Friday, September 30, 2011
Wednesday, September 28, 2011
Tuesday, September 20, 2011
For the last two Octobers I have posted at least once a day either a review, song, trailer, poster artwork or various other oddity in celebration of the horror genre (Here are the 2010 posts, and 2009's), this time around I decided I would combine that trend with my 1981 project.
Tuesday, September 6, 2011
There seems to come a point in every successful comic actor’s career when they want to display their range as an “actor”. No artist, or person for that matter, really wants to see themselves limited by labels. Bill Murray (Razor’s Edge, Lost in Translation), Steve Martin (Pennies from Heaven), Adam Sandler (Punch-Drunk Love, Spanglish), and Will Ferrell (Everything Must Go) are just a small number of examples of people who satiated this urge. And the switch from comedic to dramatic is actually less of a major shift than the opposite since comic actors, especially those who worked heavily in the sketch medium, need to hone dramatic chops to better skewer a wider range of targets. When the role and the right actor mix, the results can be amazing, like the humanity Jim Carrey brought to his role in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. But if the material’s weak, there’s not a strong director providing a guiding hand, and the actor is left flailing, you get The Number 23. In 1981, John Belushi was definitely feeling the pull to expand the roles he was being offered. He switched roles with Dan Aykroyd in Neighbors (reviewed yesterday) and played the straight man. His penultimate film, Continental Divide, is not too far of a stretch in that he plays a sarcastic blowhard prone to the occasional pratfall, but did add something to his repertoire that wasn’t present in either Animal House, 1941 or Blues Brothers, a chance to play a romantic lead.
John Belushi is Ernie Souchak, a boisterous editorial commenter for the Chicago Sun-Times, hero to the working class, as well as pimps, prostitutes and muggers who respect his fiery articles so much they give him back his wallet after the realize who he is, and enemy to crooked politicians who run rampant in City Hall. After being attacked by the underlings of one of his subjects, Ernie’s editor sends him to the Rocky Mountains to hide and study the case of Nell Porter (Blair Brown), a Bostonian who gave up the city life to study, photograph and protect bald eagles. Living together in a secluded cabin in the Rockies, Ernie and Nell bicker and argue. But will they set aside their differences and find that opposite attract? Spoiler: Yes.
Written by Lawrence Kasden, who had a busy 1981 as he also wrote the screenplays for Raiders of the Lost Ark and his directorial debut Body Heat, Continental Divide is a bit of a throwback to the romantic comedies of a 1930s to 50s vintage, the type of film that perhaps Cary Grant would star in or Howard Hawks would direct. And actually, Hawks did direct a somewhat similar film in Man’s Favorite Sport with Rock Hudson as a sporting goods salesman who has no experience with the outdoors and must learn how to use many of the goods he sells from Paula Prentiss. While Belushi and Brown give decent and sometimes even charming performances as the mixed match lovers, the film feels inert. Noted documentary filmmaker and not so noted featured filmmaker Michael Apted is the director, and while everything is paced fine, there’s a sense of just going through the motions as we witness some of the laziest fish of water tropes. The romance is rushed, and every few moments an injury occurs to Belushi to keep up some kind of physical comedy quota. There’s some nice cinematography capturing both the Rockies and downtown Chicago, but those are probably more a product of the locations than any actual great cinematic achievement. The rest of the film is purely by the numbers point and shoot filmmaking. It does, however, come alive and actually contains something of a complex emotional question that most films concerning an opposites attract relationship ignore: How do two people with such disparate beliefs that only truly feel at home in different parts of the country/world maintain a long-term relationship? The resolution is kind of pat and simplistic, but it’s a rarely touched upon subject, and it leads to the film’s most lively moments, when the couple just can’t say goodbye to each other on an Amtrak train (even the presence of a train as primary mode of transportation feels like a throwback in 1981).
Though, like Neighbors, Continental Divide, is kind of forgotten today (though more readily available via both DVD and currently Netflix Instant), it has one significant benchmark, it’s the first film to be made through Steven Spielberg’s Amblin production company (though the famous E.T and Elliott on the bicycle silhouettes logo is missing, seeing how E.T. would not be released for another year). While neither of his final two films were particularly successful either commercially or critically, Belushi deserves credit for wanting to expand his range and it would have been interesting to see the type of roles he would have gone onto had he survived. Even though his drug addiction was escalating out of control, he had a desire to reshape his career. He was in the process of getting Noble Rot, a comedic adventure set in the milieu of Napa Valley wine vineyards, he co-wrote with Don Novello (SNL’s Father Guido Sarducci) off the ground. And his buddy Dan Aykroyd had written the role of Peter Venkman for him in his sci-fi/action comedy (and future blockbuster) Ghostbusters, though there’s no denying that Bill Murray’s smart aleck/sarcastic take on the character was a large attribute to that film’s success. Belushi showed fleeting moments in both Divide and Neighbors (more so the former than the latter), and was probably a good script or strong visionary director away from busting free of the Bluto stereotype.
Monday, September 5, 2011
By the time 1981 rolled around, John Belushi had really only been in the public conscious for about five and a half years. And truthfully, when Saturday Night Live did premiere, the onus on cross-over potential was placed on Chevy Chase. But after Chase bolted midway into the second season, Belushi assumed the role of the show’s alpha-male. A diverse comedic talent, his frequent appearances on Weekend Update as a blowhard version of himself along with his breakthrough role in John Landis’ smash hit Animal House would cement his persona in the public eye as the chaotic loudmouth fat guy prone to pratfalls. So when it came time to cast Neighbors, his third collaboration with fellow SNL alum and good pal Dan Aykroyd, about a middle aged suburban schlub terrorized by his new obnoxious and chaotic next door neighbor, it seemed an obvious choice who would play who. However, before shooting commenced Belushi and Aykroyd flipped roles, and clad in the height of K-Mart fashion and with greying sideburns and temples, Belushi took the role of the everyman while Aykroyd played the bleached blonde, tattooed, polyester suited agent of chaos who turns his life upside down. Both performers are capable of playing either role and well, but here they bring nothing but painful straining attempts to eke laughs out of the thin material. In their defense they’re not given actual characters for which to play or motivation to latch upon, and director John G. Avildsen’s directing seems to consist of one principle: “just riff guys”, with the result on the level of outtake rehearsal footage.
Earl, a middle class suburban husband/father (Belushi) lives a quiet undistinguished existence in a small cul-de-sac surrounded by power lines that consists of only two houses. His life revolves around watching nature documentaries on public television and late night meals of burnt waffles with his wife (Kathryn Walker). Until that is, he's shaken by the introduction of new neighbor Vic (Aykroyd) who instantly torments, hassles and steals from him, and Vic’s sultry wife Ramona (Cathy Moriarity) who entices Earl with sexual advances. And then, uh wackiness ensue, I guess.
Larry Gelbart, writer/producer of MASH and Tootsie, is credited as the screenwriter here, but I am going to go out on a limb and guess that any attempts at a sound narrative structure were tossed out the window at an early stage. Everything seems improvised on the spot, and poorly at that. Not that I am slave to the Syd Field perfected beat for beat formula for a successful screenplay, especially in comedy. Some of the greatest comedies from the Marx Brothers to Anchorman have very thin strains of plot amongst several comedy beats, but even those examples are slavish proponents of the three act structure compared to Neighbors, which commits the greater sin of being groaningly unfunny (I laughed once, at the sight of Belushi holding coffee grinds in his hands…you kind of have to see it.) As mentioned earlier, there’s no recurring characteristics to any of the film’s roles, and characters completely change desires, personalities and motivation from scene to scene depending on the situation. Belushi’s Earl seems to be unhappy but comfortable in his existence, but also seemingly equally annoyed by his new characters, so when the final act shift occurs it’s completely inorganic and forced. There’s never any reasoning for the antics of Vic and Ramona. The basic tenant of conflict is two forces with contrasting desires coming to confrontation. While conflict is the driving force of the film, the rest of the equation is completely missing. Watching Neighbors, I couldn’t help but compare it to a much more successful film that also is entirely set on one suburban cul-de-sac, Joe Dante’s The Burbs. In that film you had a clearly defined lead character, a purpose for his concern, and a contrasting force with motivation, not to mention several smart and funny jabs at the suburban milieu.
John G. Avildsen, best known for his directing of inspirational sports theme movies (including Rocky, the Karate Kid films, The Power of One and Eight Seconds) has no feel for comedic setups. He shoots things carelessly, not cognizant of the rhythms comedy requires. He was coming off the thriller The Formula, where he worked with two of Hollywood’s most legendary difficult actors, Marlon Brando and George C. Scott, so perhaps having experienced that and with no real prior comedy background, he just left Belushi and Aykroyd to their own devices, and trusted the results. Still Avildsen and Belushi clashed, and I imagine the resulting film is evidence of the two men's indifference. Avildsen’s old Rocky composer Bill Conti, provides the film with one of the worst and most distracting scores in cinematic history. Witness effect heavy comedic noises that substitutes for laugh tracks! Theremin for when something wacky occurs! Et cetera. The costume and set design is pretty perfectly realized though.
Sadly, Neighbors would be John Belushi’s last film, he would be dead three months after its release from a heroin overdose. Columbia Pictures and the very successful producing tandem of Richard Zanuck and David Brown (Jaws, The Sting) had high hopes for the film, penciling it in for their big Christmas season release in 1981. After bad test screenings they increased the screen count in an attempt to accrue as high a gross as possible before word of mouth spread (a practically automatic technique today), and the film was moderately successful though critically lambasted. For a film with the pedigree it had: Director of an Oscar Winning film, the Brown/Zanuck team, two of comedies biggest stars at the height of their fame and the head writer of one of television’s most successful sitcoms, Neighbors pretty quickly faded from public consciousness. It was never given a DVD release, though a High Definition print does exist, as I saw the film via a broadcast on Sony HD. Unfortunately, and I am still of the opinion every film should be available in an easy to access print of some sort, this is one of the times that the film is probably better off forgotten.