St. Vincent Director Ted Melfi managed to get Bill Murray to star in “St. Vincent” by being persistent and calling him “about 40 times” on his 800 phone line, because Murray has no manager or press agent. Says Melfi, “The hardest part about getting Bill Murray in anything is finding him, because he has no agent and no manager; he has an 800 number. I bet I called that 800 number 40 times. When he actually did call me back, at first, I didn’t think it was him. Then I realized that was his voice.”
“So Bill Murray says, ‘Meet me at LAX in an hour, which was 9 o’clock. And so I drive down to LAX, and, sure enough, Bill Murray comes down the causeway and says, “Ted? Let’s go for a drive.’”
“ We drive for 3 hours from L.A. to the Pechanga Indian Reservation and Casino. So, Bill says to me, “I like you. Do you wanna’ do this movie?”
I said, “Yes…that’s what I’m here for”
“Do you want to do it with me?”
I said, “Yes, and Bill Murray says, ‘Let’s do it!’”
“I say, the only thing is, do you think you could tell someone else besides me that this whole thing happened—that we were driving down the road and you agreed to do the film? I can’t go to the studio and say, ‘Hey! Bill Murray said yes in the back of a town car on the highway on the way to an Indian Reservation. That’s just not gonna’ happen.”
“I look at Bill Murray and I don’t just say, ‘He’s one of the greatest comedians of our time. He’s one of the greatest actors of our time. And what people don’t know about Melissa (McCarthy) is that this girl did 7 years of hard-core drama in New York theater. And the goal for us, on set, was to not be funny.” This is quite obvious in the dialed-down performance of the often over-the-top McCarthy. Naomi Watts’ part as the brash Russian hooker/stripper is quite the departure from the woman surviving the tsunami in Thailand, but she pulls it off (No pun intended). Writer/Director Melfi described her talent as “the tip of the iceberg.” Chris O’Dowd, as always, was genial and enjoyable.
Says Melfi, “I remember the first day, I said, ‘Bill—do you want to rehearse with the kid?’
And Bill says, ‘No.’ And I think, ‘This is not gonna’ be good.’
I bring the kid to the set and take him over to Bill and I say, ‘Bill, this is Jaeden; Jaeden this is Bill.”
Bill grunts. And walks away. And I think, ‘This is not gonna’ work out.’
And then they did a scene together and Bill comes up to me after and says, ‘The kid’s good.’ And I said, “Yeah—he’s pretty good.’ And Bill said, ‘He’s real good.’ Once he figured out that the kid was good and that he was not a “kiddy” actor, they became, like, very best friends. In fact, Jaeden got the part on Cameron Crowe’s new movie. And Jaeden goes to Hawaii and Bill is offered a part in the Cameron Crowe movie. And Jaeden goes, ‘You should do it.’ And so Bill flies to do the Cameron Crowe movie because Jaeden told him to do the movie, and they spent the whole month scuba diving. So, it’s like this most ridiculous love affair, father/son beautiful thing.”
Melfi shared the story of the film’s genesis (which he wrote and directed). Melfi and his wife adopted his brother’s 11-year-old daughter after his eldest brother died eight years prior. Her Catholic school in Los Angeles made the assignment that is featured in this touching-but-funny movie. The students in Melfi’s daughter’s new school were assigned to write a paper on a “modern day” saint in their real life and a historic saint who shared the same qualities. She picked St. William of Rochester, the patron saint of adopted children, just like Oliver in the movie. “And, ” adds Melfi, “she picked me. It was just like this touching, sentimental moment for us. And I said, ‘Okay. That’s the movie.”
“Vincent is a timeless character because so many of us get to the end of our lives and go, “That was it?”
“So, what’s amazing about the movie, for me is that this little kid, Oliver, who’s 12, tells him, ‘Dude, you did great. You served our country in the war. You took care of your wife for 8 years. You did freaking great, so be proud of what you’ve done.
“Too many filmmakers think to themselves that they have to put their stink on everything they make,” says Melfi. Using Michael Bey’s films as an example, Melfi said, “I choose not to stink up the place” ( “Last Call” appearance with Carson Daley). Says Melfi, “The film is about an older gentleman who is a Vietnam veteran who is kind of a drunk curmudgeon who doesn’t have much to live for any more until a little boy (Oliver, well played by newcomer Jaeden Lieberher) moves in next door to him.” The young boy shows the boozy reprobate that he hasn’t been such a loser, after all. Murray becomes the boy’s nanny/babysitter while mother Melissa McCarthy works long hours as an X-ray technician.
“It is like The Isle of the Misfit Toys,” says Melfi. “Bill Murray is a misfit gambler. Melissa McCarthy is a broken-down single mom who can’t get her life together. Naomi Watts is a pregnant Russian hooker. So the only person who has their act together, really, is the kid.”
The film opens with Murray telling an Irish joke that involves confusion between the words porch and Porsche. (Fill in your own joke here). The joke’s not that funny, but, then again, the movie is not really a comedy, either. It’s more of a heart-warming “dramedy.” The humor it does contain is created by what we can call the Murray Mythos. Murray is laid-back. Eccentric. Cool. Funny in the Murray throw-away fashion. Gruff on the exterior; warm and fuzzy on the inside.
And, as we learn in scenes within the film, Vincent has been faithfully visiting his addled wife (in an expensive nursing home he can’t afford) for 8 years, even though she doesn’t remember who he is.
For me, the inclusion of Chris O’Dowd—who was so good in the little-seen movie “The Sapphires”—carried with it echoes of the younger Murray as he used to be on Saturday Night Live when he’d play everything from a bad lounge lizard singer to skits with Belushi and the gang. The troupe on SNL was truly remarkable. This cast is no less so, including Naomi Watts, Terrance Howard and the trio of Murray, McCarthy and child actor Jaeden Lieberher.
The scene we’ve all seen on television (official trailer above) where Murray tries to close out his bank account, only to learn that he has used up all the cash he received from a reverse mortgage and now has a negative balance is indicative of the kind of deadpan “so sad it’s funny” acting that Murray does so brilliantly.
What you don’t see on the film clip is “the rest of the story.”
When the Asian bank teller initially asks him why he wants to close out his account, Murray says, “I do not want to tell you to go f— yourself, so let’s just leave it at that.” There are also some Murray Moments showing the cranky curmudgeon answering phone calls from telemarketers with his typical brioche.(“Come on, Coward! Try to sell me something.)
The film also drives a sharp stake through the use of the catch-all phrase, “It is what it is.” Murray boils it down this way, explaining that it really means: “You’re screwed and you shall remain screwed.”
Chris O’Dowd’s priest, a teacher at St. Vincent’s, the private Catholic School that Oliver attends, worked 12 to 14 hour days, flying in on the red eye and working for four days, as he was also simultaneously shooting a television project. O’Dowd’s scenes are loose and genial. He gets the line, “Catholics are the best of all, because we have the most rules,” which he tells his classroom charges.
The concept of an adult who takes an innocent young boy out and exposes him to the seamier side of life was done earlier this year in Jason Bateman’s “Bad Words;” Murray’s taking young Oliver to the race track and a bar are scenes from the same playbook. The difference is that Oliver’s unsuspecting mother (Melissa McCarthy), who is waging a battle for custody of her young son, learns what “the babysitter” and his charge have been up to only when they are appearing in court. (The husband will be a familiar face from “Thirty Rock.”)
The other difference is that this is Bill Murray. Once Murray committed to the film, said Melfi, things fell into place. Other “name brand” actors wanted to work with Murray, in much the same way that marquee names known for taking films for reasons other than a gigantic pay-day attract other talented performers. This is an excellent cast, and they all deliver the goods.
It’s a fine movie with memorable performances. For emotional resonance, think of Clint Eastwood’s stint acting in “Grand Torino.” It’s always a pleasure to see Bill Murray in a role that lets him take the bit in his teeth and run with it, even if he’s running with a cigarette in his mouth and a drink in his hand.
So hunker down and enjoy the debut performances as well as those by an accomplished actor who seemingly can do it all.
We were cooking hamburgers on the grill on our outside deck about 6 p.m. on Friday, Saturday 27th, 2014, when a series of hot air balloons that were launched from the East Moline Fairgrounds sailed over our backyard
I had actually read about this plan to launch multiple hot air balloons and give citizens rides in them in the newspaper, and had planned to be present to photograph the preliminaries from 5 to 7 p.m., but I forgot all about it—-until the balloons pictured here came sailing over our back yard and nearly into our trees. Authorities announced that they expected between 8,000 and 13,000 people to show up for the launch.
All our neighbors turned out to watch these balloons soar overhead, nearly hitting the tops of our very large ravine trees. The sound of the basket turning up the heat to rise higher was quite noticeable.
So was the sound of sirens about 20 minutes later and we wondered if one of the balloons did, in fact, become entangled in something? We think they were heading for the banks of the Mississippi River, about one mile from our house.
As an added bit of interest, tonight, while driving into our court street, I saw a fox as large as a small dog in my headlights. We didn’t let the inside-outside cat (Lucy) go out after that.
This video was shot some time ago, while driving home from a trip to the Children’s Museum in Bettendorf, Iowa. It was shot on 16th Avenue in East Moline, Illinois, and the birds subsequently were identified as European starlings by research into various books of bird species.
The voices you hear in the video belong to me, my daughter-in-law Jessica, and the four-year-old twins, Ava and Elise. I have no explanation for why the birds covered just a few lawns or what they were looking for, but it inspired a story entitled “The Final Victim” that will appear in Hellfire & Damnation III.
Below are a few more still photographs of the phenomenon, which I still do not pretend to understand. The oddest thing about the event was that only a very few lawns were affected. Three lawns were infested with the birds and yet they were not on the neighboring houses just a few yards down, nor across the street. Weird.
Surrealism, to me, always meant Salvador Dali. I was blithely unaware of Magritte, the Belgian surrealist, until the movie “The Faith in Our Stars” screened and Shailene Woodley showed up in it wearing a tee shirt with the legend “A Pipe Is Not A Pipe” (in French). It was about this time that I noticed many large ads for a Magritte exhibit at the Art Institute and decided it would be a good chance to kill two birds with one stone: learn about Magritte and visit the exhibit.
Of course, there are so many things to do in Chicago that a trip to the Mercury Theater to see “Avenue Q” (for the third time) was also in the cards, dinner at Tango Sur and Banderos (535 N. Michigan), and taking in the movie “Get On Up,” the James Brown bio-pic. I think the performance by Chadwick Boseman is the first Oscar-worthy performance of this season and his dancing was phenomenal.] It turned out to be the 100th performance by the talented troupe and I highly recommend this version of the show, having seen it now in Las Vegas, downtown Chicago and on the north side of Chicago.
Aside from an accident on the way back to the Quad Cities that had us sitting, immobile, on I80 for nearly an hour, it was a weekend that ran nearly flawlessly with lots of good food and fun.
Just returned from seeing “Godzilla” and, Boy, am I confused! Here’s an actual line from the movie that sums it up: “You have no idea what is happening!”
I cannot refrain from writing something snarky about this movie. It cries out for snark. I would warn any of you who do not want your viewing of the film ruined that my snarky comments may contain “spoilers.” This assumes, of course, that you CAN spoil “Godzilla” after 9 attempts at bringing the Japanese “top of the primordial ecosystem” monster to the big screen. (And, sometimes, as in 1998, to the small TV screen).
Snarky remark #1) WHY was Bryan Cranston wearing the world’s WORST toupee? Doesn’t Bryan have normal hair of his own, now that he’s no longer playing Walter White on television? What was wrong with Cranston’s real hair? I can’t decide which was the more horrible hair treatment: this thick brown dog-like rug or the Obama chia pet plant. It’s too close to call.
Snarky remark #2) So many good actors. So little for them to do. By all means, stick us with that uncharismatic leading man nobody has ever seen before for 90% of the movie (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) when there are really good actors standing around doing nothing (or disappearing from the plot after 15 minutes).
Seriously, folks, Bryan Cranston, [fresh from “Breaking Bad,” possibly the Best Dramatic Series Ever on Television] takes THIS role? What’s wrong with this picture? [Of course, Jessie Pinkman (Aaron Paul) didn’t do any better with his first film foray, a fast car movie that sank like a rock].
French actress Juliette Binoche, from the 2006 film “The English Patient” and 2013’s “A Thousand Times Good Night” (a wonderful film which I saw at the Chicago Film Festival last year) played Cranston’s wife for about 15 minutes. What a waste.
Or, what about Sally Hawkins? Say it isn’t so, Sal! She finishes co-starring opposite this year’s Oscar winner, Cate Blanchett, playing her blue collar sister in “Blue Jasmine,” a Woody Allen film
which Hawkins also was wonderful). So, next film: “Godzilla”? Sounds logical— (not). [Please tell me it’s not ALL about the money!]
The wonderful Japanese actor Ken Watanabe (playing Ishiro Serizawa) who was in such great films as “Inception” (2010); “Letters from Iwo Jima” (2006); “Memoirs of a Geisha” (2005); “Batman Begins” (2005) or, my personal favorite, 2003’s “The Last Samurai,” (where he played Katsumoto), now takes THIS part? Watanabe mainly looks puzzled throughout. “Blue Jasmine’s” Sally Hawkins looks like she could use a stiff drink.
And then there’s David Strathairn, who was in both “Lincoln” and “The Bourne Legacy” in 2012, the excellent made-for-TV film “Temple Grandin” in 2010 and, for me, most memorably, played Tom Cruise’s ne’er-do-well brother in “The Firm” in 1993. He is reduced to playing Admiral William Stenz, and coming up with a lame-brained plan to defend against Godzilla that sounds like a military action designed by George W. Bush and Donald Rumsfeld. Good actors are reduced to shouting lines like, “ARE WE AT FULL FUNCTION? TAKE US OFFLINE! DO IT NOW!” The poorly planned and even more poorly described or executed military defense against the mutant monster (“I guess we’re monster hunters now.”) makes “W’s” bombing of Iraq over non-existent yellow cake uranium look like genius.
Snarky remark #3: I did like this line, “It’s gonna’ send us back to the Stone Age,” because, after “Godzilla” outings on film in ’54, ’67, ’77, ’78, ’84, ’94, ’98, ‘and ’99, I thought we WERE back in the Stone Age, if we’re still watching this giant lizard terrorize the populace. (And, let’s be honest: wasn’t half the original fun watching the dubbing that never matched the actors’ mouth movements? Good cheesy fun.)
There is only ONE survivor of the train disaster (Most Creative Use of a Train since the kids’ film “Super 8”)—who is, of course, Bryan Cranston’s son, Ford Brody (played rather wanly by a British actor no one has ever heard of, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, whose previous credits consist of “Kick-Ass” in 2010 and “Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging” (2008). [It’s difficult to know what this young actor’s name is, since it is listed as Aaron Taylor-Johnson, but when you look him up on IMDB, it says Aaron Perry Johnson.]
After 14 months away at war as a Navy demolitions expert, Ford Brody, returns to Elizabeth Olsen, playing wife Elle Brody and doing a good job, and his young son (C.J. Adams) but almost immediately has to jet off to bail Dad out of a Japanese jail.
Next thing you know, we’ve got MUTO (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism), or, as I like to call it/ them: Mostly Uninteresting Tyrannosaurus-like Oddities. There are at least 3 of them…and there’ll be lots more if the female gets to lay her eggs. What do they eat? Why, radiation, of course. What do they look like? Hard to tell. As the old song goes (hum along): “A big tail here, a big tail there. A big foot here; a big foot there; Here a tail, there a fin, show ‘em o’er ag’in and ag’in.”
So, it isn’t until the odd monsters start fighting amongst themselves that we really get a good look at the entire clan. All I can tell you is that there is a creature very reminiscent of “Alien.” There are two flying horrors. There is a bear-like dinosaur-ish fire-breathing monster perhaps once seen swimming in Loch Ness. All of them are awkward and have trouble moving gracefully and, apparently, they don’t get along well—although why is not clear. (Watanabe murmurs: “Let them fight,” which is all the poor guy really gets to say; he mostly just looks worried.)
Here’s a line I enjoyed, from the botched military plan, proposed by Nit-wits #1 and #2: “This bomb we’re going to use makes the bomb we tried to kill it with in ’54 seem like a firecracker!” Of course, no thought given to the fact that detonating a nuclear bomb just off the coast of a major U.S. city (San Francisco) would probably not be a very good idea. Just what we need: another half-baked military fiasco, planned with no back-up Plan B, and depending on (drum roll, please), Bryan Cranston’s son, Ford Brody, who has just returned from military duty, [so he isn’t even on active duty any more, but seems intent upon trying to get himself killed in either Hawaii, San Francisco or Tokyo]. The plot’s constant carping about how Ford Brody wants to return to his wife and child made me instantly think of Brad Pitt in “World War Z.” It was Brad’s insistence on a similar plot point that made THAT movie go waaay over budget when everything had to be re-shot, and now we have the same plot again. Only, this time, no zombies. Just MUTOs.
At one point, Ford Brody (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) announces that he can defuse a bomb in 60 seconds, which would have been helpful, since detonating an atom bomb that close to San Francisco would be a not-too-bright move, but then he falls asleep onboard a boat with the bomb, so good luck with THAT plan!
Are there no bright spots?
Well, I noted that John Dykstra’s name flashed on the screen, listed as helping design the awkward creatures. If you don’t know his name, look him up on Wikipedia, because he is The Man. I learned that the original score was composed by Alexandre Desplat, with Music Supervision by Dave Jordan and that it was recorded on Sony Pictures’ Barbra Streisand Sound Stage. (Who knew Babs had her own sound stage?) I learned that the film is dedicated to Richard Fowkes and Jake Foerster, who are almost as well-known as the film’s leading man, Aaron Taylor-Johnson. I learned that we bury our nuclear waste in Nevada’s Yucca Mountain, which sounded yucky. I learned that the list of stunt people and digital special effects people probably earned more than the combined GNP of several African nations. I learned that Godzilla maybe is “the good guy,” not the “bad guy, by film’s end?” [Although, if that is the case, why all the bombing and hostility?] I learned that they nearly blew up Oakland, California, but, if memory serves from my college days at nearby Berkeley, that would mainly take out tattoo parlors. (Please: no hate mail from Oakland; it’s a joke, Son.) And, ultimately, I learned that saying, “That’s gotta’ smart!” every few moments to my husband will eventually earn me a punch in the arm.
And, as my parting snarky comment, may I utter these immortal words, “Godzilla has left the building.”
I was in Washington, D.C., at a poetry conference. Keynote celebrities were Maya Angelou, a young boy with a terminal illness named “Mattie” (if I remember correctly) who wrote poetry, and Mickey Rooney. It was an odd group, true, but it was an odd conference. I mainly went because it was being held in the very same hotel where Reagan was shot on the exit from the parking garage. (That area has been remodeled subsequently, but you could still go outside and see the exact spot where Reagan took a bullet, at that time).
Anyway, at one point, while wandering around, I got in an elevator and an extremely short man got in the elevator with me briefly. I noticed he only came up to about my shoulder, and I’m only 5′ 2 and 3/4″ tall. No sooner had the door begun to close than a blonde lady grabbed the short man and said, “MICKEY! You’re on the wrong elevator!” It turns out that this was our “keynote” entertainer on his way to the stage.
I continued to my seat and Mickey and his then-wife Jan came out onstage. Mickey said a few words and then turned the microphone over to Jan, who sang. Mickey went and sat in a chair at the back of the stage. I seem to remember it was sort of a Robert Louis Stevenson wicker-type fancy chair, but the entire performance was odd, since The Man of the Hour (i.e., Mickey Rooney, Big Box Office Star of the forties…and possibly the thirties, for all I know) really just sat there while his wife sang. (She had a lovely voice; at the time of Mickey’s death, they were “estranged.”)
So, that was my brush with Mickey Rooney, which is exceeded in weirdness only by the time I was following the guy carrying the drink with a pink umbrella in it up a staircase, which turned out to be Christopher Hitchens on his way to the stage at the BEA. (Yet another wrong turn by Yours Truly).
So, that’s my Mickey Rooney story, such as it is. Sad to think he died nearly broke.
On the other hand, the Ultimate Warrior died the same day at the age of 54, which means that Mickey Rooney lived almost 40 years longer than THAT guy….and I think he was married about 7 times, to boot, which says something.
Jason Bateman is a veteran character actor, familiar to audiences for his work on television’s “Arrested Development,” playing Michael Bluth, straight man to a cast of eccentrics. Bateman attributes much of his success to how he approached that role, saying, “It was a show the industry watched, as opposed to America. The people who hand out jobs watched it.”
And Bateman has been handed a lot of jobs since “Arrested Development.”
To be accurate, young Jason was acting long before that, starting at the age of 12 in 1981 with a recurring role on “Little House on the Prairie,” as well as with roles as varied as some on “Silver Spoons,” “Knight Rider” and “The Hogan Family.”
It was the latter series that gave him his first directorial experience at the age of 18, making him the youngest director in Directors’ Guild history and, also, allowing him to follow in his father’s footsteps. (His father was a director, actor and writer.) Jason’s older sister, Justine, was a regular on the Michael J. Fox sit-com “Family Ties” and he has been married (since 2001) to one of Paul Anka’s daughters, Amanda, (with whom he has two daughters). She plays the role of the National Public Television narrator in the film.
In “Bad Words,” Jason has the opportunity to return to directing. His work is informed by such dead-pan black comedies as “Being John Malkovich” and “King of Comedy.” Bateman told Michael Phillips of the Chicago “Tribune,” “The comedy I’m most drawn to is a little tougher to market. Even though I’ve been involved with some high concept studio fare (think “Juno,” “Identity Thief,” and “Horrible Bosses”), I’m drawn to something a little more tamped down. A film like ‘Being John Malkovich,’ there’s no pie in the face. We used that one as a tonal example—a tonal and aesthetic example…I knew that because we weren’t spending a lot of money we wouldn’t be asked to wink a lot or to rewrite the script so there’d be some big set pieces they could cut a trailer with. I didn’t want them thinking we’d even have a shot at recouping on the first weekend, because the movie looked glossy or super-commercial.” So, right away, the theater-goer should realize that they’re in for a quirky sort of comedic turn, like Billy Bob Thornton’s “Bad Santa.”
The super-funny “Bad Words” features Bateman as a 40-year-old malcontent who never graduated from 8th grade and has spent the past 40 years “making bad decisions” and proofreading warranties for a living. A lot of his problems stem from childhood issues originating with his father. He has now found a loophole for entry into The Golden Quill Spelling Bee that will allow him to annoy the hell out of Grand Poo Bah Dr. Bowman (Philip Baker Hall) and the woman in charge, aka, the Queen Bee, Dr. Bernice Deagan, played by Allison Janney. [Janney is a well-known face from her work on “The West Wing” and is pitch-perfect in her role of someone just a little bit too fond of rules and regulations. Barbara Bush would say she is a “rhymes with witch” but Bateman/Dodge would just come right out and say she is a colossal bitch].
Bateman’s character is the same glib trash-talking character Vince Vaughan and Billy Bob Thornton have played in countless comedies. He is truly representative of someone who just doesn’t care what other people think or say about him. He is going to have HIS say whether they like it or not.
That, in fact, might well be an accurate one-line summation of the entire plot of “Bad Words.” And many audience members will find that kind of independence and courage liberating.
Sure, there are reasons (revealed as the plot develops) why Bateman’s character Guy Trilby behaves the way he does. A follow-up article in the March 24th Tribune by Steven Zeitchik attributed all the potty-mouthed misbehavior (as well as that of predecessors like Archie Bunker and Jonah Hill) to our current climate of political correctness, where any little joke can spell doom if offense is taken by any group of any kind. It doesn’t matter whether the joke is at the expense of an ethnic group, midgets, or an inanimate object: SOMEONE is bound to take offense. Therefore, characters in films by Judd Apatow, Todd Phillips, the Farrelly brothers, Adam Sandler and others—(all the way back to W.C. Fields)—-say what they’re thinking, which so many of us no longer have the freedom to do, and that is considered subversive in today’s society. Some find it offensive. Some find it liberating and secretly are muttering, “You go, Guy.” (Pun intended)
“Bad Words” was directed by Bateman from a script by a first-timer, Andrew Dodge. Dodge told Zeitchik, “I think comedies have gotten a little vanilla. We’re so afraid of offending, so it’s a reaction to that.” He added, “That makes independent filmmakers more willing to be bold.” The spec script for “Bad Words” kicked around Hollywood for years. A studio executive said to Dodge, “This is funny, but could Guy start helping the kids in the third act?”
Dodge’s response? It’s superhard to make a character likeable enough that you still want to watch him, but hateful enough that it’s still funny.”
Steven Zeitchik postulates that the film is a “Rambo”-like rise of a new type of Superhero: the male hero jerk</strong>. I’m not as convinced that there’s anything “new” to a comic jerk in the tradition of W.C. Fields. I laughed at the clever, smarmy way Bateman pulled off eliminating the other competitors, one by one—even though his methods were underhanded and less-than-honorable. He displayed the kind of psychological warfare that allowed one team to dominate this year’s Super Bowl or allowed Muhammad Ali to defeat the likes of Sonny Liston, 50 years ago. It was strictly, “All’s fair in love and war.”
Still, when Bateman is calling his Indian opponent Chaitanya Chopra (Rohan Chand) “Slumdog” and throwing lines at that adorable Indian boy that sound racist, it can be offputting. In telling the boy not to call a soft drink “soda pop” Guy says, “I’d just say soda. Otherwise, you’re just gonna’ get raped.” You do get the feeling that his young charge really enjoys the adult male attention and that, alone, may be enough of a reason to excuse some of Guy’s bad influence. At least he IS an influence in the lonely young scholar’s life, unlike the rigid father figure who is glimpsed coaching his kid in their own secret strategy to get rid of the competition.
When Guy is placed in a room that is actually the storage closet of the hotel, [a futile attempt to discourage him from competing] and co-star Kathryn Hahn (who plays Jenny Widgeon), the reporter who is his accomplice helping him gain access to the Golden Quill Spell-Off and with whom he occasionally gets it on (while she, all the while, screams, “Don’t look at me!”) asks about her missing underpants, Guy tells her he hasn’t seen them, noting, “I probably would have seen them. I have no sink, no closet and no bathroom.” Guy dubs his miniature admirer “a little Quaker” and, after encouraging him to let loose with some dirty words asks, “And did your soul just burst into flames?”
In other words, Guy is a horrible role model for young children, but his smirky Vince Vaughn-like delivery is hilarious to a slightly jaded and cynical older audience. This is NOT Family Friendly Fare, but the adults should give themselves a chance to feel a little naughty as they watch Guy and his young charge misbehave. Is this a good way to go through life? Probably not. On the other hand, there IS a compelling reason that Guy is the way he is, and you just know that, sooner or later, that will come into play to explain all the previous shenanigans. And maybe some of the more frequent movie-goers will find it a little bit too transparent early on. (“The Sixth Sense” this isn’t.)
The movie definitely is filled with blue language. There are many situations that any self-respecting parent will decry as setting a bad example, just as the employees of “Office Space” were not candidates for Employee of the Year but were funny as hell. For this viewer, the movie was a hoot. It was made even funnier at the Icon on Roosevelt in Chicago by a man a few rows behind me to my left whose loud laughter sounded exactly like explosive farting.
There was a lot of it from my fellow theater-goer on opening night, and even writing that line now makes me smile.
So, if you are not easily offended and enjoy making fun of stuffy, pompous events like The Golden Quill (and, Lord knows, I certainly qualify after my last post), you will find this movie hilariously entertaining. I’d put it in a comic indie category with the film “Cedar Rapids,” which featured Ed Helms and John C. Reilly and was similarly entertaining.
Spelling Bees have always had a special significance for me going back to 1979, when, as I completed a decade in the public schools in Silvis, Illinois at the junior high school level, a “new gun in town” swept into our district and began barking orders like a drill sergeant about how all of the English department (all 3 of us) were going to be participating in the Big Deal Spelling Bee sponsored by our local newspaper, and about how SHE was going to be attending meetings to facilitate same (while the Principal of our Junior High School covered her classes) so she could be absent from the drudgery of teaching, blah, blah, blah.
The teacher—I’ll call her Jill St. John, (although that was not her real name)—did not even have a valid 4-year teaching certificate at the time, but was working to secure it. Why, then, was she being positioned as the Queen Bee of the Spelling Bee and bossing others around, which included calling several meetings at the crack of dawn at least one hour before school was even scheduled to start? [I am happy to report that I did not attend a single early-morning meeting; I’d rather be shot at dawn than have to go to such a meeting at 7 a.m. The very thought made me sick, so that’s what I was on those days.]
Why, she was married to the Superintendent of Schools of a very small nearby community, which I will call White Cliffs, for the purpose of this rehash of my deep-seated resentment of Spelling Bee Oh-So-Proper mentality. Ultimately, Jill and her husband left town under a very dark cloud that smacks of some of the abuses of the Catholic Church. But, during that school year, the Queen Bee was riding high and riding herd.
It seemed intrinsically unfair, to me, that a teacher who had just arrived on the scene (and wasn’t even fully certified) had suddenly been named Big Cheese, with all the rest of the English department (i.e., all 2 of us) supposed to kiss the Papal ring. I had even been named one of the “Ten Most Creative Teachers in America” in a TAB Scholastic Magazine contest shortly before this.
While I had (and have) nothing against spelling bees, up to that point, and would have enjoyed participating in one when a young girl, the pages and pages of directions for procedures on HOW we were to go about selecting our contestant of choice for the entire school were ludicrous, impractical and so time-consuming as to be virtually useless.
I was already supposed to be teaching Language Arts: Literature, Grammar, Composition and, (in a separate report card grade), Spelling in one 45-minute period. I barely had time to work in FOUR separate disciplines daily, giving 10 minutes per day to each. I was very “high” on writing/composition in my classes, and I also volunteered my time to run two different speech competitions (Modern Woodmen Oratorical Contest and Optimists Oratorical Competition) after school, as well as being the school newspaper supervisor, so running interminable “spell offs” in my classroom during the ordinary classroom day, in addition to the tasks described here, was not in the cards. When I saw the “recommendations” for HOW we were to come up with our contestants, I quickly realized that my best method would be to check the highest I.Q.’s in my study hall (which was held last hour of the day) and see if the two brightest students I had at that time of day would be willing to “spell” each other during the hour, which was an hour given over to doing one’s homework and otherwise taxing the patience of the study hall supervisor. Therefore, Chris Thompson and Fred Cernetisch became my duly selected contestants, and life went on as usual, with my students, at least, receiving a balanced diet of Literature, Composition, Grammar and Spelling. We had our “contestants” and all was right with the Language Arts World in my classroom, but things were rapidly going downhill in Jill St. John’s classroom right next door.
Mrs. St. John plunged into her new-found prominence with great gusto and began doing things exactly the way the myriad sheets of directions from our local newspaper described, which meant that she had no time to actually teach anything else. It also meant that there were upsets aplenty during her “Spell offs.”
The smartest and best and most motivated students did not, like cream, rise to the top of the Spelling Bee food chain in her numerous and never-ending elimination(s). As can happen in the real deal, chance and luck played a big part, and she did not care for the contestants who ended up as the “winners” of her never-ending spelling bee preliminaries. In fact, she disliked their odds of winning anything beyond a prison sentence so much (when compared to Chris and Fred’s odds, anyway) that she ran in a ringer—a boy who had been out with a broken leg but was among the smartest in the school, who hobbled onstage with his leg in a cast, never having taken part in any of her charade of “Spell Offs.” (That student is now a physician and almost certainly was among the highest I.Q.’s in the entire school).
The budding doctor, however, was a bit of a problem child. He didn’t really care that much for sitting through classes that did not challenge his superior abilities, and he had recently been disciplined at the school picnic for bringing a giant jam box and blasting hip hop music with obscene lyrics. (All in a day’s work for the school’s budding genius.)
This student—I’ll call him “Mike”—could not be counted on to apply himself with any diligence to the task of actually studying a bunch of dry spelling words. He wasn’t of the ethnic strains that “home school” their child and do NOTHING but study spelling words for months. (Now THERE’S a well-rounded child…if all you want him or her to be able to do is spell “antidisestablishmentarianism!”)
So, during the REAL spell-off in our school gym several things happened that were unexpected.
First, all of my teaching colleagues whom I had considered good friends and with whom I had stormed the barricades to achieve recognition for our teachers’ group over a three-year period, went to work setting up chairs and helping Jill St. John out, which I considered, then and now, a real slap in the face.
Second, during the actual Spell-off to determine who would be our junior high school’s contestant, the judges, under the leadership of Jill St. John, seemed oblivious to the fact that “Mike” had just misspelled a word and eliminated himself. I was upstairs in the overlooking band balcony and actually had to stand up and yell down at the assembled PTB, “What about ‘predestination’?” (or whatever the offending word was). The judges finally had to acknowledge that Mr. Future Surgeon had missed his word and the contestant from my homeroom (Chris) was the winner of the “Spell off.”
Third: the fact that the contestant from my homeroom won and hers did not so enraged Jill St. John that she totally lost it in the hallway after school. With plenty of students within earshot, she began swearing a blue streak at me (as it turned out, Jill St. John had the vocabulary of a sailor). And let’s not forget that she had gone back on her own many and numerous “directives.” After countless hours wasted having “spell offs” in her classroom, she had adopted my strategy and simply selected her smartest study hall student to compete, rather than abiding by the rather lengthy and capricious results she obtained while following the directions of the local newspaper.
“Next year,” she screamed, “this will be televised!”
I barely managed to keep from saying Big Whoop.
I maintained my calm (just barely) and asked her if she’d mind accompanying me to the office to repeat everything she had just said (screamed, actually) for our esteemed Principal, Mr. DoNothing.
We marched down to the office, me determined to have all the wrongs I had suffered for months set right, but the Principal (Mr. Do-Nothing, as opposed to Dr. DoLittle) did his usual straddling of the fence. He ushered me, solo, into his office, keeping the salty-tongued Jill in his outer office.
I remember asking him, “Just exactly who IS the Chairman of the English department? I’ve been here 10 years and have a Master’s degree plus 30 hours. Why is this woman bossing everyone around, calling early morning meetings, and swearing at me in the halls, to boot?”
Mr. Do-Nothing answered that we didn’t HAVE “Chairmen” of our departments, [which was a crock], and ushered me out a side door that exited outside, suggesting that I leave early for the day. I was pissed and likely to remain so, since I still am, 34 years later. He then ushered Jill St. John into his office where they, no doubt, commiserated on how difficult Mrs. Wilson was and how wonderful her behavior had been, because, after all, SHE was married to the Superintendent of White Cliff School District, [which he would soon leave under a very black cloud].
However, the “right” student won (and, later, went to work for me at Sylvan for 15 years) but, as luck would have it, her grandparents offered her a trip to Hawaii that was to take place at exactly the same time as the aforementioned Spelling Bee Finals, which were to be held at Augustana College during Easter break.
So, “Mike”—as runner-up—-with his cast now off his leg—is shown in the official school yearbook front and center with the TRUE winner (Chris) stuck somewhere in the back of the photo. I was never issued an apology by the woman who swore a blue streak at me in the halls, and, at the end of that school year, I took one entire year off from teaching to ponder a school district that valued my efforts so little and kissed ass so much.
Did I quit?
No, I did not. I returned after one year away (spent looking for work at a higher level) and taught 5 more years before quitting for good. to take a job writing for Performance Learning Systems, Inc.
But now you have the background of my disdain for Spelling Bees, with which I preface a review of “Bad Words” to follow. While I think Spelling Bees can be fun and useful, I don’t think that staying home and doing NOTHING but studying spelling words has much to recommend it as being the best possible educational course of action, and I still remember the injustice(s) of the first one held at my school in school year 1979-1980.
We had the opportunity to see Brenner “live” on 2 occasions.
The first time, he was the lead-in act for Donna Summer in Las Vegas. I remember that he came out onstage and immediately made fun of his profile, saying he resembled the emblem on the hood of a Buick. This was probably in the seventies, and his show was very funny and less cerebral than the second time I saw him “live,” which was right here in town at the comedy club on the Davenport side of the river. (The Funny Bone?) I’m unsure of the name of the club now, but I think it was located within the “mall” that never has quite made it—the one that surrounds Bettendorf’s gambling boat.
Brenner brought out a music stand and propped up clippings from local papers and riffed for a good hour or more on ads and stories from our own local papers, poking particular fun at the multitude of ads for cars. He was funny, cerebral, timely and you didn’t get the feeling that he was giving the same show in Davenport that he gave in every other city where he played, which put him in a special class, as, when we saw Steve Martin here in town, his show as the same show he had given as the lead-in for Helen Reddy, back in the day when “I Am Woman, Hear Me Roar” was big.
Brenner is being mourned by many stand-up comics who have given the man his due as a great influence on the style(s) of such comedians as Richard Lewis (whom he mentored), Jerry Seinfeld and a host of others. It has been said that he was a guest on the “Tonight” show more times than any other guest, but that same claim was made for an equally funny comic, David Steinberg, who has gone on to direct and about whom we recently watched a documentary. Steinberg, too, was a smart, witty guy who changed his act nightly, but he has more-or-less forsaken stand-up to direct such comedy shows as Larry David’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”
The last few times I saw David Brenner on television were on the late-night comedy show which was a sort of “round table” type show, and he was one of many.
I’m glad I got to see him twice, and it is easy to see what a great influence he was on so many other comics working today.
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