Larry Crowne

Somewhere, there sits a group of people who cannot imagine any reason to see a movie like this. They smugly dismiss romantic comedies. They believe movies should be targeted at the young. The worst offense a film like this commits in their eyes however is that it fails to be edgy. A film, from the point of view of these people should make us uncomfortable and challenge our points of view. Many of the people in this group, are motion picture producers and executives. As a result we get comic book movies, films that purport to be romantic but are actually sex fantasies that are given a romantic spin, and comedies that use every adjective imaginable as long as it starts with an F, has a compound word starting with F, or features an actor or actress known for something other than acting.

The word of mouth on this movie was not good. On the Mark and Brian radio show, I heard Mark badmouth it just from the trailer. It was a news article that Larry Crowne got a lower Rotten Tomatoes score than did the new Transformers movie. I like comic book, edgy, and raunchy as much if not more than the next person. The problem is that if you dismiss a movie for lacking those things, you will miss many pleasant experiences, that while not always important, do sustain us, much like daily conversation with co-workers does. I am probably part of the target audience for this modestly made adult comedy. I’m over 50, I like Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts, I worry about the economy and I sometimes ask myself are there second chances if I screw this up this late in my life? Two years ago, “Up in the Air”, brought us some similar themes and George Clooney in a sour love story that was biting and timely. Larry Crowne has some of the same themes, but lacks the dark undertone of the Clooney film. It lacks this for a very good reason, it means to entertain us rather than provoke deep self reflection. It is a nice way to spend a couple of hours with some old friends, and not feel like you were beat up for making the effort.

Unlike “Up in the Air”, the only nudity featured is an silly moment with Hanks in his underwear, and it had nothing to do with sex. This story about middle aged people working on their second chances, does not try to draw us in with visuals of good looking people past their prime, trying to fake being sexy. There is attraction because the characters see something in the other person that they want for themselves. They don’t cheat on their spouse, use sex as a bargaining tool, or lie as a way of manipulating others. It is romantic in nature, but it does not follow the cookie cutter model of so many contemporary romances. There are the requisite cute meets, and the secondary characters that are interesting but undeveloped. You get no explosions, physical or emotional, no snarky insight on politics, and you will not feel assaulted by being in the company of the film maker.

Tom Hanks directed and co-wrote this movie. The previous film that he wrote and directed was “That Thing You Do”, which is a perfect piece of charming storytelling. This movie has a lot of charm, but it’s narrative is a lot lazier than the 1996 musical. There a lot in this movie that feels real, but it is all layered in Tom Hanks persona and Julia Roberts smile. I liked George Takei as the econ professor, and Ian Gomez as Larry’s buddy with the coffee shop. Takei gets a bit more of a chance to shine, his part is fleshed out more. Larry’s friends in the scooter club are fun, but you can clearly see that he enjoys them but also knows he is not a kid just winging it like they are. Bryan Cranston plays Julia Roberts husband, who while not a complete douche, is a big enough pig that it is clear why he must ultimately be pushed out of the picture. Pam Grier is always a welcome presence, and here she is used just enough that you feel she is a friend and not just an opportunity for the character to engage in some exposition.

I heard ELO and Tom Petty on the soundtrack in several places. The musical cues work for me. Some one that wants edgy would be looking for a less obvious new talent and unfamiliar songs that make the same points. They would find the comfort in this music off-putting because of it’s obviousness. I found the right amount of Tom Petty Charm matched with Tom Hanks’ good nature, to make me smile. I teach Speech at a Community College like Roberts character, I know the students that are shown in her class. Some of you reading this are probably that guy, you know, the good natured stoner kid that has some ability but is not focused enough to get out of school what you could. The three or four teachers you see in this movie, sound a lot like the colleagues I work with. The returning students, who all actually read the material, are familiar to me as well.

We get a school based comedy, with a mild romantic plot, centered around a downsized returning student and it takes place in a speech class much of the time. You add the two appealing stars, the galaxy of welcome supporting players and the guidance of a guy like Hanks, who knows what his strengths are, and you get a movie like Larry Crowne. It is adult in the way that once meant adult, without the necessity of an R rating. It won’t be remembered as a great film, but it is a nice way to spend a couple of hours, without having to be a hipster or endure eardrum shattering explosions in completely unnecessary 3-D.

Robert Shaw Festival Day 6 JAWS (The Greatest Adventure Film of All Time)

If you have seen this clip before, than you already know the power of Robert Shaw as an actor in the perfect role. I am sure you have heard it said in a dozen other places, but when the history of acting awards is written, this will be the biggest glaring omission ever. This four minute scene is sufficient in itself to have impressed anyone who cares about film acting. It is the go to piece from this film. I have nothing but respect for everyone involved in putting this piece of cinematic art on the big screen for us to enjoy, chew on, and be horrified by. There are however a number of other reasons that this is the ultimate Robert Shaw film role.

Let me start by pointing out that in the first hour of the movie, Shaw’s character Quint can be seen only twice. One of those is a passing shot as he looks derisively at the weekend warriors who have shown up to try and catch the shark that Mrs. Kitner has put a bounty on. This comes a few moments after his earlier scene and reminds us of the earnest, self righteous, and totally commanding presence his character promises to be. We are left to wait until half the movie is over to see him again and have that promise fulfilled. The shipboard scene in the harbor lasts a few seconds. The two minutes he gets as an introduction came just before this and sets up our tension as much as the shark attacks do.

Many characters have been given incredible entrances into the stories they are a part of. Omar Sharif appears as a speck against a desert horizon, coming closer and dominating the scene by the time he arrives. Hannibal Lecter is the bogeyman we are warned about and frightened of before we ever see him, but when he is revealed, standing in the middle of a dungeon like cell, with a polite manner and chilling smile, the creep factor is on ten. Darth Vader, strides into the original Star Wars through a cloud of white steam, emerging as a figure of doom clad in black with a voice like a mechanical god. Quint though may take the cake. We know he is there from the terrifying squeal of fingernails dragging across a chalkboard. This may be an experience younger viewers will be unfamiliar with, but anyone who went to school in the 20th Century will know how awful that sound is and will find their own fingers twitching and teeth grimacing as he does what most of us would refrain from doing even if we were being paid. It does the trick though. Quint takes the focus of the town meeting away from the mayor, the police chief, and all the prominent local merchants, and he seizes the moment to make his pitch to the assembled community. He is an Islander, and he does not fit in. He is rough, blunt and cheerily superior in his world to anybody there. Shaw uses a charming grin, to deliver his bitter advice and then makes his exit quickly, like any well trained speaker ought to do. We know another force of nature besides the shark lurks in the waters around Amity, and he will not speak to us again for forty more minutes.

Shaw has three repeating tricks to draw on with this character that he takes full advantage of. In addition to all the best lines and the most interesting character, Shaw gets to punctuate Quint’s impact with song on at least three occasions. As he mocks Hooper’s technical tools, before they leave port, he engages in a sea shanty that refers to doomed fishermen. He sings it joyfully. It is an indicator of his comfort in his superiority in this scenario. Later, as a gesture of good will to traveling companions that may not be up to his standard but have put in a good days work and broken down some barriers, he sings with them, a well know sailing song, that sounds like the wish of every drunken fisherman. One last time he returns to sing the sea shanty, is when he thinks he has the upper hand on the shark and attempts to draw it into the shallows. It was his last moment of confidence in the film.

The second trick the actor gets to use is all his own, it is unscripted and natural. He wears a hat like no one else can in this movie. Sometimes it is down over his eyes giving him a menacing continence, other times it is pushed back in a nearly jocular manner. The actor conveys superiority, dismissiveness and friendliness all with the same action, but when combined with the right tone of voice or facial expression, you will never be in doubt as to which one is being directed your way. The third trick is a tool that I have seen other actors use, but none so naturally as Shaw. He is nibbling on something or drinking something in nearly every scene. An apple slice, a toothpick, a piece of hard cracker, and a can of beer all tell us the characters inner mind. They say “I’m condescending to speak to you”, or “I’m determined and focused”, or simply, “I’m better than you”. Spielberg is the ultimate actor’s director so he probably had a hand in these choices, but Shaw is the man that has to sell them, and he does.

Characters that are well written must be a joy for actors to play, but Shaw may not have had much joy because he apparently was sea sick for much of the shoot. You will not see a sequence in the film though where he does not look at home on the boat or a part of the sea. There were other actors considered for the part before he was given the role, and everyday we need to be thankful that they could just not work it out. As a consequence of their inability to make room for themselves in Jaws, they made room for Robert Shaw in the eternity of great actors meshed with great parts.

Robert Shaw Festival Part 5 The Sting

This is one of the films from the Seventies that did not make my original project because it was not a summer release. It sure feels like one though, it is breezy, clever and gets by with charm and wit galore. It won the Academy Award for Best Picture, beating out my favorite that year “The Exorcist”. If it ultimately deserves that honor or not is really not relevant to this post. I will say that there is nothing to be ashamed of if you love this movie, because in addition to the qualities I mentioned just now, it has Robert Redford, Paul Newman, and our featured star this week Robert Shaw.

Shaw plays Doyle Lonnegan, the gangster the grifters target in the movie for ordering the killing of their friend. This character is despicable from the moment we see him in a half shadowed profile, giving the ambiguous murder warrant for the two con men who took one of his numbers runners. He is a joyless golfer and a grinding businessman,which makes him a bit hard to crack. The research the con artists dig up suggest that ambition is his only flaw and that he might warm to or at least recognize the ambition of another up and comer. Oh, and he cheats at cards. This gives us the lead to follow for the rest of the story as each segment of the narrative is labeled with a title card, “The Hook”, “the Set Up”, “the Tale”, etc. This willingness to cheat at cards give the scam a way to push Lonnegan into behaviors he would otherwise avoid.

The first pivotal sequence with Shaw is on the train to Chicago, in a high stakes poker game. He is a humorless man, playing a game with others, not for the joy of it but as a mechanic, tweeking the engine of his ambition and taking advantage of others. Shaw plays him as a sour mirthless automaton, seeking only the next chance to take someone himself. The most volatile scene he has comes when he expresses to his underling the frustration that he can’t call out Gondorf, Newman’s character, for being a better cheat than he is. His instinct is to have him killed, but his pride is what calls him back from the rash act and ultimately means he has taken the bait.

You don’t get to the top of the rackets by being stupid, and Lonnegan is suspicious all along the way. The con artists are able to exploit that by using his own suspicions as a way of building up their own credibility. They play loose with a couple of his last minute demands and surprises, and allow him to talk himself into everything they ultimately want. Shaw is cheerless in each false victory that gives him confidence. His curt manner with his new partner, reminds us of why we want this Son of a Bitch to go down. When he demands that Redford’s character accept a ride from the train station, if I had been Redford’s character, my testicles would have crawled up inside me, and my bladder would feel tight. It is clear from the way the character is written and that Shaw plays him, that this is a venomous snake, best to stay away from but to which he must stick to make the sting work.

It seems like Shaw played more villains than heroes in his career. Most of his facial expressions clarify exactly why, he has a cold eyed look that seems pitiless. His voice is often controlled and low key, with just an edge of menace. He did a fine job in this film, but the star of the movie is first the plot, then the two leads, and finally the surprises. It is often said that a movie is only as good as the bad guy is allowed to be. That makes this a pretty good film. Shaw does not overplay it or draw attention to his work. He is loathsome, but not in the showy manner that so many of today’s actors (John Travolta, Gary Oldman) seem to be. The closest he comes is at the end when he is frustrated about the outcome of his gamble, but if you lost a bucket load of money you might raise your voice just a bit too.

Robert Shaw Festival Part 4"From Russia With Love"

I’m quite excited to write about this film for many reasons. First of all, I am a Bond fan, dyed in the wool, 100%, even enjoying Moonraker. I saw my first 007 film in 1967 or 68. It was a double feature with Thunderball, and my memory tells me I saw it second. I started reading the books then as well. I know we had them in a cupboard in the house we lived in in East L.A., and we moved out of that house in 1969, so I was reading them by age ten or eleven. For most of my life, From Russia with Love has been my favorite Bond film and book. While it is still my favorite of the original Fleming novels, as the years have passed, I grew to appreciate the audacity of the film making in Goldfinger, so From Russia with Love slid down to number 2. Of course that is number two out of twenty-three so still pretty good.

One of the major things that this film has going for it is the character of Donald “Red” Grant, played by our featured star this week, Robert Shaw. Shaw was in his mid thirties when he played this role, at the peak of his physical condition, and he had a face of granite, that mirrored the character perfectly. Casting can make a movie work so well sometimes, that it is a wonder to me that it is not Awarded at the Oscars on a regular basis. Whoever made this decision made the movie work twice as well as it would have otherwise. The character dominates the movie from the opening pre-title set up, to the last moment he is on screen. In fact his character dispatches Bond in the first minute and fifty-three seconds of the film. Those of you who know the film know what I am talking about.

What is especially impressive of Shaw’s performance, is that he has no lines for the first hour and a half of the movie. In fact, there are really only three scenes that he speaks in. All of which have been set up well by the script and the director, but the anticipation of the confrontation owes a substantial amount to the actor. He refers to himself at one point as Bond’s guardian angel. His character has hovered in the background for most of the film, a grim Spectre , looking over 007’s shoulder and waiting for his chance to strike while denying anyone else the same opportunity. The lack of a smile, the silent stalking and the tough exterior leave us waiting for the confrontation that we know must ultimately come.

Shaw plays it cool from the beginning of the film, even though his character is supposed to be a homicidal maniac. He is kept on a tight leash but all the time we can see that he is itching to take Bond down. His eyes narrow to a squint when he first spots Bond at the airport and joins in the spy v. spy game they play in Istanbul. When he breaks the rules of the game by killing a Russian surveillance man,there is only a slight hint of satisfaction on his face as he knows that Bond and his ally Kerim Bey will be blamed. One of the most tense scenes right before he and Bond meet occurs as Grant haunts Bond on the Orient Express. When James gets off the train in Belgrade to contact his local support, Grant is right over his shoulder, still on the train, often seen only as a reflection in the glass, like a true ghost waiting to wreak havoc. He keeps his cool as we see him displace the real agent Nash, the only indicator of the violence is the way he slips on his gloves as he leads the unwitting Nash to the water-closet.

Once he makes contact with Bond, Shaw uses his voice and plays the proper Englishman for as long as necessary. The despairingly used phrase “Old Man”, is the one way he can needle Bond before he can give up his cover. Shaw makes it sound condescending but not so deliberately that it would tip Bond off. When confronted red handed for drugging Tania, Grant /Shaw uses the right tone to convey that it is all part of the plan and that Bond can relax. That soothing tone works just long enough for James to drop his guard and then Grant attacks. Once he is in control of the situation, you can begin to see the monster that was there all the time. The cold blooded look returns and it is accompanied by a hostile twinkle in the eye that should be bone chilling. Still Bond toughs it out, all he needs is a chance to even the odds and he will be OK.

Once the fight starts, you know that it is seriously going to do some damage to your psyche. These are not cowboy punches thrown at arms length. There is wrestling, and karate, and blows to the solar plexus, that we know Grant can take from earlier. Bond needs to kick and grab and throw his opponent to have any kind of a chance. Ultimately we see that Shaw’s character has his favorite weapon at hand, a garote that emerges from his watch and he nearly gets Bond around the neck. It is a single hand caught between the garote and his neck that gives James a chance to access his own back up, a throwing knife secreted in the briefcase provided by Q Branch. Bond gets a chance to reverse the noose and suddenly Grant is caught in his own device, learning first hand the destiny he has brought to so many others.

So, simply put, Shaw’s performance enhances this film and makes the final confrontation the true climax of the picture. There is a helicopter chase, a boat chase, explosions and poisoned tipped shoes that all come after this, but none of them seem like a real threat because Bond has already taken out the toughest opponent imaginable. I think Tania Romanov was the second most beautiful Bond girl after Solitaire, and I think the briefcase is the second greatest gadget Bond ever got from Q, after the Aston-Martin with ejector seat. So my second favorite Bond has my second favorite gadget and second favorite Bond girl, but it also has the greatest of opponents in Bond’s 22 movies so far. That is why this film deserves to be in the Robert Shaw Film festival.

Both Sean Connery and Robert Shaw will Return in,

Robin and Marion

Robert Shaw Festival Part Three Swashbuckler

Kirkham A Movie A Day: Swashbuckler 1976 A Movie A Day Day 60

The above link will give you a connection to my comments from last Summer’s blog entry on Swashbuckler. I felt awful last night and did not make the movie but you can get some insight from Amanda here:

I have my comments on “From Russia With Love Coming Soon.