Stress is Good—For a Story

When bad things happen to good people, we always seem to ask why. Which is the beginning of every great story.

For writers, the best advice is to continually say “no” to your characters. They are trying to get home for the holidays, like Steve Martin in Planes, Trains and Automobiles. No. They need to defeat the evil Empire before it enslaves the galaxy, like the Rebel Alliance in Star Wars. No. They need to stop the giant meteor from colliding with earth and extinguishing life as we know it, like Bruce Willis in Armageddon. NO!

When a character gets that first NO at the beginning of a story, whether in a book or movie, it becomes the catalyst for everything that follows. If Steve Martin had caught that first taxi in Planes, Trains and Automobiles, if he hadn’t tripped in his foot race with Kevin Bacon, if he hadn’t haggled with the lawyer, if John Candy hadn’t stolen the cab, if the weather hadn’t been bad, if he hadn’t been robbed… No, no, no, no, NO!

And we laughed. Sure, we felt terrible for him. We felt bad for his wife and children. We even felt awful for John Candy and the string of others he met along the way. We’ve all been told no. It’s a natural instinct that when we see someone else get the same no as we’ve experienced, we automatically cheer for them to succeed.

It causes stress. It causes conflict. It causes pain. And suspense. And drama. And laughter. That’s what good movies and all great stories are. When the characters we love finally overcome all the obstacles and get home, or defeat the Empire, or save the world, we are crying tears of joy, applauding their triumph. Because by that point, we’ve struggled along with them and their success is now ours, too.

That’s a wrap for this Toast to Cinema. Thanks for reading.

Nora Ephron, 1941-2012

Hollywood, all of us really, lost a treasure this week as Nora Ephron passed away at the age of 71. She was best known as an essayist, journalist, novelist and screenwriter. She wrote such screenplays as Silkwood (1983), When Harry Met Sally (1989), My Blue Heaven (1990), Sleepless in Seattle (1993), You’ve Got Mail (1998), and Julie and Julia (2009).

Her writing touched her audiences. Her scripts attracted great talents like Meryl Streep, Meg Ryan, Joan Cusack, Billy Crystal, Steve Martin, Rob Reiner and Tom Hanks. These are all people who use their gifts to make us laugh and cry at virtually the same moment. Her words gave them wings to do it.

What I like best about Nora Ephron, and what I will miss the most, is that she gave a voice to the thoughts and fears and dreams that reside in all real-life relationships. Her characters argue and debate about all of the challenges that we face. They have best friend conversations like we all have, as well as in-depth dating conversations that most of us avoid.

She gave us permission to have far-fetched, fairy-tale dreams about white knights. She showed us what that kind of thing looks like in the real world. She encouraged us all to talk. She showed us how to communicate with the ones we love—or might one day love. She reflected the real world in her movies and sprinkled them with laughter, so that we knew that it’s all right to laugh at ourselves. Though she’s moved on, her films will continue her work. Thank you for that, Nora.

That’s a wrap for this Toast to Cinema. Thanks for reading!

The Usual Suspects

I love acting troupes—the small bands of “regulars” that perform skits and movies together and make the world smile. From my early childhood, I wanted to be a part of that family.

I watched The Carol Burnett Show every week. If I want a quick laugh, all I have to do is think about Tim Conway interrogating Lyle Waggoner with an Adolf Hitler hand puppet singing “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad.” I imagine Carol Burnett dressed up in curtains with the rods still attached and a tassel hanging in her face. “I saw it hanging in the window and just…  had to have it.” I loved when she spoofed the classic movies! I adored the Momma’s Family skits, and still crack up when I think about the Siamese Elephant improvisation that had multiple cast members in stitches.

I enjoy watching Monty Python’s Flying Circus episodes, too. Most of the skits they strung together had no definitive end, but instead just changed direction and carried on with silliness. “And now for something completely different.” Seeing John Cleese as a cowboy in “Rogue Cheddar” or Terry Jones competing in the World Hide-and-Seek finals gives me the giggles. My whole family tosses Flying Circus quotes around on a daily basis. It’s funny how other people react.

Another favorite growing up was SCTV. Rick Moranis, John Candy, Andrea Martin, Harold Ramis, Gene Levy, Catherine O’Hara and others kept me completely tickled. I recall one late night when I had a friend over, and we were preparing for an End-of-School luau, making paper leis and watching SCTV. The premise of this particular episode was “Preteen Telethon for Preteen World.” All of the actors dressed as eleven and twelve year-olds complete with bad complexions and retainers/ head gear. Their “preteen” band played Chilliwack’s hit “My Girl (Gone, Gone, Gone).” We laughed so hard that couldn’t string our leis. How many people can say that?

Saturday Night Live has had some amazing talent in their casts as well. Chevy Chase’s President Ford, Steve Martin’s King Tut, Gilda Radner’s Roseanne Roseannadanna, Eddie Murphy’s Mr. Robinson, and Dennis Miller’s anchorman make frequent appearances in my home. “That’s the news, and I am outta here.” My boys’ favorites are the “More Cowbell” skit and “I Wish it was Christmas Today.” They watch for Jimmy Fallon’s giggles in every skit he’s in.

Another acting troupe that thrilled me was the constant cast of A&E’s A Nero Wolfe Mystery series. Rex Stout is one of my favorite authors, and Timothy Hutton, Maury Chaykin, Colin Fox, Bill Smitrovich and Kari Matchett did a wonderful job of staying true to Stout’s characters. They charmed me with every novel they adapted.

If you love sketch comedies and seeing the same great actors playing a variety of characters, skip over to youtube.com and search for Tales from the Pub videos. Larry Blamire has assembled a fantastic troupe of players that spoof  Twilight Zone-type stories hilariously. Blamire leads Jennifer Blaire, Andrew Parks, Alison Martin, Brian Howe, Fay Masterson, Dan Conroy, Trish Geiger, and Kevin Quinn to create a world of silly spookiness that will bring a smile to your face. Since laughter is the best medicine, just think of it as a prescription for a joyful, healthy week!

That’s a wrap for this Toast to Cinema. Thanks for reading!

Rain, Rain, Don’t Go Away!

It’s a beautiful cool morning, and the rain is coming down. It’s not too stormy—just overcast and wet. It’s the perfect weather to stay in pajamas, call in sick and put in a black and white movie.

I think a soggy day is great for a murder mystery, a monster flick, a comedy, or a romance. I’ve tried war movies or tearjerkers, but I end up sobbing a little too much, and then I’m down for the rest of the day.

The rain puts me in the mood for something sentimental. Romantic films, like Casablanca or Gone with the Wind, balance out the rain with optimism and hope. Something like Barefoot in the Park works, too. It’s funny and light-hearted, without being syrupy and depressing. I can’t handle The Way We Were or Love Story on rainy days. They are just too sad. I adore Sabrina (both the original and the remake) or Breakfast at Tiffany’s for a fun pick-me-up romance.

If there’s a good measure of thunder and lightning, then I really enjoy a hearty Hitchcock thriller. I’ll pop in Dial M for Murder, Rope, Rear Window or Psycho—if I’m feeling really brave. That one gets to me, though. I have to know that sun is in the forecast. I enjoy films like Gaslight and Wait Until Dark for milder shivers.

An Agatha Christie adaptation is great for keeping one’s whodunit senses active. Evil Under the Sun is one of my favorites. The story is set in the sunny Mediterranean, and the characters keep you smiling with their over-the-top eccentricities.

A good caper picture is always great for rainy days. The Italian Job and How to Steal a Million always make my short list. It seems movies about stealing things get my heart pumping and actually make me feel as though I were accomplishing something—something besides finishing a bowl of popcorn.

If you can’t choose just one classic, and you need a good laugh, spend a couple hours with Steve Martin as he joins the characters from a dozen classic noir films, cut together to create a crazy new story line, in Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid. This 1982 parody includes segments from all your favorites like This Gun for Hire, The Big Sleep, Suspicion, and The Postman Always Rings Twice. It’s a must-see for any noir fan, especially if you like Martin’s genius combination of deadpan and slapstick.

Rainy days are also the perfect time for really cheesy monster movies. The cheesier the better. Watch the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers or This Island Earth. Listening to characters (talking about a cat) saying things like, “We can him Neutron, because he’s so positive.” Just makes me laugh aloud. All my geek friends understand why this line is stupidly funny.

Another option for rainy day fun is a musical. If you have kids at home with you, this is a great time to share a movie from your childhood, too. Remember Bugsy Malone? No? It’s a 1976 film starring Jodie Foster and Scott Baio. It’s the basic gangster movie made with an all-child cast, and—oh yeah—the Tommy-guns shoot cream puffs. It’s cute for the kids, and I guarantee you’ll find yourself singing along with the gang.

Do you have a favorite rainy day movie? Let me know—the forecast is cloudy for a few more days!

That’s a wrap for this Toast to Cinema. Thanks for reading!

Can We Be Silly for Just a Moment?

This morning I’m having a difficult time being serious. Last night our family watched Ladyhawke from 1985, starring Matthew Broderick, Rutger Hauer and Michelle Pfeiffer. Now when this film came out, nobody considered it a comedy—at all. It’s a tragic love story, a fable perhaps, about a couple cursed by an evil bishop. It’s set in medieval France, and features sweeping vistas and castles and monasteries in ruins.

Why did I giggle nearly all the way through the movie?

I watched it with my husband (we were married the same year this film was released), my two sons, and my older son’s fiancé. The “kids” had never seen the movie, but they love Broderick from Ferris Bueller and Pfeiffer from Stardust.

Sam (son #1) says something like this: “This is one of those eighties movies that’s set in the dark ages but the music is still done with electric guitars.” Sean (son #2) leaned against my shoulder and he and I whispered silly comments throughout the show. He’s seventeen years old, and I really love that he still leans on my shoulder.

We appreciated that though the names were very French—Etienne, Isabeau, and Phillipe—the accents were all over the place. The boys especially liked that in the end credits, under “Titles and Visual Effects,” there was only a list of three people. Though IMDb.com credits a total of twenty-two people in that category, it’s still certainly a far cry from the hundreds of technicians listed in today’s movies. It’s especially remarkable when you consider that this is a film in which two of the main characters transform from humans to animals multiple times in the story.

This movie isn’t silly. We made it silly, with our “enlightened sophistication” and goofy mood, a la Mystery Science Theater 3000. The point is that sometimes, despite the way things actually are, we need silliness. It’s good for us. Laughter is healthy exercise. Smiling keeps us young.

My family has a nice collection of silly movies and TV series. We enjoy the Marx Brothers, Laurel and Hardy, Abbot and Costello, and especially the Bing, Bob and Dorothy ensembles. These are the masters of the classic madcap comedies. The one-liners and physicality of their shtick keep us giggling.

The same goes for Monty Python productions. They introduced the “Ministry of Silly Walks.” They understand and embrace the ridiculous. In the same way, Mel Brooks has assembled casts of comic geniuses for films like Young Frankenstein, High Anxiety, The Producers, and Spaceballs. Every one of these movies showcases the recommended daily allowance of stupid.

Larry Blamire’s casts of characters pay homage to the best of the B Movies, and provide us with memorable lines that embroider even the most serious situations with smiles. “Ranger Brad, I’m a scientist, I don’t believe in anything.”

Saturday Night Live (SNL), SCTV (Second City), MADtv, and In Living Color have also graduated celebrated idiots like Steve Martin, Martin Short, Rick Moranis, Gene Levy, Andrea Martin, Catherine O’Hara, Chevy Chase, Eddie Murphy, Jane Curtain, Gilda Radner, Jimmy Fallon, Tina Fey, Mike Myers, Jim Carey, Michael McDonald, the Wayans and many others.

This morning I asked Sean about his favorite silly movies, and I must say that my husband and I have raised our boys well. His favorites—in his own words—are “all of the Larry Blamire movies, The Three Amigos, and Princess Bride.” Good boy.

Comedy helps us deal with situations. It diffuses tension. It provides common ground with others. Highbrow comedy tests us, dark comedy reveals us, but slapstick comedy just allows us to be, and to enjoy it. Hooray for hilarity!

That’s a wrap for this Toast to Cinema. Thanks for reading.