Tuesday, March 8, 2011

All That Jazz

Tonight I decided to give this blog a makeover...now it looks just a little bit more like a real blog and a little bit less like a word document I opened up to play pretend.

I also learned how to put pictures onto the blog by googling how to put pictures onto the blog...who knew it was that simple?

Anybody know what movie that picture is from?? If you guessed I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1933), then you would be absolutely correct. But don't be fooled by the fuzzy black and white framing of the film into thinking that it's a boring, dialogue-heavy snoozer like most other movies from 80 years ago...because this one is anything but.

I fully expected to be bored into a state of semi-consciousness when I popped this ancient picture in last night...but even though I planned on daydreaming my way through it just so I could cross another title off my list, I soon found myself completely sucked in to what turned out to be a surprisingly fresh drama- one that kept me pinned to the edge of my seat from start to finish.

If you're not familiar with the film: it follows a wrongfully accused veteran of the Great War to the brutal chain gangs of the south, where he briefly suffers before boldly busting out one day during a day shift of labor. A couple of hair-raising close calls ensue before he settles in at what appears to be a respectable boarding house...until he starts shacking up with the land lady. Big mistake. The chick turns out to be a stage 5 clinger (Wedding Crashers reference, anyone??) and blackmails him into a miserable marriage...I'm actually not going to spoil the rest of it because this is one that you should go see for yourself, but I will say that it has a pretty epic ending that I liked even though it wasn't a happy one...and I don't usually like unhappy endings.

Chain Gang plays out like a more intense (and altogether better, for that matter) "Cool Hand Luke" with an endearing 1920's spin (who doesn't love to hearken back to the times when hamburgers only cost 15 cents??). Its gritty shots resemble today's abstract filming style more than that of the time from which it came, giving it that edgy feel that we have come to love and expect from our crime dramas. And to top it all off, Paul Muni is a babe. Seriously.

Anyway, that was last night. Tonight I conquered Broadcast News (1987), which was a complete 180 in tone and pace. This one is driven more by witty dialogue and character explorations than by an exciting plot, but that in itself doesn't stop the movie from being enjoyable. It's got the ethical dilemmas, sexual tensions, professional struggles- all that jazz that makes up a mature comedy in which we can find a deeper, hidden meaning.

I got a real kick out of recognizing familiar faces, since a few I wasn't expecting floated across the screen in this one. Jack Nicholson shows up as the usual cocky hard-ass that he plays all too well; Joan Cusack bumbles across the film in big 80's hair and spastic movements; her brother, John Cusack, also makes a cameo; and I seriously could have sworn Phillip Seymour Hoffman played a tape operator in the very beginning of the movie, but he isn't billed...

I wouldn't have realized that our outwardly harsh (yet inwardly insecure) heroine was Holly Hunter if her voice wasn't so distinct...she's really changed these past twenty years, hasn't she (remember that awful TV show they tried to shove down our throats, "Saving Grace"? Yeah, that was her...)? Back in this day, she gave a beautifully layered performance of a driven career woman who secretly craves love. On the other hand, I just wasn't buying William Hurt's rendition of a "sexy", "enigmatic" news anchor with good intentions but a less-than-perfect IQ score. Maybe that's because when I look at him, all I see is the old Amish dad from "The Village"...or maybe he was miscast? I don't really know. All I do know is that, while he is clearly a very talented actor, he isn't exactly a glove-fit for this part. Perhaps he seems this way because his co-leads Hunter and Albert Brooks are cast in their parts with deadly accuracy. And while I have a tough time taking Brooks seriously after watching a much older, plumper version of the guy play a goofy foot doctor in "The In-Laws" at least twenty times (it's one of the most worn-out DVDs in my collection...funny every time), I can't deny that his subtly nuanced performance verges on stealing the screen. His repressed, intellectually under-worked, winsome victim of unrequited love completes a character trio that works together like a harmony...perfectly balanced.

I felt so adult liking this comedy, because that's just what this film is...an adult comedy. It has a lot more to say than just what it says, especially concerning contemporary American journalism and workaholics the world over. The bits about honest news in jeopardy have particular relevance today, I feel, as our media descends into a state of moral atrophy. I'd have to say this is a pretty good little movie.

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