Thursday, February 21, 2013

David O. Russell Is From Another Time

David O. Russell might have traveled here from the past. Whether or not you believe in time travel, his brand of filmmaking in today's world is remarkable. He is the only director working today with a penchant for telling stories (that touch on tough topics) with incredible humor and wit, without making a joke out his characters. The joke is not on anyone in a David O. Russell picture –– but it might just be on life itself. He's the only director I can think of who's gifted enough to make true screwball, romantic comedies out of even the most dour scenarios. And he's the only one whose work comes close to directors from around the Depression-era, those who were able to bring a kind of magical, yet believable, earnestness to the silver screen. David O. Russell could be, might be (or is he??) from another time.
Even his name, David O. Russell, belongs in another era. It has that kind of ring to it (it even recalls the big name of Selznick, the other David O.) In my mind, he could be out there in the 1930's or 1940's, receiving accolades alongside his 'peers-from-another-time', Frank Capra or Howard Hawks. Imagine a creepy moment now –– like in 'The Shining', when you realize Jack Torrance had always been at The Overlook Hotel as he appears in that photograph from 1921.
Maybe there's a photograph of David O. Russell alongside Preston Sturges at a film directors' function of some sort, somewhere. This theory is both delightful and scary.
Preston Sturges | David O. Russell
And speaking of Preston Sturges, his 'Sullivan's Travels' is one of just a handful of movies that struck such a deep chord in me, instilling the desire to be involved with filmmaking in some capacity. I see a lot of what I love about 'Sullivan's Travels' in David O. Russell's films.
Is David O. Russell the improved Sullivan... incarnate?
That 'Sullivan's Travels' connection can be broken down into three aspects that appear in each of my four favorite David O. Russell films:
  1. Main protagonist embarks on an unusual, perspective-altering journey, which directly ties with his career or family. 
  2. Protagonist meets unusual and alluring people along the way –– who join this journey and make a huge impression on said protagonist.
  3. Characters depicted in the story manage to be both incredibly easy to relate to... and yet, somehow, they are unlike anyone you'll meet in life (reality+magic, ordinary people living extraordinary lives –– or the failed attempt at the opposite, as in the case of 'Sullivan's Travels'.)
In fact, I'll take it a step further and say that David O. Russell may have actually been like John L. Sullivan (again, that name from another era) –– a successful Hollywood director who wants to show the world what real life and real problems are like, only to realize people would rather laugh and be entertained when they watch a movie to escape from all the misery of life (not to relive it again) –– however, David O. Russell has achieved what Sullivan had hoped to achieve and beyond. He found the key to showing what has potential to feel real and true, without losing your audience, is by balancing that with strong doses of cheer. Maybe David O. Russell's time traveling is in fact that he is the new-and-improved, and wiser, Sullivan... incarnate!
The four films that have this 'Sulivan's Travels' connection for me are:

Flirting With Disaster (1996) 
I'm a huge fan of this movie (it's been my favorite of David O. Russell's until 'Silver Linings Playbook' came around. Now they are tied for favorite.)  
Quintessential screwball comedy. It's just as funny today as it was in 1996. Considering how poorly comedies from the 1990's hold up, that says an awful lot about David O. Russell's timeless sensibilities. 
Just thinking about this movie makes me laugh. Did anyone else notice the 'Bringing Up Baby' references? For example, the fiance/spouse in both films is a scientist. I still cry from laughing at the various madcap misadventures that take place on this journey, and I especially love the accidental acid trip scene with the Schlichtings. 
As with all of Russell's films, could the cast have been any better? Apart of the main trio, I'm thrilled there's a movie I can watch containing Mary Tyler Moore, George Segal, Alan Alda, Lily Tomlin, Richard Jenkins, Josh Brolin –– the list goes on.
I Heart Huckabees (2004)
So many heavy questions about life and our very existence are at play –– and yet somehow, this movie couldn't be any lighter or more enjoyable. I heart this movie (sorry, had to say it.)
The casting here is once again top-notch. Lily Tomlin returned to work with David O. Russell (and famously threw a fit in a moment of frustration) playing an 'existential detective', along with Dustin Hoffman. Naomi Watts is truly memorable in her oddball role, Isabelle Huppert and Mark Wahlberg round out the cast with some great moments. There is really no shortage of talent here.
'I Heart Huckabees' is a movie that would have fallen apart at the hands of another director, but with David O. Russell's screwball comedy prowess, it's highly entertaining. And I personally love its existential messages and leanings.
The Fighter (2010)
When I sat down in the theater to watch 'the Fighter', I wasn't sure what I was in for, since it looked like it would be another dour but inspirational true-to-life (based on a true story) boxing picture. I was curious to see what David O. Russell wanted to do with it.
The opening sequence of this movie was enough for me to walk out right then and there satisfied and happy. It's probably one of the most buoyant and jubilant opening sequences of all time, perfectly capturing the humorous side of the two brothers, Mickey Ward and Dickey Eklund. It also manages to show us that in this dumpy town, where people could be down and depressed –– they actually know how to live, and to laugh. The opening welcomes you right into their world, and you're happy to join the party.
Another example of brilliant casting: The Ladies. Melissa Leo was about to hit the big time and win an Oscar for her role as Alice Ward, tough mother to quite a lot of kids: countless equally tough daughters (ones with hairstyles, wardrobes and attitudes that don't typically appear on movie screens –– which is hysterical) and the two boxing sons. 
Amy Adams also shows her tougher side in this movie (and by this film, it was obvious what kind of range she has.) Looks can be deceiving, and anyone who has see 'The Fighter' can attest that despite its seemingly down-trodden appearance, it is an extremely uplifting and fun movie to watch. 
Silver Linings Playbook (2012)
My favorite movie of 2012 –– and even in recent memory. Forget Bradley Cooper's countless, well-deserved nominations for 'Silver Linings Playbook', his work in this movie is astonishing. His performance has recently been eclipsed by the one given by his talented costar, Jennifer Lawrence, who has actually been winning the awards for which she's been nominated. But don't be mistaken: Bradley Cooper is the shining star of this movie. His is THE performance of the year, in my opinion.
The cast is incredibly talented, like they have been in all of David O. Russell's films. But in 'Silver Linings Playbook', everyone hits their stride in what becomes one of those rare movie experiences where every scene, and every performer in it, is just perfect. 
Again, David O. Russell tackles a tough (and very timely) topic –– mental health –– but he does it with so much warmth, sweetness, and humor that his film becomes a screwball comedy instead of a downer. That is much more challenging and masterful work than making a straight comedy, drama, thriller... what have you. Watching this movie, I laughed, I cried... I cried from laughing. The range of emotions we feel along with the characters is of staggering, in some ways life-altering, proportions. On this particular journey, we are all entirely engaged from start to finish. It's a perfectly executed David O. Russell film. The director is now at the very peak of his game.
Robert De Niro and Jackie Weaver are so believable as Bradley Cooper's parents –– their love for their son is palpable and incredibly moving. Like many movie lovers, I agree that it was refreshing to see De Niro back to his rightful place and level here. His collaboration with David O. Russell has been a welcomed reminder of what his acting is all about. As soon as we left the theater after watching 'Silver Linings Playbook', long before others had even heard about it (it was only playing in one theater in all of San Francisco at the time) I announced with assurance to my husband that all four actors –– Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro, and Jackie Weaver –– would be nominated for Oscars. I hoped David O. Russell and the movie would, too.
I also hoped Chris Tucker might be on a short list for best supporting actor nominations. In fact, the entire supporting cast was surprisingly excellent.
I wasn't sure what to expect with the dance scenes. I've studied ballet throughout all of my adult years, in particular (and danced whenever I could from grade school through college), and there are certain emotions that movies depicting dancing (or dancers) just don't capture well. Since these two characters are meant to be lowly amateurs, competing for the sake of connecting, I didn't expect much besides humor and potential embarrassment from the final dance sequence.
And here is where I prayed that the film's EDITOR would get an Oscar nomination. (Follow up note: the film's editor did get a nod from the Academy.)  I won't go into verbal detail, but the dance sequence made me cry. Somehow, David O. Russell, the camera crew, the editor –– everyone involved –– understood what this sequence should look like and mean, those moments in motion. I felt exhilarated, and my heart was breaking at the same time. This very surprising scene, its outcome and the way it was executed was pure movie magic. I told my husband between tears, this is a timeless scene –– this scene is an instant classic.
Long after the Oscars and awards brouhaha have ended, people will watch 'Silver Linings Playbook', and that dance sequence (such a classic, rewarding scene) will live on and make people smile, laugh and cry over and over again. Just like any great screwball (or depression-era) comedy, this one will long live in our hearts and minds.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Partnerlook: Couples Who Dress Alike

English speakers are often impressed/amused/overwhelmed by how the German language may offer one long-ish word (or awkward word combo) to represent what's described with a phrase in English. One such amusement can come from a German term for couples (or any two individuals) who dress alike. That word-combo is 'partnerlook'. 
Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg in matching corduroy suits
The word is silly, but it works. The idea of partnerlook can never seem entirely romantic. It can even be creepy to spot a couple dressed alike. But the term typically describes couples who wear matching rain gear. Or as a German native described it: 'Boring jackets.' 
But on the right couple, partnerlook can be adorable. Even tasteful. Partnerlook can mean the couple feels like a union of equals, that they don't necessarily have traditional roles –– or that they simply like each other so much they want to dress alike. Whatever lies behind partnerlook-ing (if it can be used as a verb), I thought it would be fun to share some great examples of 'partnerlook' for Valentine's Day. 

Behold: the partnerlook.
Sonny and Cher partnerlook-ing
Jean Shrimpton and Terence Stamp
Matching sweaters
The Shrimp and The Stamp in sweaters
Dick is not ashamed of his partnerlook
with Paula. Why should he be?

David Bowie and Angie took parterlook-ing so far 
they came out the other side
The full-on partnerlook
They've perfected their partnerlook
One couple truly mastered the partnerlook: Paul and Linda McCartney. Often times with the same hairdo, which is a far more committed and powerful statement than wearing similar threads. P and L understood PL like nobody's business. Happy Valentine's Day :-)
Orange overalls and tees
Floppy hats
Matching mullets, expressions, coats
There can be exuberance in partnerlooking
Sweaters: entire families can participate in partnerlook
Very clean, streamlined togetherness
Two mullets and a baby
Stage mullets
His and hers
The yellow and the pose makes for the best wedding photo ever.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

From White Socks to a Rhinestone Glove (with a Snake in the Grass in the Middle): The Fantastic Impact of Stanley Donen

Stanley Donen
How far can one movie director's influence really go? With choreographer-turned-director Stanley Donen, there is a whole different level of visual influence, the breadth of which people are not as aware of as they could (or should) be. Truth is, whatever generation in which we have lived (or are living) we have all been tremendously influenced by what Stanley Donen created in the 20th century.
Stanley Donen between takes for 'Two For The Road'
with Albert Finney and Audrey Hepburn
I feel fortunate when I think about Stanley Donen, and I think about him daily. The reason I feel 'lucky' is because he's still with us! The first time I stopped to consider this felt like a stroke of luck. Wow, Stanley Donen is a living legend and he's so full of life and energy. I saw him on TCM a few years ago talking to Robert Osborne about his films; I just couldn't believe his vitality. I thought about how great it would be to be like Stanley Donen, at his age after so many experiences. And what a legacy. 

I have to think about Stanley Donen on a daily basis, it can't be helped. I'm aware of his profound influence on so much of our 20th century pop culture favorites. His impact is unfathomable, its enormity too great to capture.
Albert Finney, Stanley Donen and Audrey Hepburn
on the set of 'Two For The Road'
I settled on a title for this piece quickly, despite the fact that there's so much to use as a measuring stick for Stanley Donen's influence on the way we visualize and interpret movies we watch, the dancing we enjoy, the music we hear. Even the clothes we wear. It would have been easier to write a series of blog posts on Stanley Donen than to try an all-encompassing one. So to break it down more easily, I figured the best way to illustrate Stanley Donen's influence would be to bring in Bob Fosse at the midway point of the vast benchmark for a stable and defined measure. So there's that. Might be the first time Fosse (also beloved, majorly influential, himself influenced by Donen, and sadly no longer with us) was brought in to add stability to any situation.
With Bob Fosse (left) and Debbie Reynolds
Stanley Donen directed 'On The Town', 'Royal Wedding', 'Singing In The Rain', 'Seven Brides For Seven Brothers', 'Damn Yankees', 'Kiss Them For Me','The Pajama Game', 'The Grass Is Greener'. He directed 'Funny Face', and 'Indiscreet'. He directed 'Charade', 'Arabesque' 'Bedazzled', 'Two For The Road'. The gorgeous list just goes on and on. His films are also a sad reminder that the stars who appear and perform so beautifully in them (apart from Albert Finney, bless him, who made his most recent appearance in 'Skyfall') are no longer with us. We've lost Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, Audrey Hepburn, Cary Grant, Ingrid Bergman, Gregory Peck, Suzy Parker, Deborah Kerr, Dudley Moore, Peter Cook. We've lost Fosse. Yet Stanley Donen lives. And he gave them their very best moments on film. 
Fred Astaire, Stanley Donen (second from right) and Gene Kelly 
He gave us Gene Kelly dancing with Jerry the mouse (in 'Anchors Aweigh', a film he didn't direct.) The idea and the production of the groundbreaking sequence came from Stanley Donen. His work in creating it made way for every live action/animation film to follow. 
Gene Kelly and Jerry
He gave us the amazing Fred Astaire dancing on the ceiling in ROYAL WEDDING. That stunning (and painstakingly executed) visual trick still impresses today. It was also invented by Donen.
Fred Astaire dances on the ceiling in Royal Wedding
The great Gene Kelly (and company) in SINGING IN THE RAIN.
He gave us everything charming in FUNNY FACE. (Think Pink!) 
CHARADE. So much can be said for this one. I won't even try!
He gave us the beautifully unique (again, groundbreaking for its time) style of editing/storytelling in TWO FOR THE ROAD, the movie I've probably been most sentimental about in my life. Perhaps my all-time favorite. 
These days, it's a thrill when a filmmaker has made two or three movies I truly love in the span of his or her career. I can't count the number of Stanley Donen films I LOVE with all my heart. It's fair to say that Stanley Donen is the very last of the greats. 
Audrey Hepburn and Richard Avedon
with Stanley Donen and company
Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen
Stanley Donen gave our greatest movie stars their greatest moments by which to remember them. That level of impact is unique for any entertainer. To this end, we can look at Stanley Donen's collaborations with Audrey Hepburn. He presented her at her most charming, flirtatious and playful in 'Charade'.
Stanley Donen gave us a look at Audrey Hepburn at her most natural, free, and beautiful in 'Two For The Road'. 
And back to topic, on point with the title of this blog post, Stanley Donen gave us Audrey Hepburn's most exuberant on-screen moment: dancing in 'Funny Face'. And here begins that 'benchmark' I mentioned earlier in the post.
Stanley Donen has described their collaboration in 'Funny Face': 'She was wonderful.... We only had one disagreement.... On Funny Face. There was a scene where she danced in a black slacks and top. She said [I want to wear] black socks and I said no, white socks. She said it will ruin [the uniformity]. You can’t have white socks. I made a test with her in the white socks and she kept saying black socks. We were right up to the moment of starting the sequence. I went into her dressing room and said, “Audrey. We are never going to agree — you will have to wear the white socks.” She said all right. When the rushes came in she wrote me a little note: “Dear Stanley, you were right about the socks.”'
It is well-documented that Audrey Hepburn was amiable, both personally and professionally. Few (if any) people took issue with her. 
Aside from the rare account of friction with stars like Humphrey Bogart (who felt agitated while working with her) she was easy to work with and highly professional.
She was also smart (on point, one could say) in terms of what looked best on her, visually. She had a strong and defined perspective in matters pertaining to her own style and appearance. And she tended to be right. 
For Audrey Hepburn to go as far as she did––to insist, against her director's wishes, that she needed to wear black socks for her dance scene in 'Funny Face'––was atypical. She was obviously passionate about this issue, concerned with the way the line and 'uniformity' of her look would appear in the scene if she were to wear those white socks as Stanley Donen so adamantly instructed. 
She never agreed to it. But she finally (reluctantly) gave in. 
She was soon to discover as we all have, ever since, when watching the sequence, that when it comes right down to it––Stanley Donen was not only right about the white socks, YOU CANNOT TAKE YOUR EYES OFF OF THEM THE ENTIRE TIME. 
Those white socks that Stanley Donen insisted upon actually make this memorable and influential dance sequence in 'Funny Face' what it is. 
This brilliant visual tactic, one Audrey Hepburn resisted (and perhaps a lesser director would have just melted and given in to her desperate pleas) would be used again by other dancing artists to equally memorable effect. 
Moving on to the next point in this Stanley Donen benchmark of influence (the midway point of reference) we have the fabulous Bob Fosse, himself a choreographer, of the highest order, turned director. 

Just like the man who was likely his greatest influence, Stanley Donen. 
There is a now famous clip on YouTube of Bob Fosse performing (wearing dance shoes with white spats, not unlike the visual effect of wearing black loafers with white socks) in 'The Little Prince' as the Snake In The Grass. Watch it here:
This scene has been referred to by some as containing 'first moonwalk'. Many have noted that Fosse's dancing style is the one from which Michael Jackson gained so much inspiration in his own career. 
The first moonwalk is highly debatable since there have been quite a few notable, earlier incarnations of the move prior to Michael Jackson's adopting it around the time of his Thriller album. 
What I find far more interesting (and this can actually blow your mind) is that this scene was directed by none other than... Stanley Donen!! 'The Little Prince' is a Stanley Donen film(!) Both he and Bob Fosse were great choreographers. Therefore: Wouldn't it be difficult to say where Stanley Donen's influence in this clip would begin––or end? 
So. Bob Fosse (and 'The Little Prince') influenced Michael Jackson. 

But Stanley Donen influenced Bob Fosse in order to create what influenced Michael Jackson. 

You do the math. 
Stanley Donen is the true source and core of inspiration here. 

I wouldn't hesitate to consider how much Audrey Hepburn's loose, modern, balletic dancing with white socks and black loafers in Stanley Donen's 'Funny Face' also influenced Michael Jackson's dancing and style. Again, that's 100% Stanley Donen. 

Michael Jackson was not once, but twice, deeply and heavily influenced by Stanley Donen.
Just have a look at the style of dress and the dancing that made him uber-famous around the time of Thriller. This was all Stanley Donen. 
Is your mind blown yet? Mine was. I want to know how no one has made this connection before? In researching, I didn't see anything connecting The King of Pop to Stanley Donen. Only to Bob Fosse. And now you know: Stanley Donen was behind that connection. It's about time we more credit to Stanley Donen where credit is due.
These are just some of a multitude of reasons why I can't help but think about and appreciate Stanley Donen –– for all of his contributions (even down to the way we dress) every day. He is one of my personal heroes  And he is certainly a living, walking, breathing legend to whom our entire culture of entertainment owes so much.
"But wait, there's more!" As exhaustive as Stanley Donen's massive imprint has been to expound upon here, I have to show my favorite video of Stanley Donen himself. In my opinion, this is the greatest Oscar speech of all time. (Yes... Of ALL time!)