lot of dubious and underdeveloped conclusions.

Just like every 1960s hippie burned their draft card at Woodstock, every 1920s teen in Wolf and Savage’s vision was a Charleston-kicking flapper, every Depression-era teen was a wild boy of the road rescued by New Deal labor projects, and so on. It says a lot about the film’s shallowness that its most challenging and developed portions form an argument in favor of the Hitler Youth as a wellspring of teenage rebellion that eventually turned to sand.

In Theaters – “Next Goal Wins”

NGW_Main_620_342_s_c1Next Goal Wins (2014; Dir.: Mike Brett, Steve Jamison)

Grade: C

By Mike Dub

*Opening today at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco.

How many more of these movies do we need?  A ragtag sports team, renowned as the worst in the league, comes together to achieve some moral victory through (fill in the blank: dedication, perseverance, teamwork, faith, etc.).  The new documentary, Next Goal Wins, from directors Mike Brett and Steve Jamison, is another in the line of well-meaning and inoffensive tributes to a scrappy young group of folks who refused to give up, made no less clichéd by its documentary status.

The film follows the American Samoa soccer team, consistently the worst team in FIFA, as they work toward a World Cup qualifying tournament.  The team is best known as having been on the losing side of the worst defeat in the history of international soccer, losing to Australia ten years ago by a score of 31-0.  They have not won a single game in seventeen years.  As they prepare for a World Cup qualifying event, it seems that just scoring a goal would be a triumph for this team.

As they prepare to fight for respect in a league dominated by better teams from larger, wealthier countries, Next Goal Wins finds itself in a difficult narrative situation.  Everyone on the team seems to be genuinely nice, and they all play for the love of the game, with respect and love for each other – in a surprising and inspiring turn, a transgendered player is not only accepted by her teammates, but is regarded as the heart of the team.

The problem is that kind of facile camaraderie can be grating, if not outright boring.  I’m well aware that were the team to be rife with personality clashes and fiery arguments, I would likely be complaining of reality show contrivances, but such is the difficulty of trying to make this kind of film.  The teammates are so cordial and likable with each other, the eventual appearance of the gruff, cantankerous new head coach is a godsend, if only for the much-needed release of hearing someone shout the word, “Fuck!”

A005_C014_1109OJ_001_1346675173270_06b5d934c00From the moment he enters the screen, former Dutch soccer coach Thomas Rongen becomes the star of the film.  Effortlessly captivating, he is the real-life embodiment of the old, grizzled, foul-mouthed leader of the team.  Rongen is a strange combination of the self-grandiosity of Werner Herzog and the crude inspiration of Jim Harbaugh (“I would cut off my penis to play in a world qualifying event!”).

Once Rongen becomes the centerpiece of the film, the pace picks up, and there is enough yelling and moaning to keep us interested for a while.  Soon enough, the movie gets bogged down again in the predictable series of training montages, complete with funk music and slow motion.  This all leads up to the big series of three games that will decide whether the team can advance to the next qualifying round, a Big Game triptych.

To its credit, the movie does not end where it could have.  There is a point where many movies (including Moneyball, for instance) hit the note they are looking for and just stop.  If nothing else, Next Goal Wins has the integrity to follow the team through its completion of the tournament.  Of course, that also adds on an extra ten minutes to a film that already feels twice as long as it should be.

On the surface, Next Goal Wins is a tribute to the spirit of these young soccer players and their coach.  But in the end, as we see the American Samoa team triumphantly climb above last place in the FIFA rankings, we understand that this is no different than almost every other sports movie ever made.  As long as you’re better than someone, you have succeeded.  And when the national soccer team of Bhutan finally climbs out of their newly minted last place ranking, I’m sure I’ll say the same thing about that documentary as well.

Daniel Barnes @ the SNR – 4/24 issue

index#barnesyardbumps

*Under the Skin was pushed back another couple of weeks, so I squeezed out this review of Disneynature’s Bears (pictured left) which makes better use of adorable baby animals than any other movie since whatever the last Disney movie was.

#barnesyardharrumphs

index2*Unintentional irony/hack writing alert: the borderline poetic phallus worship in the so-so Dom Hemingway gave me an opening to make yet another “balls” reference, right after complaining about the testicular worship in the Kevin Costner pile of garbage Draft Day.

#barnesyarddumps

*A Haunted House 2 (pictured right) was quite poor.