RIP Monica Johnson

As well as working on “Laverne and Shirley,” “It’s Garry Shandling’s Show,” and “The Mary Tyler Moore,” Monica Johnson, who has passed on from esophageal cancer, was also the cowriter of all of Alberts Brooks’ films from 1978’s “Real Life” to 1999’s “The Muse.” Being a cowriter to a figure like Brooks can be a thankless task and there’s no way to know what her particular contribution was to the classic scenes below from “Lost in America.” I think it’s safe to say, however, that a significant amount — probably more than we’ll ever realize — of the Brooks wit in all five of their films was actually from her.

And, after the flip a bonus from between those two scenes. I’m guessing one of the most often embedded film clips on YouTube.

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A chat with Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, directors of “The Extra Man”

Shari Springer Berman and Robert PulciniThe recent death of autobiographical comics writer Harvey Pekar at age 70 was a more bitter than sweet reminder of one of the first really great films of our young millennium. Released in 2003 and written and directed by the husband and wife team of Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, “American Splendor” dared to place actors Paul Giamatti, Hope Davis, and Judah Friedlander — portraying Pekar, wife Joyce Brabner, and their ultra-nerd friend, Toby Radloff — alongside the real Pekar, Brabner, and Radloff, seamlessly combining traditional fiction, documentary film, and some charmingly minimalist comic book-style animation to make easily the most inventive and rewarding comics-to-film translation so far. (Yes, I think it’s better than “The Dark Knight.”)

What made it even more impressive was that this was the first fiction film by its makers. Prior to “American Splendor,” Berman and Pulcini were the documentararians behind a pair of films focusing on film and show-business landmarks. They chronicled the death of a venerable, movie-star-beloved Beverly Hills restaurant in “Off the Menu: The Last Days of Chasen’s” and the rebirth of the ultimate movieland cemetery into the world’s hippest burial plot in “The Young and the Dead.” The pair also made a 2006 IFC documentary about road movies, “Wanderlust.”

Their return to fiction films, 2007’s “The Nanny Diaries,” was less well-received, but now Berman and Pulcini are back with an imperfect but enjoyable comedy. Co-written with author Jonathan Ames (HBO’s “Bored to Death”) from his semi-autobiographical novel, “The Extra Man” stars Paul Dano as Louis Ives, a courtly 20-something with a fixation on 1920s literature and a certain amount of sexual/gender confusion, who finds himself spending a lot of time with his new roommate — an aging, ultra-obscure, ultra-reactionary playwright named Henry Harrison (Oscar and Tony winning veteran stage and film star Kevin Kline).

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Berman and Pulcini are also preparing their next film. “Cinema Verite,” with James Gandolfini, Diane Lane, and Tim Robbins starring in a screenplay by veteran scenarist David Seltzer (“The Omen,” “Punchline”). It’s a tailor-made premise for the couple: the making of “An American Family,” the groundbreaking and highly controversial PBS documentary series which essentially created the modern reality television genre in 1975. The series was also the inspiration for the 1979 Albert Brooks comedy, “Real Life.”

When I was escorted to the room at L.A.’s Four Seasons where I was to meet with the writing-directing pair, I was surprised to see only one person and at first I wasn’t sure I had arrived at the right place. Robert Pulcini and I talked about our shared first name (he’s a “Bob” too), and he explained cordially that his wife would be returning in just a moment. Shari Springer Berman arrived and then somehow got into the topic of the unusual spelling of my last name. All very fascinating — to me — but I figured I’d better talk about Berman and Pulcini’s movies instead.

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Celluloid Heroes: The 10 Funniest Lines of the ’00s

It takes a lot to make me laugh out loud at something a person says. Witty is one thing, but genuinely funny is another beast altogether. And when I say laugh out loud, I’m talking about involuntary spasms of laughter, the kind that take a couple of minutes to subside. There is no formula for it, and I have no criteria for what form it takes. I just know it when it see it. Unfortunately, I don’t see it often enough. Sometimes they appear in otherwise unfunny movies, at which point I usually get angry, but that’s a subject for another day.

In the first of a long list of decade-oriented blog posts about the movies of the 2000s, here are the lines that made me laugh the hardest at the Googoplex. Be advised, potential SPOILERS abound here, so I don’t want to hear that I ruined such and such movie for you. What are your favorite lines? Let’s hear ’em in the comment section.

#10: Up – Somebody always loves you
This is more of a laughter-through-tears kind of thing, but it’s my list, my rules, so it counts. Pete Docter goes straight for the heart in this movie, almost mercilessly so. The “married life” sequence makes me cry like a little girl every time I watch it, and this scene, where the loyal Dug comes to comfort Carl, is quite possibly the “Awwwwwww” moment of the decade.

#9. Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story – Peter La Fleur learns just how small his problems really are
Next time you think about quitting something, anything, remember this exchange between the defeated gym owner Peter La Fleur (Vince Vaughn) and cyclist Lance Armstrong:

Lance Armstrong: Could I get a bottle of water. (Looks to his left) Hey, aren’t you Peter La Fleur?
Peter La Fleur: Lance Armstrong!
Lance Armstrong: Yeah, that’s me. But I’m a big fan of yours.
Peter La Fleur: Really?
Lance Armstrong: Yeah, I’ve been watching the dodgeball tournament on the Ocho. ESPN 8. I just can’t get enough of it. But, good luck in the tournament. I’m really pulling for you against those jerks from Globo Gym. I think you better hurry up or you’re gonna be late.
Peter La Fleur: Uh, actually I decided to quit… Lance.
Lance Armstrong: Quit? You know, once I was thinking about quitting when I was diagnosed with brain, lung and testicular cancer, all at the same time. But with the love and support of my friends and family, I got back on the bike and I won the Tour de France five times in a row. But I’m sure you have a good reason to quit. So what are you dying from that’s keeping you from the finals?
Peter La Fleur: Right now it feels a little bit like… shame.
Lance Armstrong: Well, I guess if a person never quit when the going got tough, they wouldn’t have anything to regret for the rest of their life. But good luck to you, Peter. I’m sure this decision won’t haunt you forever.

#8. The Simpsons Movie – Albert Brooks loses his mind
Albert Brooks is the fifth Beatle of the “Simpsons” writing staff. The writers love him, and he loves the show. No guest performer has played more characters – the RV salesman, Brad Goodman, Jaques the bowler, the megalomaniacal Hank Scorpio – but his role as the power-mad director of the EPA vaults “The Simpsons Movie” to another level. The scene where he tricks President Arnold Schwarzenegger into doing his evil bidding is the better overall scene, but as single lines go, my favorite is when he’s confronted with his thirst for power. As Fat Tony once said, it’s funny because it’s true.

EPA Officer: Sir, I’m afraid you’ve gone mad with power
Russ Cargill: Well, of course I have. You ever tried going mad without power? It’s boring, no one listens to you.

#7. Zombieland – Woody Harrelson settles a debate the old fashioned way: by threatening an ass kicking
With apologies to when Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg) tells Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson) that he’s “like a giant cock blocking robot, like developed in a secret fucking government lab,” my favorite bit is this sly moment where Columbus tells Tallahassee that he’s heard there’s a place where there are no zombies, at which point Tallahassee assures him that such a place doesn’t exist.

Tallahassee: You know, you’re like a penguin on the North Pole hears the South Pole’s really nice this time of year.
Columbus: There are no penguins on the North Pole.
Tallahasee: (pause) You wanna feel how hard I can punch?

#6. Burn After Reading – Tilda Swinton forcefully illustrates that thing she…doesn’t do
She won the Oscar for “Michael Clayton” – which, in my mind, was a totally unwarranted example of the Hollywood welfare system at work – but this is bar none my favorite Tilda Swinton performance to date. As Katie Cox, Swinton is the coldest, most humorless succubus of a human being that you’ll find. (Even better, she’s a pediatrician.) Why George Clooney’s character Harry would choose her for an ongoing affair over the other women he beds during the movie is a mystery, but their relationship does produce the movie’s funniest moment, when Katie discusses destroying her husband while Harry suggests playing it cool and not hammering him while he’s down. “Is that how you see me? Hammering him?” The rest speaks for itself.

#5. Get Smart: Driving range car crash
All hail Alan Arkin. No one else could have made this line as funny as he does.

#4. 1408 – John Cusack speaks a universal truth
Mike Enslin (Cusack), a man who writes about supposedly haunted locations, wants to check into room 1408 at New York’s Dolphin Hotel. Hotel manager Gerald Olin (Samuel L. Jackson) tries to talk him out of it during a meeting in his office.

Gerald Olin: You do drink, don’t you?
Mike Enslin: Of course! I just said I was a writer.

Saw this at a critics-only screening. Big, big laughter followed that exchange.

#3. The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters – Billy Mitchell equates himself with one of the most hotly contested issues in our nation’s history
Arguably the greatest movie villain the ‘00s had to offer – even more terrifying when you take into account that he’s real – video game wizard and restaurant magnate Billy Mitchell is awesome. Just ask him, and he’ll tell you. Hell, you don’t even have to ask him. He lays it all out on the table in this one line:

No matter what I say, it draws controversy. It’s sort of like the abortion issue.

That’s right, people, he compared himself, and his status within the video game community, to Roe vs. Wade. To be that fond of yourself, yet be completely lacking in self-awareness or tact, that is a gift. A gift wrapped in a denim shirt and a feathered mullet. Thank you, God.

#2. Finding Nemo – The seagulls
It’s one of those head-slappers of a commentary. But of course that’s what seagulls are saying when they crow. What else could it be? It’s not as if they’re picky about what they eat or anything. Even better is the line from the pelican Nigel (Geoffrey Rush), where he calls them “rats with wings.” Even the animal kingdom hates seagulls.

#1. Sex Drive – Andy and Randy hitting on the church girl
It made about a buck and change at the box office, but “Sex Drive” is without a doubt my favorite comedy of the decade. I could have made a list of nothing but quotes from this movie alone, but if I have to choose one, it’s unquestionably the scene where Lance (Clark Duke) has his shy friend Ian (Josh Zuckerman) observe the seduction technique of classmates Andy and Randy, in order to convey the message that confidence is a powerful aphrodisiac. That it doesn’t work on our little donation-soliciting friend only makes the exchange funnier. Imagine what Andy and Randy will be able to accomplish once they learn how to close.

  

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The geek overload continues! (updated)

With the completely and utterly sold-out Comic-Con starting mid-week, Hollywood publicists seem to be working overtime to fulfill your no doubt insatiable need for geek news. I could probably write seven or eight posts catering to nerd proclivities. But you’re getting just one today, (and, with the help of few snafus, this one took much longer than it should have). A few highlights

* Leonardo DiCaprio’s company has signed writer Rand Ravich (“The Astronaut’s Wife,” the TV series “Life”) to do a new film somehow tied to Rod Serling’s classic anthology science-fiction/fantasy TV series, “The Twilight Zone.” Many of you will remember the 1983 film, which utilized multiple writers and directors and consisted of three adaptations of well known episodes from the original series, one tale loosely drawn from a pair of episodes (sadly infamous due to the accident which killed actor Vic Morrow and two illegally hired children, very nearly ending the career of director John Landis), and a framing story featuring Albert Brooks and Dan Aykroyd. No word on what form this new film would take — a single tale would be missing the entire point of “The Twilight Zone,” IMO — and I’m unfamiliar with Ravich’s work. So, it’ll be interesting to watch this one move further along the pipeline.

[Update: Apparently, one year ago at least, the idea was to make a single film drawn from an episode of the series. Why, I have no idea. I learned this via Monika Bartyzel, you can read her post and my messed up comments here.

* The word on the overseas grosses for “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” are in and they’re a new worldwide five day record of $297 million. Blimey.

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