Police Officer: “Jesus Christ, what happened to you?”
[Samara Weaving, “Ready or Not” (2019)]
Well as we now approach the end of 2022, this month will be my annual Holiday Blog Post. It will also officially be four full years since my Blog came into existence. Since I have not yet had any mobs congregating in front of my home during this time period with torches, ropes, or pitchforks in hand demanding my scalp instead of an autograph, I assume that I have been doing something right during this time. Of course, it also might have meant that there are so few individuals reading my blog that one would have had more interest in reading the ingredients on a cereal box rather than my monthly pearls of Blog wisdom. Be that as it may, I still have much more to say about stuff pertaining to film, television, and subjects relating in some way to both. Therefore, Dear Readers, sit back, relax, and away we go!
A couple of years ago I had a Holiday Blog Post titled “Family Circus” where I discussed various television and cable shows involving family, not necessarily relating to the holidays but often synonymous with the holidays. This was because, during the holidays, it was usually thought that families got together with each other to celebrate the festivities, even if various family themed shows had nothing to do with the holidays at all. A number of these family shows were not necessarily wholesome or sweet, nor were they even shows where individuals were represented as a family by birth. At times these families could be classified as a group with similar interests or beliefs. However, when I did that Blog Post, I specifically limited my discussion to television or other cable series while excluding motion pictures entirely. However, now I am returning to the subject of “family” for this year’s Holiday Blog Post although now I will aim my discussion exclusively to just motion pictures.
Family comedies were a popular subject for motion pictures alternating between quirkiness and general dysfunctionality. A classic one made during the nineteen thirties was the screwball comedy, “My Man Godfrey” (1936). This story took place in New York City during the Great Depression where a pair of spoiled competing high society sisters (Cornelia and Irene) of a rich and prominent family head to a waterfront dump site where a bunch of the homeless now reside to find a “forgotten man” as part of their scavenger hunt party. There they find Godfrey (William Powell) who immediately rebuffs the aloof Cornelia, but accepts the same offer from the kinder, and zanier sister Irene (Carole Lombard) who wins the contest. Once there, Irene pushes her other equally wacky family members to hire Godfrey to be their new butler while secretly having a crush on him. As Godfrey assumes his role, he starts to affect everyone from the blustering put upon father (Eugene Pallette) to his befuddled wife, Angelica (Alice Brady) to the now vengeful Cornelia (Gail Patrick), and to even their maid and the wife’s protégé/gigolo Carlo (a scene stealing Mischa Auer). This was one of the funniest films ever made with everyone’s performances outstanding thanks to Gregory La Cava’s brilliant direction. La Cava was unusual in that he hated most studio executives so he worked as a freelance director for most of his career which unfortunately, limited his film opportunities. He was also eccentric and openly encouraged his actors to improvise their scenes. This was on full display in “Godfrey” which had no formal script, just pages of notes. It didn’t matter. The film was a huge hit and La Cava along with Powell, Lombard, Brady, and Auer were all nominated for Academy Awards that year, and years later it is still funny as Hell!
Fun Fact: Hollywood, never learning to leave well enough alone, had someone come up with the semi-bright idea in 1957 to have a new version of “My Man Godfrey” made with David Niven as Godfrey and June Allyson in the Lombard role. Other than the fact that Niven was a poor man’s Godfrey and Allyson was as convincing as Jim Parsons would have been if he played Tarzan, this version was worse than brushing your teeth with Clorox.
A more recent family related comedy drama was, “This Is Where I Leave You” (2014) starring Jason Bateman. He played Judd Altman who, when leaving his wife after catching her having an affair with his boss, returns to his home town for his father’s funeral, and to also face his dysfunctional family members. They consist of (1) sister Wendy (Tina Fey) unhappy with her workaholic husband who neglects her while still pining for ex-boyfriend Hoory (Timothy Olyphant) now brain damaged due to a prior accident caused by Wendy, (2) older successful brother Paul (Corey Stall) unable to conceive with his wife Annie (Kathryn Hahn) who was Judd’s ex-girlfriend, (3) youngest brother Phillip (Adam Driver) an immature feckless and unemployed playboy type with an older girlfriend, and (4) Judd’s mother Hilary (Jane Fonda) who wants all of her children together for the funeral, not because her husband wanted it, but because Hilary wanted to use the situation to announce some earth shattering news about herself. Despite the deliberate soap opera storyline based on the fine novel and screenplay adaption by Jonathan Tropper, Director Shawn Levy (“Free Guy”) mixes the various serious and comedy dynamics very well which makes all of the film’s characters, not caricatures, but fallibly human. Although “This is Where Leave You” was nowhere near as funny, nor as successful as “My Man Godfrey”, it was still a fine example of a quirky family that stumbles along while still supporting each other.
Famous Broadway plays involving family were also excellent sources for adaption into motion pictures like “The Little Foxes”, “Life with Father”, and “Long Day’s Journey into Night.” However, there was another one that I particularly want to mention. That one, which was very loosely based on an actual real-life family, was a little musical thing called “The Sound of Music.” This monster Broadway hit musical has had numerous productions and revivals made since its original Broadway debut in 1959. However, it was also adapted into an even bigger monster hit Oscar winning motion picture in 1965 while haunting our television screens ever since, especially during the holidays much like Chucky Heston’s “Ben-Hur” and “The Ten Commandments.” Directed by Robert Wise and starring Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer, the storyline (as if any of you have been living in a cave all of your life…) has Maria (Andrews), a young Austrian woman, who in 1938 becomes a governess to the seven children of a retired and widowed naval officer Georg von Trapp (Plummer) in their Austrian villa. Once there, she changes how the children are taught moving from their father’s strict military discipline into a more loving and kind way which has the children both learning to trust and respect her. This also softens von Trapp himself and ultimately Maria and von Trapp fall in love, marry, and escape Austria with their children just after the Third Reich’s annexation of Austria that same year. The end!
Now I’m sure that you all want to know what I actually think of “Music.” Well… supposedly, this picture was once picked by BBC executives to be broadcast after a nuclear strike, to improve the morale of any survivors. However, I believe that if this picture was shown after a nuclear strike, it just might have caused the remaining survivors to off themselves instead! Heck, it might have even encouraged an additional nuclear strike by someone just so no one would ever have to see it again. If you excluded all of the historical inaccuracies of the story and the big budget excesses of this picture, you were still stuck with all of the smiling faces of Andrews, the children, the numerous supporting characters, and maybe even the surrounding flora and fauna, all looking like victims from the Joker’s laughing gas. Christopher Plummer absolutely hated this picture. He called it the most difficult role of his entire career due to his overall dislike of sentiment and working with children, and he was constantly drunk throughout its production. Originally, both Andrews and Plummer didn’t even want to do their roles because the original Broadway production was so overtly sugary, schmaltzy, and fake. Wise, who was also the producer, managed to convince both of them to take on their roles while also agreeing, as Andrews said to “Get the sugar out of this show!” Unfortunately, Wise, who also originally turned down the chance to direct this film not once, but three times because he felt the same way as they did, tried to make some changes but to no avail. Upon its completion, “Music” was still too stupidly cardboard and still too ridiculously sweet. However, that’s OK, Dear Reader! If you can put up with seeing Chucky Heston do his thing in “The Ten Commandments,” you can certainly put up with seeing “The Sound of Music” (unless you are diabetic)!
Another Fun Fact: When they were filming that spectacular panoramic opening of “The Sound of Music” (from a helicopter) where Andrews is in the Swiss countryside belting out, “The hills are alive with the sound of…” they had to re-shoot that scene over a dozen times due to the helicopter’s downdraft knocking Mary, I mean Maria, I mean Julie on her ass before they finally got it right. Maybe she should have just sung that those “Hills are alive with the sound of the F*&KING Helicopter” instead!
Families involved in criminality or other illegalities were also ripe for portrayals in film. Maybe the most famous crime family picture of them all was for the Oscar winning picture, “The Godfather” (1972) directed by Francis Ford Coppola. The storyline for this one (also for those who were still living in that cave…) involved the New York crime family of Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando), his four children, their various underlings, and their opposing crime families all competing for power during the period of 1945 to 1955. Based on the pulp bestseller novel by Mario Puzo, this picture was originally not expected to be a success. Why? Well, for a number of reasons.
First, Paramount Pictures did a prior Mafia picture called “The Brotherhood” which bombed at the box office so they were hesitant about doing another gangster picture. Of course, maybe it bombed because Kirk Douglas (with a shoe polish hair dye job) tried to play an Italian mob boss, but that’s another story. Hence, Paramount, already in deep financial trouble due to other box office failures, originally wanted to just make a cheap present day gangster picture. Second, Marlon Brando was box office poison at that time due to his prior box office failures going back over a decade, his disruptive behavior on previous film productions, and maybe, just for being an all-around Mega Asshole in real life. Third, Coppola originally didn’t want to direct the picture because he felt that the book was sleazy and sensationalistic, but finally relented because he was in debt due to his own past failures as a director. Fourth, Paramount had troubles with Coppola due to his indecisiveness in finding the right actors for the roles, and his overall difficulty in dealing with such a large production which cost the studio money, enough so that he was in constant risk of being fired. Five, Paramount had issues with his using cinematographer Gordon Willis, whose visual style underlit scenes so they were always dark to emphasize the shadiness of the family’s criminal activities. And six, the Mafia was continually trying to either interfere or not have the picture be made at all. Despite all of this turmoil the movie was a colossal Oscar winning hit motion picture (Yes Dear Reader, this one I definitely liked)! To ensure that a “family” aspect of the picture was developed among his actors, Coppola even held improvisational rehearsal sessions consisting of having the main cast members sit down in character for a family meal. By doing this it helped the actors to organically establish each character’s role within the Corleone crime family. His focus on “family,” even if they were monstrous, was one of the major reasons why “The Godfather” is now regarded as an all-time cinema classic!
Two other films that I want to praise pertaining to families behaving badly are the films “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” (2007) and “Knives Out” (2019). “Dead” was the last picture that the great film director Sydney Lumet made before he died, but unlike so many other directors whose careers waned with age, for this one, did he ever go out with a Bang (and not one from Vito Corleone either)! This family saga was basically, a tragic betrayal by the two grown sons of their parents (Rosemary Harris and Albert Finney). First, you had older son Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a drug using and embezzling finance executive whose crimes are about to be revealed during an audit. Next, you had younger and weaker son Hank (Ethan Hawke), a divorced father desperately needing money to pay child support and his children’s tuition while also having an affair with Andy’s wife, Gina (Marisa Tomei). Their plan is to have someone rob their parents’ jewelry store, fence the jewelry, and for Andy to use his share to escape to Brazil where he cannot be extradited. Unfortunately, their plans end in disaster for everyone involved.
Much like his fellow contemporaries, motion picture directors’ William Wyler and Elia Kazan, Lumet was one of the greatest directors at being able to elicit great performances from his actors while emphasizing that his pictures should always have strong screenplays to enable his performers to shine. This skill made him well known as being “an actor’s director.” At a young age, he became an acclaimed off Broadway and economically astute television director in the nineteen fifties before moving onto directing a long list of great motion pictures (“12 Angry Men,” “Dog Day Afternoon,” “Network,” etc.). These skills were on full display in his final picture. All of his cast give incredible performances including those in secondary roles played by such fine character actors as Michael Shannon, Brian F. O’Byrne, and Amy Ryan for example. He was still innovatively astute too. Because he hated shooting on film, for this one picture, he used high-definition video or HD which produced a substantially higher image resolution than previous technologies and which made his visual scenes more striking. Not bad for someone who made this film when he was 82 years old. As a tragic family drama with Shakespearian overtones, “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” is a motion picture masterpiece!
“Knives Out” is a different kind of family drama (or animal) altogether. Here, the animals are the various members of the Thrombey family headed by Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) a rich mystery novelist who, as the film begins is found dead (probably from being forced to watch “The Sound of Music” again). At first the police suspect suicide, but famed private detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), soon starts to investigate Harlan’s death. He quickly discovers that all of the family members had a strained relationship with Harlan, and much to gain from his death. However, upon the reading of Harlan’s will, to everyone’s shock, his nurse Marta (Ana de Armas) is the sole beneficiary. Now everyone is conspiring against her, especially once it is determined that Harlan was murdered, and that evidence points to Marta as the culprit. Underrated director Rian Johnson (“Looper”) crafted a fun Agatha Christie knock off mystery, and his original screenplay has enough humor in it to keep the picture from being taken too seriously. He is also helped by an over-the-top performance by Daniel Craig as Blanc. Johnson wanted the character of Blanc to be an American version of Christie’s “Poirot” and Craig, speaking with an exaggerated southern accent, is outrageous enough to make even Foghorn Leghorn blush. Is he believable? Hell no, but he sure looks like he’s having fun. So does all of the rest of the cast which includes such veterans as Don Johnson, Michael Shannon, Jamie Lee Curtis, Toni Collette, and Chris Evans among others. However, if we want to talk about someone actually delivering a believable performance, then Ana de Armas wins the prize hands down. She believably portrays someone slowly gaining the confidence to stand up to all of them while maintaining her own humanity like an oasis in the middle of a desert of venality. She sparkles, just like “Knives Out” does!
The last film that I want to highlight for this month’s Blog Post involving a rich family behaving badly is another kind of comedy film altogether. However, this one is the comedy horror picture, “Ready or Not” (2019). Here, the dysfunctional family is the uber-wealthy Le Domas family who made their fortune by manufacturing various popular board games. Now Alex (Mark O’Brien), the son of the family patriarch, is getting married to Grace (Samara Weaving) at their colossal family estate, and where she will also meet all of Alex’s family. Grace, formerly a foster child and raised from humble beginnings, is nervous, but truly loves Alex, and really wants to be part of a loving family. After the official ceremony, Alex tells Grace that with every new addition to the family, per tradition, she has to join the family to play a game at midnight. She agrees and while there his father Tony (Henry Czerny) tells Grace that this tradition was begun by his great grandfather who made a deal with a mysterious benefactor named Mr. Le Bail. Le Bail also provided a special box where one was to pull a card from which showed the specific game that the cardholder was supposed to play. However, when Grace draws a card from the box and it says, “Hide and Seek,” everyone is silent! Tony tells Grace that she now has to stay hidden till dawn in order to win so she immediately goes off to hide in the huge mansion. Unfortunately, what she doesn’t know until later is that, because she got that particular card, the entire family along with their support staff are now going to have to hunt her for real and kill her before dawn. If they do not, they believe that they will all die instead! Talk about “Wedding Night Interruptus!”
Yep, this one is an unabashed B Movie with a Quentin Tarantino vibe, only gorier. It is also a laugh out loud send up of the rich and entitled along with a little bit of Satanic flair thrown in as well. Amongst all of these family members trying to kill poor Grace and too often, mistakenly offing someone else instead, you need a score card to keep track of all of the mayhem. I guess the rich can be every bit as klutzy as anyone else when trying to kill someone. Anyhoo, throughout this increasingly zany murder fest, the one standout performance of the bunch is the one given by Samara Weaving as Grace. Weaving, who I’ve previous praised before, is terrific playing an awkward person who probably had to grow up on her own, but is now forced, by circumstance, to go into survival mode once again to deal with this multitude of maniacally murderous morons (Try saying that one five times in a row). From dumping her high heels for tennis shoes, to tearing off the bottom of her wedding gown to move around more easily, and to using anything that she can find as a weapon to defend herself, she is more than up to the task. This movie was even a critical and popular hit too upon its release. Will wonders never cease! Although it may never be classified as high art, “Hide and Seek” is definitely, “highly entertaining!”
Well, Dear Reader, this ends another year of me finding more various strange stuff to comment on for, hopefully, your further amusement. I hope that you have enjoyed it, and I hope that as the upcoming holidays approach you have a happy, healthy, prosperous, and, most importantly, safe New Year!