Setter’s ‘Spectives: A Paean to Luise Rainer

Setter Drawing for Blog 082613Today, Tuesday, December 30, 2014, the great actress Luise Rainer reportedly died at the advanced age of 104.

She was a terrific thespian, one of the important Jewish performers in Hollywood, and a standout for roles such as O-Lan in The Good Earth, a classic of the cinema. In that film, she played opposite Paul Muni, who distinguished himself as well. Surprisingly, she isn’t as well-remembered as other celluloid stars, and I’m not sure why. Her body of work is excellent, her performances consistent. This is someone who should be on the tongues of anyone interested in the movies and the history of motion pictures. She was a good one.

I wonder if the lack of immediate recognition her name elicits in some circles is because she wasn’t a traditional Hollywood beauty. She was certainly striking, no doubt about that, but the real glamour was in her acting, not her features. I hope that leads to her name being recalled with fondness in the future.

I will do that, for sure.

Skip’s Quips: Nothing Funny About ‘Penguins of Madagascar’

Blog Sketch 082813I didn’t find the original Madagascar amusing. It was broad, forced, in love with its own smugness.

Now we have a spinoff: Penguins of Madagascar. To that, I say: “Humph.”

Those not-so-adorable penguins. Full of comic mischief. And little to no humor.

I realize this kind of thing isn’t geared to grown-ups with elevated tastes and sensibilities, but why must Hollywood insist on spouting out sequels to movies that weren’t very good to begin with? It’s a rhetorical question; I know it’s to make money. But the industry could at least try to put forward a strong project … not one that’s easy to dismiss.  And I suspect Penguins will be the latter.

Some things you don’t have to see to know they’re of low quality. This film is one of them. And as I’ve already suffered through Madagascar, I have no doubt that the avian addition to its dreary family will be just as bad.

I’m gonna miss its debut. On purpose. My prediction is: I won’t be missing much.

Setter’s ‘Spectives: Lamenting the Career Path of Johnny Depp

Setter Drawing for Blog 082613Once in a blue moon, I wonder why certain actors have made professional decisions that have taken them away from one career route and toward another.

Take Johnny Depp. About 20 years ago, he starred in the intriguing, Jim Jarmusch-directed independent film Dead Man. Now, however, he stars in big-budget spectaculars such as the forthcoming Into the Woods, as well as Tim Burton-helmed duds such as Alice in Wonderland.

Was Dead Man an anomaly? Is Depp really just a Hollywood actor who doesn’t take cinematic risks anymore?

This is a talented performer we’re talking about here, but I’m concerned that celluloid experimentation is no longer of interest to him – that he’s riding on the coattails of his eccentric, tiresome performance in Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl and, as such, doesn’t feel the need to try something new and inventive. I lament that.

Hopefully, there will be more challenging roles in his future. Although in seeing that he’s reprising his role as the Mad Hatter in Alice in Wonderland: Through the Looking Glass, I am not convinced that’s the path he’s traveling down.

Sad.

If Hollywood changed history …

Skip’s Quips: Cinema and OCD

Blog Sketch 082813Sometimes it seems there isn’t a disease, illness or affliction Hollywood doesn’t like—except for OCD.

It’s a checkered history. Obsessive-compulsive traits have often been played for laughs (see the twitching doctor in Bringing Up Baby or hysterical accountant Leo Bloom in The Producers), mined as a source of mild amusement (as in the introduction of Jimmy Two Times, who says everything twice, in Goodfellas), or regarded as aberrant and obnoxious (e.g., the insurance executive who neatly arranges his desk in The Incredibles). The reason: repeated action–the basis of comedy. Being obsessive is, well, ridiculous.

In reality, however, OCD is a serious disorder that can pervade a person’s life and daily activities. Television, to a certain extent, has lifted some of the stigmas attached to the condition, with shows such as Monk going far to address the frequently trauma-oriented roots of it, but even that series pointed to the supposed humor in obsessive-compulsive behaviors. (And don’t get me started on The Odd Couple.) The fact is, we’re used to seeing caricatures of people with mental illness onscreen, and it’s hard to accept a truly serious, credible portrayal of someone combating the psychological barriers of OCD without a guffaw or two.

Humanity’s come a long way since the days of visiting asylums to chortle at the inmates. Movies such as David and Lisa and I Never Promised You a Rose Garden have helped change perceptions of mental illness, but they’re countered by flicks such as 50 First Dates or Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo, in which issues such as short-term memory loss and Tourette syndrome are used as funny plot devices. Repeated, involuntary motion provides more laughs than compassion … until you experience it first-hand.

I know that experience intimately—as I have OCD. So does Setter. Because the author of this blog has it, too, and struggles every day to engage in normal, everyday activities that most people take for granted.

So in light of that, I’d like to ask Hollywood for understanding. Films can still be hilarious without making fun of OCD. Let’s find another movie mine for source material … unless it can be treated with the same empathy and respect informing the best aspects of our society.

That’s no tall order. It’s just the best one.

Setter’s ‘Spectives: Wrath of the Mythology Fan

Setter Drawing for Blog 082613I have one thing to say to those bent on making films inspired by ancient mythology.

Stop the cinematic madness.

From Troy to Wrath of the Titans, most of the legend-minded flicks of late have been absolutely horrid, with lousy scripts, all-too-CGI-ish special effects and plodding direction. But their worst offense is the transformation of these exciting, insightful tales of yore into tedious, talky stories of bore. I’m sorry, but who gave anyone the right to say, “Hey, I think my contemporary, magic-free interpretation of The Iliad is better than Homer’s”? Hm?

It sure felt a lot slower, despite the abbreviated (from the original source material) running time.

The fact is, myths remain topical because they’re intriguing enough to say something to us after all these years. They don’t need any tweaking to stay scary, witty or disturbing. They’re good as they are.

This goes, by the way, for any reimagining of mythology from any culture—including the lamentable Thor, whose silly, made-for-the-modern-age superhero and evil nemesis Loki resemble their legendary Norse counterparts as much as Hagar the Horrible resembles Snorri Sturluson. Sadly, we’re due for another installment of this blah-riffic series, which only means one thing: Hollywood loves to reimagine ancient mythology.

But we knew that, didn’t we? Stop the cinematic madness, I say.

Skip’s Quips: Mahlerpropisms and Other Music Miscues

Blog Sketch 082813Today—in response to his most recent post expressing concern that Hollywood would start using Mahler symphonies in its films—my colleague Setter was reminded by one of our many astute readers that director Luchino Visconti used the Adagietto from the composer’s Fifth Symphony in the movie Death in Venice. I also referred my colleague to Ken Russell’s little-known film about Mahler in an effort to outline the industry’s familiarity with his works.

Setter’s reaction was typically defensive: “Those aren’t Hollywood movies. I’m talking about domestic, commercial films using his music. Why are you all ganging up on me?”

This is why I try not to talk to him.

Skip’s Quips: A Skunk Cabbage By Any Other Name

Blog Sketch 082813Wherefore art certain schemes to market the Bard so silly?

Taketh Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, for instance. Or rather, William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet.

That’s William with a “W.” Shakespeare with an “S.”

And dopey with a “d.” C’mon, who else’s Romeo and Juliet would it be–Irving Berlin’s?

I’m not sure why such a prestige picture needs the added prestige of the famous author’s name in lights above it. It’s different,  methinks for a film like Fellini Satyricon, where the source material’s not as well-known, and the director’s the selling point. But R&J?

I don’t think anyone’s gonna come up to the theater and say, “Drat–I was hoping for Christopher Marlowe’s version.”

In reality, this is just a modern way to tout a vintage, though hallowed, brand. But I think there’s a double standard. You don’t see movies touting Homer’s The Odyssey. Or Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. Or Madonna’s Sex.

Thank goodness is what I’ve got to say.

It’s obvious the cachet of Shakespeare’s name lends itself well to movie titles … or so Hollywood may think. Yet his lilies don’t need the gilding. The Bard’s greatest works speak for themselves and lack the pretension artificially ascribed to them by application of marketing nomenclature. Frankly, if the studios want to reach a new audience with R&J every decade or so, they should concentrate on casting it better and giving it a less-flashy director. (It remains to be seen how Carlo Carlei’s Romeo & Juliet will fare, though I suspect it can’t be worse than Luhrmann’s iteration.)

My concern, then, isn’t whether a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. It’s whether today’s filmmakers think so.

I hope they do.

Setter’s ‘Spectives: Overused Plots, Unite!

Setter Drawing for Blog 082613I can’t pretend to know what goes on during the movie-development process in Hollywood.

I do, however, know that the results often have a manufactured quality, as if churned out from a machine fed specific information about character, theme and plot needs.

Some of these plots are recognizable from film to film. I’ve listed a number of them below as being, in my humble opinion, among the most overused. This isn’t a comprehensive list, nor is it objective … though I’d like to think it is. Anyway, here are my cinematic gripes for the day:

Single/Divorced Dad With a Heart (and Soul) Finally Finds True Love: They never tell you why he’s single, though, do they? Maybe he eats other people’s nostrils. Or likes Jerry Lewis films.

Zombies Run Amok After Some Medical Experiment Goes Awry: The least interesting monster in any monster movie often gets the star treatment–probably because you don’t have to write lines for it.

Man/Woman on the Run Hides Out in a Dance Studio; Comedy Ensues: And, unfortunately, singing. More often than not, the singing’s worse.

Sensitive, Movie-Buff Hit Man Retires to Home Town, Then Discovers He Never Really Left: What a long, strange trip this usually is, especially when references to Lash LaRue start popping up.

Ordinary Guy Finds Out He’s “The One” to Save the World; Stupidity Ensues: Also boring, slow-motion fistfights and pseudo-martial arts mayhem. Yuck.

Seminal Ancient Battle Gets “Reimagined” for the Screen with Posturing and CGI Blood: At this juncture, the squibs of yore seem more realistic. Add macho yelling and stir.

Multiple Stories About Folks Around the World Intertwine Tediously: Please, please stay with fewer characters. Once you spin a web surrounding too many people, the movie loses focus.

Dance Team Saves the Town Via Dreadful Flash-Mob Theatrics and Cheap Sentimentality: Possibly the least credible plot device of any film in this bunch. And I’m including the zombie one.

A Skip and Setter Q&A: The Ancient Art of Swearing

Skip and Setter QandA Sketch 092213At a recent imaginary panel that didn’t happen at any industry conference we know of, Skip and Setter locked horns on the topic of profanity and why it’s so prevalent in movies today. The following is an excerpt from their overlong, admittedly tiresome debate.

Skip: You’ve said in the past that you like seeing profanity in movies because it calls attention to the need to upgrade the English language. Are you deliberately ignoring the fact that many venerated writers–from Ben Jonson to e.e. cummings–have used vulgarity in their works? English doesn’t need upgrading!

Setter: You’re so misinformed. I’m talking about profanity when it’s used to replace inspired dialogue. As in every flick these days that tries to emulate Pulp Fiction. I’m not talking about profanity with a purpose.

Skip: Well, don’t you think all profanity has a purpose–as long as it’s in character?

Setter: No. Read my latest book.

Skip: I’m not reading your book, dude. I hate your writing.

Setter: Well, I outline my “Theory of Profanity” there. It basically states that it’s cooler to say a swear word in a movie than to get a “G” rating.

Skip: So you’re against overusing profanity.

Setter: Sure. Unless it concerns your reviews.

Skip: I love you, too. Now, why don’t you think the vulgarity-filled sports film has survived? Slap Shot, Major League? Seems like more folks want to do a film about profane, hipper-than-thou mobsters than they do locker-room sagas.

Setter: They’ll be back. I think people are afraid of seeing depictions of the way hallowed sports figures really talk. But they’re generally more credible than watching the story of a hired assassin who likes Schubert.

Skip: Sounds like a double standard. As long as it’s not believable, it’s OK to use profanity.

Setter: Maybe. Read my latest book.

Skip: No thanks. Anyway, profanity’s part of our lexicon. It’s been around for centuries.

Setter: Doesn’t mean we should use it. Look at the Hays Code era. Lots of great movies were made without profanity.

Skip: And lots of junk came out, too. Ever see Turnabout? Blecch.

Setter: For every one of those, there’s a Casablanca. See my point? You don’t need a swear word to make a good movie.

Skip: It might sell more tickets.

Setter: It might. Read my latest book.

Skip: To channel e.e. cummings: “I will not read your CENSORED book.”

Setter: Pompous CENSORED.