Gone Baby Gone (and a few great oldies)

Gone Baby Gone (2007) directed by Ben Affleck

Another gritty tale from the neighborhoods of Boston, again based on a Dennis Lehane novel. I think this is better than Mystic River, actually. It’s as heartwrenching, and it handles its precarious subject matter deftly. A child, Amy is missing. Her aunt and uncle, well played by Amy Madigan and Titus Welliver, approach skip tracers Casey Affleck and Michelle Monaghan to help with the investigation. They don’t want to, it’s a big media mess and every cop in the city is on the case, but once they meet the eerily calm mother played by Amy Ryan, they take the case.
What leads from there is a twisted tale of deceit in the Boston underworld, where the child is ransom for stolen drug money, and of course the swap goes horribly wrong. It happens so early in the film that no good can come from it, and it besmirches the careers of Police Captain Morgan Freeman, who himself lost a child to abduction years ago, and Ed Harris, a hard-nosed detective who made his bones protecting kids in the rough places his beat took him. That wouldn’t be much of a story, and Affleck’s P.I. can’t let it go. It’s one of the cases that haunts him, and he begins unraveling the real story.
Amy Ryan is the one up for awards, and it is well deserved. She has the thankless job of playing a neglectful, drug-addicted mother, someone we’re hard-wired to hate. She brings empathy to the role, but manages to never make us feel sorry for her. It’s a hard line to walk. She loves her child but is simply incapable of raising her properly. The situation leads Affleck to a moral quandary, and the ending is not what we expect. That, and the strong supporting cast, are what give the movie its power. With a quiet final shot that is a sucker punch to the gut, we share the feeling of regret that comes with making a difficult choice that we can never unmake. A notch above the typical thriller, this is one of the year’s best films. Casey Affleck and Michelle Monghan may not play the most memorable roles, but they holds their own against Freeman and Harris, and even seasoned character actors like Amy Madigan. Jill Quigg, a newcomer playing Amy Ryan’s friend, gets kudos for being the character I’ve wanted to strangle most in the films of 2007.

Blazing Saddles (1974) directed by Mel Brooks

I rewatched this classic spoof comedy this weekend with my girlfriend Sarah, who’d never seen it. I was raised on it, and part of me still yearns to see Cleavon Little posthumously awarded an Oscar for his perfect performance. Originally his role was written for (and by) Richard Pryor, and you can imagine the great comedian reading some of his lines very easily. He glides gracefully from shucking and jiving to dignity, and is so instantly likeable that he easily drives the story. It’s unfortunate, and to our loss, that this was the high point of his career.
Mel Brooks practically invented the spoof film. He began with creating the “Get Smart” TV show, spoofing James Bond, and then took on the western. A little Rio Bravo, a little Destry Rides Again, a little Stagecoach and High Noon and throw the monkeywrench of having Black Bart actually be black, and the sheriff! The racial jokes are not softened one bit, and the film wisely assumes we don’t need to be told that racism is bad. I saw a revival of this film during Warner Brothers’ 75th anniversary movie festival, and was surprised when people (all white) walked out. Sure, the “N” word is thrown with wild abandon, but it’s pretty obvious that when Slim Pickens and his rowdies say it, that Bart and his railroad worker pals will give them their comeuppance, and humiliate them. The film is clever enough to open with the workmaster teasing the black workers and demanding that they sing a spiritual. We’re introduced to Cleavon Little’s Bart when he obliges them by breaking into a classy rendition of Cole Porter’s “I Get a Kick Out of You,” and like Bugs Bunny, his obvious mentor throughout the film, he tricks them into singing “Camptown Ladies,” as they are in the Yosemite Sam role. Later he defeats the brute Mongo with an exploding Candygram, another brazen theft from Looney Tunes. Was this the first film to mimic the old Merrie Melodies cartoons? I’m not sure, but it’s still one of the best.
He eventually clobbers Pickens with a shovel and is sent to the hangman, but gets a reprieve when Harvey Korman, the amusingly named Hedley LaMarr, needs to bust up the town of Rock Ridge so he can buy the land cheap, and make a killing when the railroad comes through. Korman makes him the new sheriff, hoping the town will flee. When Bart walks in, they prepare to shoot him, and we get another taste of how well he channels the wascally wabbit to extricate himself. From there he meets the drunken Waco Kid played with masterful subtlety by Gene Wilder. Korman sends Lili Von Shtupp, Madeline Kahn’s hilarious take on Marlene Dietrich, to break his hard. Her dance routine is reminiscent of “Springtime for Hitler,” from his earlier success The Producers, but different enough to keep us laughing.
The finale doesn’t just break the fourth wall but crashes through to the other side. Endlessly mimicked but never topped, the final battle for Rock Ridge is fought on the Warner Brothers backlot and finally in the movie theater the film is playing at. So brilliant that it’s been copied a hundred times in a myriad of ways. The film doesn’t have the breakneck comedic pace of later spoofs by the Zucker Brothers who gave us Airplane!, but it has charms that they do not. Bart and the Waco Kid are memorable characters, Mongo is the iconic galoot, and Madeline Kahn’s performance is so good that anyone spoofing Dietrich nowadays is spoofing her. The film’s judicious use of profanity doesn’t work as well today, because it’s no longer shocking. But it has entered popular culture enough that when we call someone “Mongo” people know what you mean. It paved the way, and I try not to hold it accountable for the sad state of spoof movies like Epic Movie and its ilk. Even Mel Brooks ran out of steam, and maybe the mockumentary is all that’s left for spoofing. But his first is still arguably his best, and here’s hoping they make a Broadway musical out of it. The possibility of Bart singing about Schnitzen-Grubens, or a chorus of prospectors singing “The Sheriff is Nearer!” is too hilarious to ignore.

Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982) directed by Amy Heckerling

The high school movie is another Hollywood staple these days, and when my favorite came on, I had to watch it again. While I may love Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, it’s a fantasy; the closest the 80’s came to this was Say Anything, and the 90’s had Clueless (also by Heckerling). Dazed and Confused is the other 70’s nostalgia high school film of note, and Cooley High (which “What’s Happenin'”? was a spinoff off) is worth seeing.
Everyone remembers Sean Penn’s iconic Spicoli and Ray Walston’s Mr. Hand and assume it’s just another 80’s comedy, but the drama is what drives the film. We get Judge Rheinhold’s terrible luck at keeping horrible minimum wage jobs and Spicoli in between to ease the pain of Jennifer Jason Leigh and Brian Backer’s clumsy attempts at relationships. Hell, the movie has an abortion, it can’t be just a comedy. Sure it’s nostalgic, and seems aimed at the mid-70’s with the music and cars, but it doesn’t gloss over the painful business of self-discovery that begins in adolescence. When Rheinhold picks up his sister, it’s touching and we see their characters for more than the hot to trot gal and the goofy older brother whose girlfriend walks all over him. When Damone is shown as the cad he is, we cheer but it’s bittersweet, since we were also taken in for a little while.
So many good actors came from this film that it seems crazy; not just Penn and Leigh but Forrest Whitaker and Nicholas Cage have small roles. Ray Walston is great in what is probably his most memorable role made an iconic character that has influenced so many since. Heckerling’s direction makes the actors look and seem like high school kids even though most are 20 or more; her establishing shots of food, shoes, or other objects in close-up have been a staple of teen comedies since. There’s not a bad scene in it, and while it cribs the “where are they now?” end titles from Animal House, it remains fresh and original, and the pacing makes the 95 minutes seem just long enough, even though we want more.

Panic (2000) directed by Henry Bromell

“The Sopranos” had a mobster seeing a psychiatrist; this isn’t the first time a hitman has been to one, but this time it’s not a comedy like Grosse Point Blank. There’s dark humor, but this is a character study, with William H. Macy as the hitman undergoing a family crisis. He can’t take it anymore, under the thumb of his overbearing father, played by Donald Sutherland. He runs the business, having trained his son at an early age, in a fascinating and realistic sequence in the woods.
This eventually ends him up at psychiatrist John Ritter’s office. He meets a young woman named Sarah there in the waiting room, and thinks a fling with her might ease the pain. Macy is once again playing the put-upon and repressed fellow, as he did in Fargo and The Cooler, and the film rides on his performance, and Sutherland’s. It is peopled with fine character actors, from Tracey Ullman as Macy’s wife, to Neve Campbell as Sarah, the troubled young lady. She’s allowed to be a real person and not just a sexpot for him to dream about, and she’s more than she seems. Ritter is fine, similar to his role in Sling Blade.
It’s not a happy movie; Macy’s character is broken from an early age, and perhaps can’t be fixed this late in the game. It ends the only way it can, and satisfies. The dialogue is never jarring, and it’s one of the more believable portrayals of a contract killer’s unglamorous job. Roger Ebert loved the movie, and gave it four stars. Macy’s performance is one of his best, but the story is lacking. The third act seems rushed, and Sutherland goes a bit over the top, when he should have remained quietly cruel. It’s certainly worth seeing, but another ten minutes might have made this a better story.