Saturday, September 15, 2012

Meet Me in St. Louis

Year 4, Day 259 - 9/15/12 - Movie #1,249

WORLD TOUR Day 13 - St. Louis, Missouri

BEFORE: Cedar Rapids is pretty close to Chicago, but I'm going to head down South for a few days, and I'll get to Chicago in a bit.  Tonight I'm in St. Louis, which is called "The Gateway City", so you've got to figure that as the gateway, the city's also got pretty broad shoulders as well.  You can tell my original link from California to the Midwest was going to be from "A Star Is Born" to this film, but then the two Natalie Wood films got added to the list.  The World Tour is actually going to feature quite a few pairs, like the two James Dean films, the two Judy Garland films, etc.  That's partially because I try to fit two films with something in common on to each DVD, so one film usually suggests a companion piece.

Speaking of two films, I'm going to get back on track today by watching a Saturday afternoon matinee of sorts, and then after midnight I'll get to Sunday's film, and I'll be all caught up again.

Linking from "Cedar Rapids" is quite tricky - but Kurtwood Smith was also in "Star Trek VI" with William Shatner, who was also in "Judgment at Nuremberg" with Judy Garland (last seen in "A Star Is Born").  That seems a bit odd.

THE PLOT:  In the year before the 1904 St Louis World's Fair, the four Smith daughters learn lessons of life and love, even as they prepare for a reluctant move to New York.

AFTER:  First off, a note to the programmers at Turner Classic Movies.  I must have been having trouble with my cable when this ran, because I recorded it from TCM's HD Digital channel - the film is not just letterboxed, but also pillarboxed - meaning there are black bars on the top and bottom of the screen, and on both sides as well!  The film was nearly reduced to postage-stamp size in the middle of my TV!  I understand wanting to preserve the original film ratio, and by no means am I advocating pan-and-scan or cutting off part of the image, but logically and geometrically, no matter what the original film ratio was, the image should be made to fill my screen, either in height or width, if not both.  If it doesn't fill the screen in one direction, then zoom the hell in!  Make. It. Fit.

Now, this film presents me with something of a puzzle - it's about a family with four daughters and one son in 1903, the year before the World's Fair, where such foods as hot dogs and the ice cream cone were first offered.  What a terrible time people must have had before that, trying to enjoy ice cream while holding it in their hands, and creating a terrible mess.  And to think those other Expos and World's Fairs just introduced useless items like the telephone and the electric light...

This family seems well off at first, since the father is a lawyer, but they also are forced to make their own ketchup!  Why didn't they just buy bottles of it at the store?  I suppose the father is pretty frugal, since he refuses to accept long-distance phone calls (he does know you don't have to pay for incoming calls, right?) and the whole family can only afford to sing one song - the title track, "Meet Me In St. Louis, Louis". 

The family also is able to perform elaborate musical numbers and host dance parties in their parlor, but their only other source of entertainment seems to be riding the trolley out to the swamplands, where the World's Fair will someday be built.  Presumably once they get there, they stand around the swamp and think about how great it will be once someone invents hot dogs and ice cream cones. 

The year in the life of the Smith family also includes a look at what Halloween used to be like, back in the day.  Before it was the commercial candy-and-costume affair it is now, it apparently used to resemble a junior "Hell Night" for the kiddies, who would go door-to-door and throw flour in people's faces, and then grab loose furniture from their porches to create a bonfire.  Because that's not dangerous at all.  Then I suppose they still wanted candy after all that destruction.  Years later, kids switched to a policy where they didn't pull pranks if they didn't get candy, but that didn't really work, though it was pretty quiet.  Then they tried suggesting they wouldn't pull pranks if they DID get candy, and the holiday became a rousing success.  Oh, sure, it's simple in retrospect, but it took some time to get it right.

But really this is also about young(ish) love, since Judy Garland's character is enamored with the boy next door, but also seems to have a fondness for beating him up.  Fortunately, he's into that sort of thing, and he asks if she can come by and beat him up two or three times a week.  I admit that my mind went straight into the gutter when the two Smith girls talked about going to the dance and "handling" 10 men each.  One said she could only handle 7 or 8 men - turns out she was talking about dancing!

Their father gets offered a better job, and decides to uproot the family - doesn't he even want to stick around for the World's Fair?  Nope, he says they're moving to New York, where people (apparently) live only in tenements, not big houses - plus they don't have any hot dogs or ice cream cones there, so how good could that be?  Plus then they'll have to endure the Stock Market crash, and wait like 35 years for a World's Fair.

The film is famous for two things - one is "The Trolley Song", where Judy Garland sings about the clang, clang of the trolley and the zing, zing of her heartstrings.  (Note: if your heart is really going "Zing, Zing", maybe cut back on the pep pills)  In the old days, if someone was chasing after the trolley, you couldn't offer him a hand until you'd performed an elaborate, 3-verse song about what the implications are if he doesn't make it on board. 

The other is the introduction of the song "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas", which has become a holiday favorite - but here its performance is bittersweet, with the family anticipating their move to New York in January.  They're not sure what their life will be like in the coming year, and maybe no one really feels like celebrating, what with packing and saying goodbye to their friends.  That's the reasoning behind the lines "Through the years we all will be together, if the fates allow" and "Let your heart be light - Next year, all our troubles will be out of sight." The original line was "It may be your last - Next year we may all be living in the past", but that was deemed too depressing.

In 1957, Frank Sinatra asked the composer, Hugh Martin, to revise the line "Until then, we'll have to muddle through somehow" to be more upbeat, and it then became "Hang a shining star upon the highest bough" - changing the song's focus to a celebration of current happiness, instead of hoping for a brighter future next year.  Man, I loves me some Christmas Carol trivia...

Also starring Margaret O'Brien, Mary Astor, Lucille Bremer, Leon Ames, Tom Drake, with a cameo from June Lockhart. 

DISTANCE TRAVELED TODAY:  242 miles / 391 km  (Cedar Rapids, IA to St. Louis, MO)

DISTANCE TRAVELED SO FAR:   2,450 miles / 3,951 km

RATING:  4 out of 10 dance cards

Cedar Rapids

Year 4, Day 258 - 9/14/12 - Movie #1,248

WORLD TOUR Day 12 - Cedar Rapids, Iowa

BEFORE: Headed northeast out of Kansas, virtually of course, to the great state of Iowa, and the fine (??) city of Cedar Rapids, known as "The City of Five Seasons", or occasionally "The City of Broad Shoulders" (by me).  Linking from "Splendor in the Grass", Warren Beatty was also in "Bulworth" with Don Cheadle, who was also in "Boogie Nights" with John C. Reilly.

THE PLOT: Tim Lippe has no idea what he's in for when he's sent to Cedar Rapids, Iowa to represent his company at an annual insurance convention, where he soon finds himself under the "guidance" of three convention veterans.

AFTER: I knew there'd be some thematic whiplash involved when I laid out my films geographically, but I can still at least try to draw a connection between last night's film and this one.  Hmm, "Splendor in the Grass" had a character named Deanie, and this one has a character named Deanzie.  Too esoteric?  All right, I'll go with the sexual naivete of the lead characters in both films.  Deanie got some bad parenting advice and her blossoming sexuality drove her a little nuts, and in "Cedar Rapids", Tim is forced to question everything in his life, including his relationship, after he gets a glimpse of life at a convention. 

While this wasn't a giant laugh-inducing film (in fact, much of the humor comes from people telling bad jokes, proving how unfunny people can be when they're trying to be funny), it's more of a slice-of-life comedy, or a comedy about how much of a hole someone can dig for themselves, as Tim's situation gets worse and worse throughout the film, until it looks like he can never recover from his experiences, never again be the man he was at the start of the film.  It's right in the sweet spot for Ed Helms, combining aspects of the characters he's played in "The Office" and "The Hangover".

But this is also a film about someone trying to remaining true to himself, and not letting the actions of others, or his own temporary vices, change the person he wants to be.  Illegitium non carborundum, as I sometimes like to say - I know very little Latin, but I like knowing the phrase that means "Don't let the bastards wear you down."  Because there are bastards in every industry, also burnouts and jaded people, and people to steer clear of as well.  There are also temptations at conventions, even the ones populated by nerds, as I've seen first hand. 

Speaking of work, I've fallen a little behind schedule, since I simply HAD to be at work today on time, for once, so I didn't start my Friday movie shortly after midnight - instead I went to bed early and saved this one for Friday evening.  No worries, I'll watch a movie tomorrow in the afternoon and start another one late night Saturday, which will count as Sunday's film.

DISTANCE TRAVELED TODAY:  394 miles / 635 km  (Independence, KS to Cedar Rapids, IA)

DISTANCE TRAVELED SO FAR:   2,208 miles / 3,560 km

Also starring Ed Helms (last seen in "Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian"), Sigourney Weaver (last seen in "Paul"), Anne Heche (last seen in "The Other Guys"), Kurtwood Smith (last seen in "Dead Poets Society"), Stephen Root (last seen in "Black Rain"), Isiah Whitlock Jr., with cameos from Rob Corddry (last seen in "Hot Tub Time Machine"), Thomas Lennon (last seen in "Bad Teacher"), Mike O'Malley (last seen in "Meet Dave").

RATING:  6 out of 10 cream sherry shots

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Splendor in the Grass

Year 4, Day 257 - 9/13/12 - Movie #1,247

WORLD TOUR Day 11 - Southeast Kansas

BEFORE:  Natalie Wood carries over from "Inside Daisy Clover", but the setting moves due east, nearly halfway across the U.S.  This is the biggest jump in mileage so far in the tour - if you look out the left window of the plane, you can see Brokeback Mountain, which almost made the tour (but then I would have lost the Natalie Wood connection...) 

THE PLOT:  A fragile Kansas girl's unrequited and forbidden love for a handsome young man from the town's most powerful family drives her to heartbreak and madness.

AFTER:  I'm fascinated by how the English language has changed over time - and yet at the same time, I often hate to hear it corrupted.  The origins of words and phrases also interest me - take the word "lounge".  My personal theory is that it came from the name of the chaise lounge, which is what we Americans call a deck chair, but is really a corruption of the French name "chaise longue", which just means "long chair".  People spent time relaxing, or lounging, on these chairs, and eventually the rooms that contained them came to be called lounges.  But if you ask 5 linguists where the word "lounge" comes from, you might get 5 different answers.

Same thing with "butt naked", which makes me cringe, since I know the real phrase used to be "buck naked", as naked as a deer, I suppose - but you hear the corrupted phrase just as often these days, so when I correct someone, they're liable to tell me that I'm the one saying it wrong.  Someone in tonight's film said the correct phrase "You've got another think coming," as in "If you think I'm going to spend another year in Kansas, you've got another think coming."  Bear in mind, this film was released in 1961, well before that damn rock band Judas Priest released their 1982 song titled "You've Got Another THING Coming".  Which might be more grammatically correct, but THINK came first.  Yes, I realize it should have probably been "another THOUGHT coming", and then it never would have been misheard by someone, but that's what passed for wordplay back in the 1920's or whenever.

Anyway, tonight's film features a set of high-school sweethearts who had the misfortune to live in Kansas in the 1920's, when pre-marital sex was frowned upon - the worst thing that could happen to a high-school girl would be if she went "too far" and ended up "in the family way" and had to have an "operation".  So your average high-school girl might find herself in a bit of a dilemma - she's been told that she needs to get married someday, but how's she supposed to land herself a fella if she plays hard to get?

According to this film, there were two types of girls back then, the type boys fooled around with, and the type they settled down with.  (Though after settling down, let's face it, there was probably still some fooling around with the other type of girl...)  This was an unenlightened age, the feminist movement was in its infancy, and it seems no one realized that a woman is a complex creature, capable of many emotions and facets.  Nope, it was black and white - a girl was either a virgin or a slut, Madonna or a whore.  Of course, we know now a woman can be both nice and naughty...sorry, sexually empowered.

Really, what we're talking about here is bad parenting.  Or at least ignorant parenting - Bud's father tells him to "blow off some steam" with some random slutty girl so he doesn't corrupt the girl he eventually wants to marry.  Huh?  What if the tables were turned, would it be OK for HER to have a fling and still somehow save herself for marriage?  Of course not, word would spread and she'd probably have her reputation ruined.  But sure, it was acceptable for a boy to sleep around.

Deenie's mother admits that she probably made some mistakes in raising her - but that she did the best she could, in the same way that her mother raised her.  Ah, there's the problem.  People who think their parents were perfect and assume they did everything the right way end up thinking there's only one way to raise THEIR kids, so nothing improves, and each generation becomes as screwed up as the last one.  This is why my mother (and I) do things like saving used plastic bags for re-use, just because my grandparents lived through the Great Depression.

At least I'm aware that my parents weren't perfect, and made mistakes raising their kids - so if I had a kid, I'd try not to make the same mistakes.  But I'd probably make original ones.

NITPICK POINT: I get the five-year plan, I really do.  You want to go to college, then think about starting a family.  But why not clue your girlfriend in on the plan?  Instead you send out mixed signals, and it's enough to drive a girl crazy, I do declare!

Unlike the last two films, at least this one's ABOUT something, other then chasing fame or getting lost in a bottle.  Powerful attraction, unrequited affection, heartbreak in the uptight Heartland of America.  It's downright Shakespearean by comparison, almost.   But Natalie Wood seems like the female James Dean - so overcome with emotion that she often literally crumples into a ball.  Teen girls are moody sometimes, I suppose.  And parents just don't understand.  Or listen.

And Natalie was 23 when this film was released, with her playing a 17-year old character (perhaps age 20 at the end of the film).  It's worth noting that 4 years LATER, she played a 15-year old in "Inside Daisy Clover".  And that was SO believable...

DISTANCE TRAVELED TODAY:  1,281 miles / 2,063 km  (Hollywood, CA to Independence, Kansas - an exact town is not mentioned, so I picked one that would also be ironically symbolic)

DISTANCE TRAVELED SO FAR:   1,814 miles / 2,925 km

Also starring Warren Beatty (last seen in "Bulworth back in jeez, 2009), Pat Hingle (last seen in "The Quick and the Dead"),  Audrey Christie, Barbara Loden, with cameos from Sandy Dennis (last seen in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf"), Phyllis Diller.

RATING: 5 out of 10 glasses of milk

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Inside Daisy Clover

Year 4, Day 256 - 9/12/12 - Movie #1,246

WORLD TOUR Day 10 - Hollywood, CA

BEFORE: F. Scott Fitzgerald said, "Show me a hero, and I'll write you a tragedy."  I'm going to replace the word "hero" with "actor" and I've got my theme for the week.  This is my last night in Hollywood, and this is another of those movies about people who make movies, and how messed up they are.

Linking from "A Star Is Born", James Mason was in "Evil Under the Sun" with Roddy McDowall (last heard in "A Bug's Life"), who's got a bit part in this film.

THE PLOT: Daisy Clover is a 15 year old tomboy who dreams of being a Hollywood star. After auditioning for producer Raymond Swan she becomes the toast of Hollywood. Daisy must then come to terms with her newfound fame and the 1930's Hollywood star treatment.

AFTER: Man, I wasn't feeling this one at all.  Maybe I'm just getting jaded or burnt out on movies, but I barely understood what was going on - if the intent was to show what a crazy, hard-to-understand place Hollywood is, mission accomplished.  But there were parts that just made me feel like the director had never made a movie before, or didn't understand that characters need to have motivations for doing things.  The whole movie, it felt like the WHY of everything was never even considered - so I always felt like I stepped out for popcorn and missed the 5 minutes of the movie that explained everything.

There's a lot to take on faith here - you have to believe that the 1930's Hollywood studio system was so desperate for young starlets that all one had to do was cut a demo record in a Boardwalk tourist-trap sound studio, send it to a producer, and mere weeks later, that singer would be starring in a Hollywood musical and feeding the hype machine.  Right, because the producers weren't swamped with photos and resumes and demo tapes from the other people who also wanted to make it big.

Before long, "America's Valentine" Daisy Clover is a headliner - because she doesn't have to get any formal training for her vocals or her acting abilities, she's a natural, dontcha know - and she's so instantly well-known that the interviewers on the red carpet are asking for her.  But she was a defiant tomboy before, so maybe she's not cut out for the interview circuit and the press junkets, she blows them off so she can go boating with an actor, who's gorgeous and also very jaded.  And he likes to drink (damn, I feel like I've seen this story before - like last night).

Cue Hollywood marriage, cue quickie divorce, cue the nervous breakdown.  And all along I'm thinking, if you're not happy making movies and being famous, then JUST STOP.  If you're not doing what you want to be doing, then DON'T DO IT.  Daisy eventually decides to put her head in the gas oven and end it all, and I thought, "Finally, a smart career move."  And after watching two hours of this nonsensical film, I wanted to put MY head in the oven too. 

The one thing that seemed to work here for me was the musical number "The Circus Is a Wacky World" (written by Andre Previn and sung by not-Natalie Wood) because it so blatantly poked at the Hollywood dream factory, calling it a circus where nothing is what it appears to be.  The clown's grins are painted on, the midget is really a 5-year-old boy, the bearded lady is really a man.  The camera adds 10 pounds like a funhouse mirror does, and the ringmaster directs your attention where he wants, so you won't see what's really going on behind the scenes. I could go on and on with this analogy...

But I've had enough of Hollywood phonies, so I'm striking out into America's heartland tomorrow.  Surely I can find some genuine people there, right?

Starring Natalie Wood (last seen in "Rebel Without a Cause"), Robert Redford (last seen in "The Electric Horseman"), Christopher Plummer (last seen in "The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus"), Ruth Gordon (last seen in "Abe Lincoln in Illinois"), 

RATING: 2 out of 10 fish burgers 

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

A Star Is Born (1954)

Year 4, Day 255 - 9/11/12 - Movie #1,245

WORLD TOUR Day 9 - Hollywood, CA

BEFORE: I watched the 1970's re-remake of this film back in January of 2010, now it's time for the 1st remake, which ran this past February as part of TCM's "31 Days of Oscar" line-up, on Hollywood day.  Thanks for the assist, TCM!  And thanks to the Oracle of Bacon for pointing out that Veronica Lake from "Sullivan's Travels" was also in a film called "Young As You Feel" with Jack Carson, who plays a movie studio executive in tonight's film.

THE PLOT: A movie star helps a young singer/actress find fame, even as age and alcoholism send his own career into a downward spiral.

AFTER:  It's a classic story, but also a recurring one - so tonight I'm judging on style points.  It's easy to nail the preliminaries on something like this (one person's stardom rises as the other's falls) so it's up to the judge to look at all the little flourishes that make the difference.

Unfortunately, that's where I start to run into problems with this film.  There's a 10-minute sequence where the story is told via still photos - shortly after the two leads get together for the second time and start seeing each other socially.  2nd problem - the IMDB listed the running time as 2 hours and 34 minutes, but the version I had was just shy of three hours long!  No movie should be that long, unless it's "Titanic" or "Lord of the Rings", or attempts to tell the entire story of the Civil War.

Ah, both problems are explained by the fact that TCM ran the "restored" version. The original 1954 release was shortened by Warner Bros. so that theaters could show it more times each day, and thus make more money.  (How ironic that the film depicts how cold and unfeeling movie studio executives can be...).  The removed footage was apparently not handled properly and is now lost to the ages, forcing the restored version to rely on production stills to bridge the resulting story gaps.  Someone meant well, but in my opinion, if you don't have the footage, you don't have the footage, and maybe you should re-think this whole restoring thing since you don't...have...the...footage.  Two wrongs don't make a right.  As a result we've now got this monument to stupidity that's full of jump-cuts, and it looks like someone didn't even know that movies are supposed to, you know, MOVE.

There's more self-reflexiveness (or meta-ness) tonight as singer/dancer Judy Garland plays Esther (later Vicki Lester) who's an aspiring singer/dancer, and we get to see her attend the premiere screening of a film in which she plays, you guessed it, a singer/dancer explaining her career via a musical number.  Wow, that's some "Inception"-level reality nesting, when you think about it.  Imagine if we could go FOUR levels deep, with Judy Garland starring as Esther/Vicki, and in the film universe Esther/Vicki appears in a version of "A Star Is Born", playing another singer/dancer who stars in a film as a singer/dancer.  Whoa...take the blue pill, Judy.  Wait, bad idea.

To me, this was a sneaky way of getting Garland's trademark musical numbers into a film.  And they tend to run LONG - "Born in a Trunk" alone is 15 full minutes.  Since her character was always singing to playback (people think the technology was created for music videos in the 1980's, but come on, it's been around) the synch never had to be perfect.  Any mistakes were easily covered up by this simple reasoning - OF COURSE she's lip-syncing, that's what they did in Hollywood musicals.  And she's playing the star of a Hollywood musical, so cut her some slack.

But even if I cut this restored version a load of slack, I'm still left with a ton of logistical problems.  Like Judy Garland playing an aspiring young actress, but at the age of 32, when she started to resemble that scary aunt who liked to pinch your cheeks. Or a scene where she removes an extreme amount of studio make-up to reveal nearly just as much (albeit different) make-up underneath.

What am I supposed to make of the musical number "Someone At Last", in which Garland's character performs an elaborate around-the-world musical number for her husband in their living room, and VERBALLY DESCRIBES the way that the fantastical sets will look in the studio, with the 30 dancers rising from the floor, and the African jungle and the Great Wall of China.  Too bad WE the audience didn't get to see all that stuff.  You can take this as a heartwarming sequence where a wife relates the events of her workday on the studio lot, or you can imagine a Warner Bros. executive saying, "You know what would be cheaper than building 20 more sets?  She performs the entire number in her living room, using the lampshade and tea-tray as handy props!" Cheap bastards.

Also, I was troubled by the Academy Awards scene, where the aging drunk husband crashes Vicki's acceptance speech.  I'd be silly to think this couldn't possibly happen, since people drink fairly liberally at the Golden Globes, we had that "Soy Bomb" guy at the Grammys a few years back, plus Kanye West interrupted Taylor Swift at the VMA's (not to mention the streaker at the Oscars back in the 1970's) - but what about the reaction to such an occurence?  There was NO security at the Oscars back in the 1950's?  The orchestra wouldn't have played music to drown this guy out?  Nothing?  Guys, a little help?

My mother tried her best to instill in me a love for the movie-musical form, making me watch the movie-clip series "That's Entertainment".  I think she thought I'd then follow up by watching all the classic MGM musicals that were featured - yeah, mom, just me and my college boyfriend snuggling up together with some popcorn and watching movies, is that what you wanted?  But soon "Star Wars" came into my life and my interests went in another direction.  Credit to Carrie Fisher (along with Lynda Carter, Loni Anderson, Erin Gray and Charlie's Angels) for keeping me interested in women at a time when my experience with them was only theoretical.  But as with many classic musicals, I'm out of my comfort zone tonight.

No mileage gained here, since I'm still exploring Hollywood (and Malibu in this one, but that distance is probably negligible).  I did use a mapping program to estimate the theoretical length of the World Tour, and came up with a figure just under 46,000 miles.  So having traveled only 500 or so virtual miles in the last week, I've still got a LONG way to go.

Also starring James Mason (last seen in "The Verdict"), Charles Bickford (last seen in "Days of Wine and Roses"), Tommy Noonan.

RATING: 3 out of 10 weeks in rehab

Monday, September 10, 2012

Sullivan's Travels

Year 4, Day 254 - 9/10/12 - Movie #1,244

WORLD TOUR Day 8 - Hollywood, CA

BEFORE: Even after almost four years of steadily watching movies, I still have a couple cinematic sins to atone for.  In college I wrote a paper on Preston Sturges, and cited this movie extensively, along with "Miracle at Morgan's Creek", and "Christmas in July", which were shown in class.  Problem was, I never got around to watching this one, and extrapolated my conclusions about Sturges' body of work from reviews and plot summaries.  I guess I did all right with the paper, and in my defense I was probably pretty busy with classes and part-time jobs, but on the other hand, there should be no substitute for directly watching a film itself.

No direct links available tonight, but Bette Midler from "Down and Out in Beverly Hills" was also in "Jinxed!" with Jack Elam, who was also in the 1955 film "Wichita" with Joel McCrea.

THE PLOT:  A director of escapist films goes on the road as a hobo to learn about Life...which gives him a rude awakening.

AFTER:  I didn't realize this connection when I drew up the schedule, but with Nick Nolte playing a homeless man in yesterday's film, and Joel McCrea masquerading as a tramp in this one, maybe I sort of subconsciously knew what I was doing.  The great economic divide between the ultra-rich and the dirt poor is also on display here - and the same curiosity that Richard Dreyfuss' character had when he spent the night sleeping on the beach is seen tonight in John Sullivan, the Hollywood director who wants to ride the rails and experience the plight of the common man.

Problem is, his handlers want him to travel the country with a "land yacht" (what they used to call RV's or winnebagos, I guess) that's stocked with a chef, a photographer, and a publicist, all of which makes it difficult for him to get lost and rough it.  It's not what he had in mind, so he ditches the entourage.  2nd problem, despite his best efforts to see the countryside, he keeps accidentally winding up back in Hollywood.  In addition, his efforts to reward those who extend kindness to him result in him forming a bond with a young actress, who's about to give up on her dreams of Hollywood success.  If only someone she knew turned out to be a famous Hollywood director in disguise...

After a few false starts, they finally get the hang of going incognito and jumping aboard freight trains, sleeping in shelters and eating in soup kitchens.  It's a weird way to bond with a new girlfriend, but to each his own.  The ambitious director figures that this is the best way to experience the human condition, so that it can be properly portrayed in his movies.  (ASIDE: My father didn't really understand my desire to get into filmmaking either, but since he knows a lot of people who work with the needy in the Boston archdiocese, when I was a teenager he would occasionally suggest that I rent a camera and make documentaries about the fine charitable work that some people do.  Sorry, Dad, but I never had the desire to make documentaries, and my career got pulled in a different direction.) 

Once the grand experiment is over, Sullivan goes out one last time to hand out money to the poor, as a final reward to the downtrodden, for opening his eyes to their troubles.  Big mistake, as a set of contrivances ends up with him beaten, arrested, and assumed to be dead.  A couple blows to the head and some lingering cold remedies render him unable to properly identify himself, and he ends up in the worst situation of all.  He then gets to really experience misery, with no way to call for help or write a letter to his Hollywood staff.

But even when his situation is most dire, it's the simple entertainment of a cartoon that can still make him laugh, along with the other inmates.  It turns out that making comedy (or animation, I guess) is one of the most noble pursuits of all, since it can bring happiness to the downtrodden.  It's true, no matter where you go - hospitals, prisons, even asylums - there are TVs everywhere.  Who doesn't love TV?  (And by extension, movies that run on TV)  I've certainly kept myself entertained this summer with "Storage Wars", "America's Got Talent", "Hell's Kitchen", "Wipeout" and just about every competition show on the Food Network.

However, after reading the Fall TV Previews, I've concluded that this upcoming season's new network shows collectively form the worst pile of crap I've ever seen.  Not one new show holds any interest for me, so my pledge to not add any shows to my rotation will be easier than ever to uphold.  Oh, I'll still watch my annual standbys, but I'm now down to just 2 CSI shows, 1 Law & Order, Survivor, The Amazing Race, Shark Tank, the Sunday Fox animation line-up and the NBC Thursday comedies.  That's it.  (Sure, there's a second tier of cable shows I watch, like Dirty Jobs, Bizarre Foods, Mythbusters, Top Shot and Hoarding: Buried Alive - but the Big 4 networks are slowly losing me)

There's something very self-reflexive or "meta" about a film with a character who wants to make a film about social issues, but ends up determining that people would rather see a comedy to forget their troubles, when the film ITSELF does a fine job of portraying the plight of the Depression-era poor.  However, it also piles on the slapstick comedy, perhaps because its own director already knew what the director in the film finds out.  And the fictional film-within-the-film (which Sullivan ultimately decides not to make) is called "O Brother, Where Art Thou?", which eventually got used 60 years later as the title of a REAL film by the Coen Brothers, whose plot made a number of references back to "Sullivan's Travels".  Got that?

NITPICK POINT: Sullivan's team of lawyers can get him out of a Missouri chain gang, presumably on some kind of manufactured technicality, or by paying the damages and injury expenses.  But they can't get him out of his loveless marriage of convenience?  OK, I guess that's where you're going to draw THAT line for the purposes of the story.

Even though Sullivan travels to Las Vegas and as far as Kansas City, for my purposes I'm treating this as a film set in old Hollywood, and I'm discounting any additional mileage, since my tour will be in Kansas anyway in a few days.  Two more days in Hollywood, though, before I head east.

DISTANCE TRAVELED TODAY:  4 miles / 7 km  (Beverly Hills to Hollywood)

DISTANCE TRAVELED SO FAR:   533 miles / 862 km

Also starring Veronica Lake, William Demarest (last seen in "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington").

RATING: 6 out of 10 sinkers (donuts)

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Down and Out in Beverly Hills

Year 4, Day 253 - 9/9/12 - Movie #1,243

WORLD TOUR Day 7 - Beverly Hills, CA

BEFORE: We were supposed to drive upstate yesterday and go to a Renaissance Faire, but the torrential rains in the morning forced us to change our plans.  Even if the rain stopped by midday, the whole place would probably have been one big mud pit.  Then Queens got hit with a couple of tornadoes and even more rain, so staying close to home and playing board games with friends turned out to be a much safer plan.  Now, back to films set in sunny California - Beverly Hills made a brief appearance in yesterday's film, so I feel justified in scheduling this one next.

Linking from "Crocodile Dundee in Los Angeles", character actor Jonathan Banks was also in "The Rose" with Bette Midler (last seen in "Fantasia 2000"), so that worked out quite well.

THE PLOT:  While a Beverly Hills couple, Barbara and Dave, are celebrating thanksgiving, a homeless man decides to end his life by drowning himself in their swimming pool. Dave rescues him and invites him to stay for a while. How does this stranger change the lifestyle of this family?

AFTER:  I listen to a lot of 80's music while working at an animation studio, and the other day one of the colorists asked me, "What was it like during the 80's?" with about the same tone that I might have asked my grandparents about life in the 1930's.  Great, that doesn't make me feel old at all.  I usually explain that we all did the Safety Dance while wearing our sunglasses at night, and the boys often wore more makeup than the girls.  (If you don't get my references, please ask your parents for help.)

This film is a look at a typical (?) wealthy Beverly Hills family in 1986.  The father is a neurotic workaholic who's over-medicated, the mother is a neurotic New-Ager who's undersexed, the college-age daughter is neurotic and won't eat, and the high-school age son is a neurotic filmmaker who's sexually confused.  Even the dog is seeing a therapist - thank god for stereotypes, or the film wouldn't have any material to work with.  Into their lives comes a street person who's dirty, smelly and hungry, but at least he's not neurotic.  He eventually becomes the most clear-headed person in the film, once he's invited to stay with the family and cleans himself up.

He also is charming to some degree, as evidenced by helping each member of the family loosen up in some way, giving verbal advice to the men and umm, taking a more hands-on approach with the women.  The situation in the house was already a love triangle, involving the husband, the wife and the maid, but his presence turns it into a quadrangle, and then it becomes a pentangle.

But in the process, a film that could have said something meaningful about the social dynamic of America, the great divide between the mega-rich and the dirt poor, man's unwillingness to help his fellow man except as a social experiment, instead devolves into a simple bedroom farce, with slapstick thrown in for good measure.  So the main message of the film got very muddled for me - is it "Help your fellow man" or "Don't help your fellow man, unless you want to jeopardize your family"?  What about "Listen to your kids" and "Don't yell at the dog"?

DISTANCE TRAVELED TODAY:  6 miles / 11 km  (Los Angeles to Beverly Hills)

DISTANCE TRAVELED SO FAR:   529 miles / 855 km

Also starring Richard Dreyfuss (last seen in "Red"), Nick Nolte (last seen in "Blue Chips"), Catherine Pena (last seen in "Impostor"), Tracy Nelson, Little Richard.

RATING:  5 out of 10 coat hangers