Sunday, January 23, 2011

To Be or Not To Be | 1942 | Comedy = Tragedy + Time

To Be or Not To Be is a Nazi comedy, think more The Producers, and less Life is Beautiful. It's 1939 and a Polish theater company becomes involved with a Nazi spy and must resort to extreme measures - including posing as Adolf Hitler in a sea of SS - in order to survive. Even though it's clearly mocking the Nazi's, and is a kind of victory lap for allied filmmakers, it's not surprising that this movie was controversial when it was released. Now, with distance, it's just plain funny (the film, not the Third Reich).

What kind of funny?  In response to a choir of "Heil Hitler!" an actor posing as Hitler says "Heil myself."

It may not sound like much, but it works.

Meanwhile, a non-actor Nazi officer attempts to seduce the beautiful actress Maria Tura (Carole Lombard) with increasing desperation, "I'll give you a bracelet, I confiscated a beautiful one today. I'll give you extra butter rations. I'll give you three eggs a week."

Again, it may not look like much but it totally works.

Another thing that seems to have changed with time is our acceptance of flawed marriages. There are a number of screwball comedies that belong to the sub-genre comedy of remarriage.  These films feature a recently divorced couple, a couple on the brink of divorce, or a situation when one or both are involved in an affair. It's likely the fact that the affairs don't actually happen and are just assumed based on circumstance, but it's notable how cool screwball characters deal with it. Not James Dean cool, but James Bond cool. Controlled emotions, no drama and a bit of acidic humor. It all seems so grown-up and mature.

Contemporary movies seem to go straight to the gazing out a rain drenched window, and the wrong-doer needs to do a whole lot of penance to regain the favor of the audience.

The couples in classic screwball comedies didn't have the romantic notion of finding one person who "completes" you. Without the pressure of destiny these couples are able to maintain their good humor. Essentially, if there isn't just one person for you, then when you lose whoever you're with, well, you've just lost one, not The One...  which means there's another one out there. Easy.  Shrug it off and move on.

"To Be or Not To Be" includes many elements of screwball, but cast just slightly off kilter and to strong, dark effect:  The fancy hotel is being used by the Nazi's as a headquarters, the actress has a bias cut satin dress but it's a stage costume, and though cocktails and caviar are offered it is only to convert a civilian into a spy.

Plus, in screwball there's always people for the leads to bounce off, slow witted people who are mindlessly doing what is expected (the cranky newspaper editor, the wealthy housewife running a high profile home, the workaholic banker demanding results regardless of circumstances).  Here, it's the Nazi's who are blinded by regimented behaviors.  It's not a parallel comparison.  The Nazi's aren't a stand-in for the idle rich, but they are definitely the clueless, dopey ruling class.

"To Be or Not To Be" is screwball, but it isn't light and breezy.  It is Nazi's in Warsaw, after all.  And, the heroes do kill a man.  Still, somehow, Lubitsch uses shaving the beard off a day old corpse as the set-up for laughs...  And it works.

Released: 1942
Director/Producer: Ernst Lubitsch
Leads: Carole Lombard, Jack Benny, Robert Stack
Writers (screenplay): Edwin Justus Mayer
Writers (story): Melchior Lengyel

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Pimps Don't Cry | The Other Guys (2010)

Movie characters who do bad things pretty much always get a comeuppance of some sort, see "Psycho" and Janet Leigh's cold, dead, embezzling body.  This makes the ending of "The Other Guys" notable.  One bad guy gets it, but there's another not-quite-bad-but-definitely-not-good-guy who bypasses judgement and receives the kind of fairy tale style grace normally reserved for heroes.

The bad guy is Mr. Ershon (Steve Coogan).  It's unclear whether he's bad at his job or purposely engaging in Ponzi-style shenanigans, but what is clear is that he's lost large amounts of money for a number of investors including Nigerians, Chechens, and Lendl Global.

Detectives Allen Gamble (Will Ferrell) and Terry Hoitz (Mark Wahlberg) arrest Mr. Ershon for the decidedly dull charge of improper permitting of construction scaffolding, but that arrest leads them to discover that he intends to fraud a brand new investor and use those funds to repay Lendl Global.

They stop Mr. Ershon and he is sent to jail.  But the CEO of Lendl Global receives a government bailout and does not have to present a profound loss to her shareholders.  Whether the CEO was in cahoots with Mr. Ershon and believed they'd pull in a high return quickly and painlessly, or she was duped into making a poor investment, doesn't matter because she is responsible for the decisions (and the repercussions good or bad).  The CEO made a mistake but never has to suffer the consequences.

Her clean "getaway" is not because of poor, lazy or sloppy filmmaking.  It's not like they ran out of time and clipped that thread where it stopped.  It appears to have been done on purpose, because the end credits are animated with graphics illustrating how...
  • the amount of money spent on TARP would have bought a trip around the world for every tax payer
  • the corporate tax rate for Goldman Sachs was 34% around 2007 and fell to less than 1% after the bailouts
  • the maximum retirement benefit of the NYPD is $48,026 and the average CEO retirement is over $80 million
  • the CEO to Average Employee income ratio was 8:1 in the 1920s and is now 319:1
  • the average 401k value in 1991 was $102,014, in 2007 it was $69,200, and in 2009 it was $64,200
The Lendl Global bailout and the end credits reinforce the primary theme of the film, the idea that the real heroes in life are the "other guys" - the nondescript, unglamorous guys who show up each day and do their jobs.

In the end, Hoitz and Gamble are back on the job.  The one successful case earned them the respect of their department, enabled Hoitz to marry his estranged girlfriend, and the two are now driving around in an environmentally friendly muscle car, but the next day is a workday and so they're back at it.  Mr. Ershon is in jail, they did their job.  The CEO of Lendl is out of their jurisdiction.  

It's a bit Frank Capra, but with a twist.  The film values honest workaday folk, but Hoitz and Gamble don't achieve attention of the Senate (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington) or widespread media attention (Meet John Doe, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town).  Their impact isn't wide ranging or splashy, yet this doesn't make them less admirable or less heroic.  

Monday, January 10, 2011

Curse you, BBC. And your cute fluffy Trojan pony too!

This promo for BBC Earth's "Life is New" seems lightweight, but isn't.  I saw this clip on an NPR blog connected to an article about compassion (which touched briefly on the Giffords shooting).

At first this was few minutes of visual cotton candy, baby animals frolicking.

And then I saw the baby polar bear clinging to the ankle of an adult, and it reminded me of looking up at my Dad making breakfast while pretending he didn't have a pre-school aged me sitting on his foot.

And then I missed my Dad for a moment.

And then I thought of how that polar bear will be dead in a few years, if not already.

And then I thought of how it could possibly be one of the last polar bears ever because of global warming.

And then I saw the baby seals, and wondered if people are still clubbing them.  I imagine that must still be going on if the dolphins in that cove are still getting slaughtered, and elephants are still getting killed for their tusks.

And then, finally, I saw the monkey.  It's so obviously sentient.  Yet if it were rumored that its kidney juice cured male impotence, that specific monkey would be gutted and it's species pushed to extinction.

I went into watching the video the way I watch any cutie-pie animal posted to YouTube (just looking to giggle and "awww" for a few moments), but the thing turned into a prompt leading me to ponder life, death, kindness, brutality, adult childhoods vs. animal youths, the relative values of life on Earth.  Curse you BBC and your fluffy Trojan pony!