Friday, April 26, 2013

The "Ands" Have It

Werth: Howdy, Wise.  Whatcha writing?  

 Wise: Oh, hi, Werth.  The new Mark Wahlberg and Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson movie Pain and Gain has me thinking about some of my favorite pairs: Fred and Ginger, peanut butter and jelly, vodka and ginger ale.  Some things are just better as twosomes. 

Werth:  As early as 1919's Male and Female, Hollywood has been pairing up great things with just those three little letters.  

Wise: Just think of Abbott and Costello, Hope and Crosby, Tracy and Hepburn, Wayne and Garth—the list is endless.  

Werth: My favorite "and" flick would have to be Hal Ashby's 1971 cult classic Harold and Maude. Harold (Bud Cort) is a melancholic teen who is obsessed with death. Whether he's faking his own suicide, turning a Jaguar into a hearse, or attending a total stranger's funeral, Harold matter-of-factly rebels against his stuffy upper-class upbringing and his socially rapacious mother (Vivian Pickles and yes, that's a real actress) by making death more interesting than life. When almost eighty-year-old Maude (Ruth Gordon) befriends him at a funeral for someone she doesn't know either, one of Hollywood's strangest couples is born.

Wise: Although her marriage to her screenwriting partner Garson Kanin evidently had plenty of quirks. 

Werth: Maude is like Auntie Mame meets Little Edie as she shows Harold the freedom that life offers by stealing cars, rescuing trees, smoking a hookah, posing nude for an ice sculptor and just generally doing whatever she wants. Harold, and we, are enchanted by this vivacious old gal and without even a moment of over-sentimentality, this film is one of the most life-affirming stories put on film. 
Ashby was a master of directing these strange comedies where the odd and the different wind-up being exalted in a way that makes them feel charmingly normal. Cort's face moves from dull stupor to impish glee with skillful ease, Gordon is energetically
kooky, and Pickles is hysterical as a mother who is so used to her son pretending to commit suicide that she will swim past his body in the pool as if it's not there at all. But none of these characters feel like they are too much. They are rooted so strongly in the reality of the world writer Colin Higgins has created, that we never doubt their strangeness.

Wise: I've been a fan of bodies in swimming pools since Sunset Boulevard

Werth: John A. Alonzo's camerawork is ingenious with juxtaposed shots of fields of daisies and a military cemetery visually hinting at an anti-war sentiment and gorgeous horizons that evoke Maude's credo to "L-I-V-E." The Cat Stevens soundtrack is worth a listen as well, perfectly pairing sad undertones with joyous guitar and piano. Harold and Maude proves you can make a funny and touching movie about Life and Death.

Wise: Life and death also figure prominently in another movie, this time based on the most recognizable couple in all of English letters: Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet (1996).

Werth: "+"'s and and's are interchangeable, n'est pas? 

Wise: The filmmaker's unusual punctuation signals his desire to do away with heavily sentimentalized versions of Shakespeare's classic and inject a contemporary edge to the drama while still remaining faithful to the original play.  
This isn't Leslie Howard and Norma Shearer decked out in lacy Adrian threads; instead, Luhrmann pairs actual teenagers Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes, and exchanges Renaissance Italy for a late 20th Century battle scarred metropolis (the film was shot in Miami and Mexico City and enhanced with a lot of dust and wind machines).  
The elder Capulets and the Montagues head rival  corporations while the younger generations form gangs and battle over turf with their slick firearms cleverly branded "Sword." 

Werth: There's a gun control argument to be made here, but I'm too excited by the gunplay to make it.

Wise: The soundtrack is awash with hit acts from the '90s—Garbage, Radiohead, Everclear, Des'ree, The Cardiganswhich propels the action and lends rhythm to the scenes.  Luhrmann and his cinematographer Donald McAlpine use the camera agressively, zooming into closeups, swirling kaleidoscopically during action sequences or hovering tentatively in quieter moments, compelling the audience to pay close attention to what the actors are saying. Luhrmann also stages the iconic balcony scene in a swimming pool, which sounds preposterous, but turns out to have been a brilliant transformation.

Werth: I like his use of an aquarium in the meeting of the two ill-fated heart-throbs. 

Wise: I have kind of mixed feelings about the movie as a whole.  A number of Luhrmann's decisions seem hopelessly dated (like DiCaprio's bowling shirts), while others feel just as fresh now as they did almost two decades ago.  
The central conceit placing the action amidst gang warfare can feel a bit forced at times, but Luhrmann's real strength is in drawing compelling performances from his actorsJohn Leguizamo is electric as hot-headed Tybalt, pouring his antic charisma into Juliet's short-tempered cousin.  Brian Dennehy and Paul Sorvino make suitable rivals as the heads of the Montegues and the Capulets, respectively.  
But it is DiCaprio and Danes who do the most compelling work, revealing both the passion of these young lovers and their childishness, a combination that proves tragic in the end. 

 Werth: All this talk of "ands" makes me think of my favorite pairing.

Wise: Joan Crawford and Pepsi?

Werth: Yesand next week's Werth and Wise.


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