Tucci for the Money

Charlie Chaplin. Woody Allen. Albert Brooks. Jacques Tati. Sydney Pollack. Warren Beatty. Clint Eastwood. Mel Gibson. Recognize the pattern yet? How about actors who are also famous for directing—many times in films they themselves star in. They played iconic roles like the Tramp, Monsieur Hulot, Dick Tracy, Braveheart and many more. These are huge names that bear much weight whether they are exercising their skills behind the camera or in front of it, but for every big name that crosses the rift from actor to director (or vice versa) there is a sea of smaller names that have also dabbled on both sides. Danny DeVito is remembered more for his appearances in Taxi (TV), Batman Returns (1992), or It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia (TV) and most Americans probably don’t hear his name and instantly think of the director of Matilda (1996) and The War of the Roses (1989), but even Danny DeVito is still a fairly famous name. Raise your hands if you know and love Mr. Stanley Tucci.

I probably first saw Stanley Tucci in the family comedy about the lovably large St. Bernard, Beethoven (1992). Tucci played one of the sleazy, comic henchmen. Despite his seemingly small role in a quaint little dog movie, he and fellow henchman, (played by Oliver Platt) stole every scene they were in. Tucci is one of those great and talented character actors who you see in every movie, but whose name you always have trouble recalling. From flicks like Undercover Blues (1993), Road to Perdition (2002), The Devil Wears Prada (2006), Julie & Julia (2009), The Lovely Bones (2009), Easy A (2010) and many more, Stanley Tucci is an extremely enjoyable performer to watch. Which is one of the reasons I was so drawn to Big Night (1996) and The Impostors (1998), both of which he wrote, directed, and starred in.

Big Night was co-written by Joseph Tropiano and co-directed by Campbell Scott (Rodger Dodger, who also has a small role in the film). It is the intimate story of food, family, and all other things Italian (I admit my bias here). Primo (Tony Shalhoub, Monk) and Secondo (Tucci) are two brothers who have immigrated from Italy to find a new life in 1950s New Jersey. Secondo is chasing the American dream while Primo cooks tirelessly away in the kitchen of their Italian restaurant. A particularly humorous gimmick comes from Primo’s disdain for change and the simple American palate that cannot appreciate his authentic cuisine. Their restaurant is losing money and to make matters more degrading, their pandering competitors across the street have booming business. Secondo goes behind Primo’s back and makes a deal with Pascal (Ian Holm, Alien), the seedy owner of the other more popular restaurant. Pascal claims he can get jazz singer Louis Prima to dine at their restaurant. All they have to do is invest everything they have left and blow it all on one big night to save them from bankruptcy. The film follows all of the preparations for the big night, from inviting guests and ordering flowers to the meticulous creation of all of the wonderfully appetizing foods. Folks show up from all over as they patiently await the celebrity’s arrival and enjoy mouth-watering Italian dishes: the prized dish being the legendary timpano. They dine and dance the night away and the courses of food and entertainment just keeps on coming. Hearts will be broken, dreams will be crushed, backs will be stabbed, and serious lessons about food, family, and pride will be learned before it all comes to a cathartic conclusion.

Big Night is a quiet and modest film with much substance and subtlety. It creates many small human moments and maintains an endearing intimacy. Big Night knows that a great Italian dinner does not just involve food. It is a delicate sculpture, a calculated symphony of smells and sounds. We start with the appetizers and gradually build until we reach the main course…but it doesn’t end there. More courses of good food come out to ease us out of the dining experience. And then we breath deep. We talk. We laugh. We cry. We play games. We tell stories. We have drinks. Tucci’s film is a bittersweet one and it will be hard not to be enchanted by its good-intentioned charms. The cast includes Tucci, Minnie Driver (Good Will Hunting), Tony Shalhoub (Monk), Ian Holm (Alien), Isabella Rossellini (Blue Velvet), Allison Janney (Juno), Campbell Scott (Rodger Dodger), Marc Anthony, and Liev Schreiber (Sphere).

After the success of Big Night Tucci returned to the directing chair for a pleasant throwback to classic screwball comedies with The Impostors. Tucci plays Arthur, an out of work actor in Depression-era New York City. When Arthur and his roommate, Maurice (Oliver Platt), accidentally insult a hot-headed Shakespearean drunken hack (played by Alfred Molina) they find themselves fleeing from the police and wind up stowing away on a cruise ship inhabited by a cracked assortment of peculiar personalities. Like Big Night, The Impostors has assembled another great cast of wonderful character actors. In addition to Tucci, Platt (The Three Musketeers), and Molina (Chocolat); Tony Shalhoub (Galaxy Quest) is a Russian spy bent on blowing up the bourgeois pigs aboard the ship; Lili Taylor (The Addiction) is a soft-spoken stewardess in love with a guy who can barely speak English (Matt McGrath); Matt Malloy (In the Company of Men) is an abused actor; Campbell Scott (in one of his best roles this side of Rodger Dodger) is a deranged, fascistic German crewman; a shrewish gold-digging Dana Ivey (Home Alone 2) and her exceptionally morose and homely daughter played by Hope Davis (About Schmidt) are the destitute aristocrats; Allen Corduner (Topsy-Turvy) is the timid captain who pines for his lost love; Isabella Rossellini (The Saddest Music in the World) is a deposed queen running away from it all; Steve Buschemi (Fargo) is suicidal crooner, Happy Franks; Billy Connolly (Boondock Saints) is an aggressively sexually ambivalent (or perhaps not so) tennis enthusiast; Michael Emerson (Lost) is Molina’s long-suffering assistant; Allison Janney (The West Wing) and Richard Jenkins (The Visitor) are tough-talking criminals; and Woody Allen (Bananas) is a neurotic New York playwright (what else). The cast alone is reason enough to watch the film. Tucci is a very generous director in that he gives each performer plenty of time to shine and have fun with their screwy roles.

The story is little more than a set-up to get talented character actors to play funny personalities and do slap-sticky things in quick succession. The Impostors is another modest film who finds the most joy in just assembling the characters and having fun (during the end credits the entire cast dances off of the set and into the street). It is very apparent that everyone is having a great time and it’s quite infectious. The gags are clever and refreshing. At times the film is reminiscent of Hope and Crosby, at other times it is like Laurel and Hardy or the Marx Brothers and there is even a silent movie scene at the beginning that hearkens back to the work of Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd. The Impostors is a fine throwback to classic comedy and the humor is refreshingly gentle and nonabrasive.

Some have complained that Tucci’s directorial work is very stagy (in these two examples as well as in Joe Gould’s Secret and Blind Date). The whole spectacle seems to be rather distant and stagnant at times, as if the material were better suited to a theater performances. This may be the case, but I would never kid you by saying that the simple approach is not effective or enjoyable. Tucci seems to write and direct more for the actors rather than for the razzmatazz of the camera. His camera does not employ grandiose sweeping shots and it is not full of intense closeups. The technical wizardry is minimized completely. Tucci’s films are more about watching the actors create characters using only what abilities God has given them. The photography and editing are merely there to format the story for a cinema screen. I happen to find his technique refreshing and very effective for the flavor of stories he is telling. So maybe Big Night and The Impostors are stagey. Kill me, they’re still wonderful movies. Watch ‘em.

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” Jan. 10, 2011

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Just Imagine…1980

This one came out of nowhere.

The year is 1880. A crystal baritone narrator reminds us of how far we’ve come in 50 years. No more horses and buggies cluttering up New York City. No more frilly clothes. And no more drunks stumbling in and out of saloons. No, siree. We’ve come a long way since 1880. Now in 1930 we are at the very height of style, efficiency, and modernity.

…or are we?

Our narrator quickly challenges our perceptions of modernity and dares us to see 50 years into the future: 1980!

just imagine 1

Yes, folks, that grand, stream-lined future utopia with flying cars over Manhattan, government arranged marriages, flights to Mars are underway, immigrants from the past are being thawed out in laboratories, you can order a baby like ordering a sandwich, and we’re that much closer to ending Prohibition. Yes, folks, the possibilities are endless. Remember, this is the year 1980!

Just Imagine (1930), directed by David Butler, is exactly what you’d expect from an obscure vintage science fiction musical romantic comedy rife with racial stereotypes and bizarre space-age predictions. I think. It’s hard to think of what that wild genre-bending combination might look like without some semblance of precedent.

I’ll square with you. The movie isn’t half as good as its premise. It’s actually a bit of a mess, but that might be part of the reason I liked it. There’s a reason why this movie is largely forgotten, but there’s also quirky anthropological reason enough to watch it today.

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Here’s some of the plot. J-21 (everyone in the future has numbers instead of names) is in love with Jane Parker from the Tarzan movies (Maureen O’Sullivan), but the government will not approve their marriage and so she is sentenced to marry another fellow. Enter one recently thawed immigrant from 1930 (El Brendel) to help our lovestruck protagonist. I like that the scientists who wake him up don’t have any further interest in him. It’s like they just did it as part of a science wager. His savior even threatens to kill him again when the dazed relic inquires as to what he should do now that he is awake and 50 years in the future.

The immigrant guy is given the name Single-0. He befriends J-21 and thus a solid comaraderie is forged. Some forgettable songs, awkward Vaudeville era jokes*, and then somehow we wind up in a spaceship to Mars. Naturally it is inhabited by scantily clad women. Seems to have been an epidemic in films from this era. Every other world is ruled by near-naked feminists who need a wooden male character to set them free from their own oppression.

*Not to besmirch Vaudeville but the writers and performers in this movie are just not up to Marx Brothers/Laurel & Hardy/W.C. Fields standards.

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I honestly have already forgotten most of the plot and what the characters actually did. But I do remember flying cars, a trip to Mars, and one or two shots that look to be inspired from Metropolis. It’s not that substantial or memorable of a movie apart from its premise, but it’s not bad. It’s just dated. But its datedness is what makes it so interesting. Just Imagine is a fun alternative view of a space-age world that is both their (1930’s) optimistic future and our wildly inaccurate past. And that makes it kind of cool.

The most fascinating aspect of this weird movie concerns the view on Prohibition. In 1930 Prohibition was still on. It would be only three more years before the Twenty-first Amendment, but they didn’t know it in 1930. In their version of 1980 Prohibition is still in effect and people keep hearing that it’ll end in another few years. Single-0 says that’s what they said back in 1930. The best song in the movie concerns astronauts being able to drink in space. I mentioned this film’s future outlook as optimistic, but it’s actually a bit more of a give and take. Some things are better while others are not. We have gained efficiency but lost a little humanity along the way, but the human spirit carries on with effervescence and optimism.

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So what is Just Imagine? It’s an awkward transition into talkies. It’s an underwhelming musical. It’s a creaky romance. It’s not a great comedy. But it does have enough of its own quirky energy to keep you entertained. It’s fun to think about the future and it might be even more fun to think about what previous generations thought the future would be.

Best Movies of 2012

I have actually talked about a few pretty solid movies that came out this past year. While some highly anticipated movies may have failed to live up to their immense hype, fear not! for there was cinematic redemption in 2012. I think I shall bequeath to you, dear ones, my own personal Favorite Films of 2012. (I am so sorry I did not see any 2012 documentaries).

1.fly-with-the-crane 2

Rui Jun Li’s Fly With the Crane feels more like a National Geographic documentary, but it is in fact a fictional narrative. This movie throws you into rural China and makes you a fly on the wall to the events as they unfold. Retired coffin-maker Lao Ma (Xing Chun Ma) is an old man and his adult children treat him more and more like a bothersome piece of furniture. In addition the government is outlawing burials. How will Lao Ma’s soul fly with the crane if he is cremated and turned into smoke? It might be the most unglamorous movie and unromantic about death. This is a devastating, subtle, and unflinching film. I left the theater feeling uncomfortable at how disturbingly sad and real it all felt. Who was the hero? Did he win? What was won? Perhaps I rate this one highest because it left the biggest impact on me. Months later I’m still thinking about it.

2.once-upon-a-time-in-anatolia-2

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (technically made in 2011, but it’s receiving much recognition this year) was a beautiful and enigmatic Turkish police investigation movie. How many other films about boring law enforcement procedures could be this steeped in lush cinematography, subtle existentialism, and dense mustaches? It’s the sort of movie that only moves as much as it has to because it knows a keen observer will be immersed in the story. I was never certain where the plot was heading or what it what it would ultimately say in the end, but that detailed unpredictability made it interesting and every moment was pregnant with possibility. The film feels like real life, but better photographed. Color me captivated.

3.Holy-Motors-2

Possibly the most alienating movie on my list is Leos Carax’s Holy Motors. Actor Denis Lavant gets into a limousine and goes from place to place donning various inexplicable disguises and acting out even more freakish and varied scenarios. It is a grotesque, bizarre, surreal, episodic, and aimlessly unpredictable movie. It is definitely not for everyone. While I’m certain there are countless interpretations I can only share my own. The man is a performer (whether or not he is a literal actor or a symbolic everyman is up to you). He only knows how to change roles and perform, even if nobody is watching. So who is he really? Who are we? Who are we pretending to be and why and when will we stop? What would we do if we stopped? What would be left?

4.monsieur-lazhar-2

There is a surplus of awkwardly manipulative educator movies. That said, Monsieur Lazhar, Philippe Falardeau’s French-Canadian drama about an Algerian refugee (Mohamed Fellag)—with a concealed past—who becomes a teacher following an unexpected suicide, sidesteps many a cliche. The characters feel real and down to earth and their pain is not overblown for cinematic effect. Emotions are treated with realism and respect. It was refreshing. It’s a humorous and telling examination of the teacher-student relationship. I daresay it is the best teacher movie since Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939).

5.moonrise-kingdom-2

Love it or hate it. For all the gripes I might have with sylized filmmaker, Wes Anderson, I can honestly say I have enjoyed most of his movies. Moonrise Kingdom might be up there with Rushmore (1998) for me. If it is a smirk at immature romances or a critical prod at supposed mature ones or a humorous juxtaposition it doesn’t matter. It’s beautiful to look at with its creative imagery and very funny in its surreal deadpanned execution. That it achieves its greater intent is just the icing on the cake.

6.chicken with plums 2

From the same mind that penned Persepolis (2007) comes another tale of humor and angst in Iran. Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel Chicken With Plums is crafted into an expertly visually entertaining film. Satrapi even aids with directing alongside Vincent Paronnaud. Mathieu Amalric (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) stars as a musician, father, and husband who simply decides to die. The results feel like Jean-Pierre Jeunet adapting Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich. It manages to find a comfortable tone betwixt whimsy and anguish. It’s an innovative film that finds clever ways to express some of its more surreal elements. It’s a little film in many ways but it’s everything it needs to be.

7.Beasts of the Southern Wild - 6

Beasts of the Southern Wild is not a perfect film, but it’s one of those instances where I admire it’s audacity and ambition so much that I forgive it many of its shortcomings. Pint-sized protagonist, Quvenzhané Wallis, gives a wonderfully captivating performance as Hushpuppy in this imaginative examination of Hurricane Katrina as a mythic fable. The music and cinematography really help this film to soar as well. This movie showed me things that I have just never seen in a movie before. Watch Benh Zeitlin’s film for a taste of what else film can be. Was it this year’s Tree of Life? I don’t know about that but it does utilize the medium in some innovative ways.

8.sleepwalk with me 2

I am a fan of comedian Mike Birbiglia so natuarlly I really enjoyed his directorial debut Sleepwalk With Me. It’s a solid indy comedy that manages to feel fresh and personal rather than merely quirky and offbeat. Birbiglia essentially plays a younger version of himself (alter-ego Matt Pandamiglio), a struggling comedian with a stress-related sleeping disorder and some serious concerns regarding his potential future with his girlfriend. It’s a simple and very relateable story. My only complaint is that the comedy album and one man show it is based on is a lot funnier. But translating a series of jokes into a humorous drama film is no easy trick either. Kudos, Mike.

9.skyfall 2

James Bond was back and more satisfying this year with Skyfall. This time we get a glimpse at 007’s destructibility and his inner demons. Director Sam Mendes brings us psychologically closer to the famous spy than ever before. It’s wonderfully shot, has great brainless action, and there are many nods to past elements that made the character such a staple. It actually feels closer to the more classic, grittier British espionage thrillers of the 60’s that weren’t James Bond.

10.In Another Country 2

In Another Country hit me at just the right time. Three French women (all played by Isabelle Huppert) have small relationship-based adventures at the same bed and breakfast. I saw this film just a few months after moving to South Korea. Sang-soo Hong’s character-driven nonlinear vignettes are strange, humorous, and fascinating. Like I said, I am somewhat biased as I really appreciate the clash of western culture against Korean culture. Many of the incidents in the movie were quite familiar to me.   Its a humble and intimate movie, but it’s definitely worth a look.

What the heck? One more.

11.pirogue 2

The Pirogue was another simple but human story. As a movie about desperation at sea in a tiny, vulnerable vessel I am sure it will be upstaged by Ang Lee’s Life of Pi adaptation. Moussa Touré’s Senegalese movie follows several men as they attempt a dangerous and illegal sojourn to Europe in the hopes of finding work and a better life. Their tragic fates are shared by many unfortunate real life immigrants. For a film that takes place entirely on a boat it never gets boring. There is always energy and tension. More than just a film for Europe and Africa, this is a film for Arizona too.

And one more extra. Because you are worth it.

12.comedy 2

This last one will definitely divide people. It is not a fun movie. The ironically titled The Comedy is to hipsters what Easy Rider (1969) was to hippies. Perhaps there is more romance and mythos to hippiedom, but that’s just the point. It’s the end of an era and if this newer era of hipsterdom appears vapid and less than enthralling then its conclusion can only be merciful this time around. Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!’s, Tim Heidecker stars (Eric Wareheim also makes an appearance) as a pathetic and revolting aging hipster whose thinning insulation of irony is steadily revealing that there is just not much too him. Strip away the aversion to sincerity these characters have and they are totally empty. It is an occasionally funny and frequently uncomfortable movie that questions just how far can the hipster’s ironic ideology go before it burns out.

Note: I have since seen Django Unchained and Seven Psychopaths. Had I seen them earlier my list probably would have looked a little different.