Sunday, November 24, 2013

Movies at 8: Twins

I have always said that if I ever wrote an autobiography there would be an entire chapter devoted to watching the 8 O'Clock Movies as a kid on the old WPIX 11. It wouldn't be a huge chapter or anything. It would cover about the first 2/3rds of the 90's up to my middle school years before my parents got cable and WPIX phased out its nightly movies for original programming after becoming WB 11 (and now CW), a time when the nightly 8 o'clock was my main exposure to the medium of film.

The movies I saw then, a pretty good mix of mainstream blockbusters (though they did play "Howard the Duck" quite often) generally from the 80s to the early 90s (I think maybe 1991's "Terminator 2" was the most recent movie I ever saw on there), are the movies that will forever be burned into my mind; the ones I will remember 50 years from now. I also can't help but think they had a big, although indirect, affect on my artistic sensibilities. Anyone who knows me will attest that the kind of art I enjoy (music, TV, film, literature) and create myself (hey, I've been known to create a little art here and there on rare occasions) steer towards the mainstream, the populist, the generally crowd pleasing. You know, for all its negative consequences I think we're better off that "Jaws" and "Star Wars" killed New Hollywood. It's not to say I'm against thing high culture, I like smart, original work but really most times I rather be entertained than challenged, be clever than intellectual.

Where was I? Oh right, 8 O'Clock Movies, they were great, I watched a ton of them. I figured I'd go back and give some impressions on some of my favorite films of the era. I don't want to jinx this by calling it a series, given my history of not posting for weeks at a time. I would like to revisit this topic again in the future but also don't be surprised if this turns out to be one of one.

So without further interruption I present tonight's feature presentation: "Twins"

"Twins", the well known 1988 comedy film directed by Ivan Reitman and staring Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito is the 8 O'Clock Movie I remember seeing the most. Maybe the distribution rights were cheap or something but it just always seemed to be on; especially during the weekends when they'd throw in an extra movie in the afternoon.  

As a kid I found the movie to be straightforward fun. The juxtaposition of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito as twin brothers is so extreme in every way that it can't help but be at the very least amusing. Thinking about the plot of the film now however as an adult, I realize that it's batshit insane!

For those of you not familiar with the movie, just viewing that linked trailer, what would you think this movie was about (at this point I suppose I should drop a 25 year old spoiler alert)? That intro is pretty strange right? Some kind of government created perfect man (Schwarzenegger) finds out he has a weird little brother, they meet up, hangout in matching suits, and beat some guy up. It gives no insight at all into this film with the broad title "Twins".

The trailer makes it look like this film is a 105 minute sight gag, sort of like a feature length movie version of that picture of Manute Bol and Mugsy Bogues. To the filmmakers' credit there is much more to this movie than that, in fact the film has so many disparate genre elements that it becomes a fascinating Frankenstein of a a mostly good way.

Let's start with how the titular twins came to be. Yes, instead of them just being wildly disparate, natural fraternal twins; their existence is due to a top secret U.S. government experiment. Off the bat you have a science fiction movie, an extremely terrifying sci-fi thriller even, about the U.S. government developing a highly unethical eugenics program where they attempt to engineer a perfect man using sperm from multiple donors (given Arnold's background and accent, it might have made more sense if we was a German product). We later find out that after the experiment concluded Arnold was sent off to be raised on some freaky Dr. Moreau island, DeVito (essentially the unexpected leftover crap from the experiment) was tossed into an orphanage, and their mother was told they both died at childbirth, so yeah that's horrifying.

When Arnold finally learns about his brother, he catches up to him in LA where he's some kind of shady conman with a side business in stealing cars. From their initial meeting until DeVito ends up stealing a car with an extremely valuable MacGuffin (more on that later) it becomes a buddy picture with fish out of water elements involving the sheltered Arnold being introduced to modern 1980's American life (like driving a car and using microwave ovens) by the street smart DeVito. Along they way Arnold beats up some loan sharks who are after DeVito. Some love interests are thrown in with a pair of blonde sisters falling far the two brothers (the one that's into Arnold is played by Kelly Preston).

Now this could have been the whole movie and it would have been perfectly adequate, but "Twins" doesn't stop there. The second act of the story and the main conflict begins when DeVito discovers some kind of stolen prototype fuel-injector engine thing (that MacGuffin I mentioned) in one of the cars he stole. As it turns out is was supposed to be delivered to some shady industrialist in Houston (the late great Trey Wilson playing basically the same character he played in "Raising Arizona" the previous year ). DeVito negotiates a deal with him to deliver the thing to him for a cool $5 million. Unfortunately he's forced to bring along Arnold who wants to stop over in Los Alamos to track down one of the original scientists and possibly locate their mother. The girls tag along too for fun I guess. So now it becomes a road picture.

Things get even more complicated when the original delivery man, Webster (Marshall Bell who would memorably star with Arnold in his next film "Total Recall" as Kuato), a remorseless professional killer/MacGuffin delivery man, starts to track the group down. The movie starts to oddly resemble the 2009 Best Picture winner "No Country For Old Men". They both involve a long chase through the American Southwest in the 1980s between an unsuspecting holder of stolen millions and a psychopathic hitman (Bell's character actually has a code of killing any associate who has seen his face, you would never guess that this movie has a body count of at least 5) bent on retrieving his lost package. Plus, in both cases the hitman is hired by an industrialist in Houston. This turns into an action/chase/thriller with maybe a little suspense thrown in.

To make a long story short (too late?) Arnold saves Devito from Webster, they do the right thing and return the stolen thing to the original owners, meet their long lost mother, and simultaneously marry both women who (of course) both give birth to TWINS! Nothing in a innocuous looking movie poster hints at the kind of intense cinematic experience one would experience. It's no wonder it took four people to write this thing!

Also, if the insane rumors turn to be true, there may be a sequel in the work "Triplets" with Eddie freaking Murphy playing another long lost twin. Considering the obvious race and age differences I don't know how it could be explained (alien? robot? alternate dimension?) but when it comes to "Twins" I have learned that there are no storytelling boundaries. If it does happen I eagerly await whatever new genres get modified and combined to form a perfect sequel.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Man, poor Vaughn Meader

November 22 will be the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. While that shocking event would have historical consequences and ramifications that would ripple throughout the country and the world; perhaps the most unexpected consequence of the death of President Kennedy would be the almost simultaneous death of the career of comedian Vaughn Meader

Quick trivia question, what album won the Grammy for Album of the Year in 1963? I guess if you didn't know you may have inferred from the title and above picture that it was indeed Vaughn Meader's comedy record "The First Family" (and as bizarre as it is for the Album of the Year to go to a comedy album, this was actually the second such winner. Only two years prior Bob Newhart brought home the prize, plus the Best New Artist award!). Released in November of 1962, the album featured a series of recorded sketches with Meader giving his uncanny impersonation of JFK dealing with family, his cabinet, other leaders, etc (it didn't really blow me away but maybe you just had to have been there to really get it). It would go on to sell over 7 million copies, becoming one of the best selling comedy albums of all time. A sequel album came out early the following year.

It sort of blows my mind how apparently successful this guy become all on the back of one trick. I mean who bases their entire act on the impersonation of one person (aside from maybe Yakov Smirnoff who barely survived the untimely death of his act when the Soviet Union fell)? For all the acclaim and popularity Tina Fey's Sarah Palin impersonation garnered circa 2008, it was just one facet of her talent. I feel like if someone like Vaughn Meader came up now he would at best be a viral youtube sensation. I guess he'd have a whole series of Obama sketches on his channel. If he's lucky he might get to briefly meet the President. He would be nowhere near as big has Meader was in 1962. In his mid 20s, Meader found himself a multi-platnum, award winning comedian with magazine covers and television appearances; a meteoric rise to popularity not unlike his target of parody.

Then of course by November of the following year the President was gone and so was his career. The story goes that when legendary stand up Lenny Bruce came out to perform a set hours after news broke of Kennedy's death, he walked on stage, stood there for a few minutes, and sadly said, "Man, poor Vaughn Meader."  Copies of his albums were pulled, television appearances were cancelled. Having built his entire career on his spot on impersonation of JFK and being so thoroughly typecast, there was no other opportunities available. After initially sinking into depression, drugs, and alcoholism, he eventually settled into a modest career as local bluegrass and country musician in his native Maine (now that I think about it he must be the best selling recording artist from Maine. What's his competition? Ray LaMontagne? Howie Day?) and passed away in relative obscurity in 2004.   

I find the tragic tale of Vaughn Meader beyond fascinating. I recall a few years ago that Bill Hader was involved with a possible biopic, but there hasn't been much word since. There's potential there for a really interesting film. It's such a stark example of the unpredictable and extremely tenuous nature of fame. George Burns was right, show business is a hideous bitch goddess. Here you have this young comedian who stumbles onto the amazing windfall of being able to perfectly imitate the popular new President and it turning out to be a runaway hit with the public; but then the one singular act that the public demanded of him was the reason why the public had to reject him en mass. 

So I guess the lesson to be learned here could be that fame should never be taken for granted and that the possibility of it all falling apart hangs tenuously like the Sword of Damocles over one's head. Or maybe one should workshop some new characters/material just in case.