Film Friday: Tommy Boy

There’s a bittersweet quality to this week’s entry. While I regard 1996’s Tommy Boy as one the funniest films of all time, it can’t be mentioned apart from the story of its star, Chris Farley.

So let’s clear that ledger first. His is obviously a tragic tale, of a meteoric rise to fame and a life plagued by addiction and self-destructive behavior that brought about a tragic death at a far-too-young age. He’s not alone in that, sadly. Many compared his career to his SNL predecessor, John Belushi. Both burned bright, but short.

Whenever this movie comes on now, or even gets mentioned in conversation, the subject of its star’s untimely demise always seems to follow in quick succession. But when I see it, I like to let it take me all the way back, to the days before, when Chris was still with us, and this movie was the funniest thing out there.

At the time, I was just out of college myself, so Tommy’s “passing” grade of a D that allows him to graduate at the start of the film, followed by his trash-bag luggage on the plane home–it resonated with me. Before he was another SNL alum-goes bad story, he was my generation’s answer to the greats that had come before. He was the titan of comedy that belonged to Gen X. He meant we had all arrived, with a slacker sensibility and a sense of humor all our own.

This movie stands up as well because it has a genuine heart. Chris Farley’s performance is earnest and real, even as he leans in hard to the slapstick and the crazy. Tommy Boy is the story of a kid no one expected anything out of, who goofed off and pissed away his time on nothing much at all, but who proves in the end that he has what it takes to succeed–by doing things in his own unique way. He doesn’t get there quick, or by the most direct route–if he did there’d be no movie–but he manages nonetheless. He was a triumph for everyone my age and his best film remains among the best films in its genre.

Film Friday: This is Spinal Tap

Of all the films on my list, this month’s second entry (presented in chronological order of release) may be the funniest. I know that’s a highly subjective point, it really depends on an individual sense of humor. Nothing really highlights that better than my own personal journey with this one, because it didn’t actually grab me the first time around.

When I was in high school, a buddy of mine had a copy of this movie on VHS. It had been out for a while and was already regarded as one of the funniest films in recent memory. We were maybe 14 or 15 at the time and eager to watch what we’d heard was a non-stop laugh-fest. But when we put it on–we got nothing. The jokes–if there were any, we couldn’t tell–fell flat. There didn’t seem to be anything that we regarded as humor anywhere on the screen. It looked like a weird documentary following a bunch of strange people who did inexplicable, but not really funny, things.

In other words, we didn’t get it.

We sat there through the whole thing, waiting for it to “get better” but it never did. Once it ended, we confidently declared that we were smarter than the so-called experts because we had watched the whole thing and were prepared to say it stunk.

I held to that opinion for many years. In college I heard people talking about it some more, but I always dismissed their opinions, because I was sure I knew better. Finally, one of my friends convinced me to give it a second look. And I was blown away.

By that time I had learned quite a bit about the world the movie is ridiculing, things I had zero context for as a young teenager. Rock star excess, sex, drugs and all of that, they were just words to me at 14. I hadn’t heard the stories, I hadn’t read the accounts. I didn’t have any idea of what that world was like. But after marinating in the teenage world of heavy metal for years all through high school, by the time I watched it again in my early 20s, I realized how wrong I ‘d been 6 or 7 years earlier. This film is genius.

By then obviously, I was well versed in the stories of crazy excess that surrounded all of the folks who had come to dominate my imagination, the guitar gods and their extreme lifestyles that all of us only dreamed of emulating. Once you know all of that, this film is virtually wall-to-wall humor. There is barely a moment without something happening that is a direct take down of the bizarre world of rock bands.

To make the obvious joke here, this one goes to 11.

First Monday Legal Fiction: Bluff City Law

Recently I remembered Philly, a show that hit the nail on the head when it came to an accurate portrayal of the real life daily grind of a criminal defense lawyer in a big city court.

This month, another lawyer show that never got the chance to shine the way it deserved: the much more recent, but still sadly canceled Bluff City Law.

This show followed the father-daughter team leading a small firm, mostly handling civil rights litigation, with the occasional criminal case thrown in. I haven’t done any civil work in my career, so on the law itself I was a little out of my depth. The courtroom scenes were not perfect, but near enough to preserve at least a veneer of authenticity while maintaining the drama. All around, a very good show.

One of the season’s main storylines actually followed a client of the firm, an exonerated inmate who had served decades on a wrongful conviction for a sex offense. The writers took a uniquely sensitive and deep look at this, and the actor hit it out of the park. Nothing sappy, nothing sweet. It was the story of a man whose life had been destroyed by a false allegation, and the lawyer who got him out. The tragedy they all had to wrestle with was the fact that no matter what anyone did, no matter how good their intentions, nothing could really “fix” that kind of injustice.

It was a poignant look at what happens after the system is done, but when life can’t go back to normal. Brilliant stuff.

The rest of the show was equally good. I tweeted several times back and forth with the showrunners and some of the actors during its run actually, happy to offer my kudos for putting such a well written program on the air.

In the end, the ratings just weren’t there to keep it on a network. For my money, this thing should have been saved by a streaming service, and I seem to recall some hope of that maybe happening, but then COVID hit and everything went out the window. Sad, but if this gets released on DVD or ends up on Netflix, it is worth a binge. One of my favorite lawyer shows in recent memory.

Film Friday: Airplane!

First up for this month of humor, the oldest film on my list: Airplane.

For me, this movie is virtually timeless. The jokes work just as well today as they did more than 40 years ago when this was released. However, I recognize that this may not be the case for everyone. Airplane comes out of a very specific time period, spoofing the big budget disaster movies that dominated the box office in the late sixties and all through the seventies. Those films tended to be over-the-top in every way, with all-star casts placed in absurdly extreme danger. They were ripe to be parodied and Airplane was merciless in its takedown.

So I get that some audiences today, unfamiliar with the stuff this film is spoofing, might not quite “get it.” The thing is though, even if you don’t know the full backstory, this film is still very funny on its own. I say that because at the time when I first encountered it, on cable in the early eighties, I was just a kid. While I was of course aware of the big disaster movies of the time, I hadn’t actually seen too many of them. Even when I had, the storylines and the subtleties were mostly lost on me anyway. Yet I enjoyed Airplane all on its own.

Some of the jokes are very dated, sure. The wife who wonders in her head about her husband’s coffee preferences for example, is a goof on a series of TV commercials that were running a lot in those days. Audiences then would have gotten the joke right away, while anyone today who never saw the original spots might not quite see the humor in it. And the jive section has to be mentioned as well, of course. That hasn’t exactly aged well. Interestingly, there are clips available on youtube interviewing the two actors who played the roles of the African American passengers (whose patois is so dense, they need a translator to communicate with the flight attendant). They explain the history of those scenes pretty well.

Much of the rest of it though still works because it is simple, absurdist humor. The air traffic control hijinks. The literal takes on common expressions. Plus, a lot of it that does reference other things will still be familiar to today’s viewers because the conventions haven’t changed all that much. Ted Stryker’s tortured backstory makes him a reluctant hero, doubting himself and unsure if he’s up to the task of saving the day. And while it may not be polite these days to lampoon things like alcoholism, his take on a “drinking problem” (spoiler alert–he can’t get the liquid into his mouth properly) is still a clever bit of physical comedy.

This is one of those movies that I watch to the end whenever I happen to stumble across it on TV. For my money, one of the funniest films of all-time.

April Fools

Since today is April Fools Day and I’ve been trying to maintain a theme for each month on the blog, I’m going to spotlight my favorite comedies for Film Friday all through April. After more than a year of this pandemic, not to mention all the rest of the chaos that has swallowed us, chewed on us and spit us back out, I think we need to fall back into the cuddly embrace of some genuine laughter.

So starting tomorrow, my five favorite comedy films, movies that are so good they still manage to make me laugh, even though I’ve heard the punchlines more times that I can remember.

And that’s no joke.

Film Friday: Sing Street

For the final Film Friday of March, the month of St. Patrick and all things Irish, I want to put a spotlight on a little movie from a few years back that deserved more attention than it got: Sing Street.

First off, I hate musicals. But this isn’t really a true musical. Instead, it’s a film where music plays an integral role for the development of the characters and the direction of the story. In other words, people don’t spontaneously break out into perfectly choreographed dance and song routines every few minutes–which is what I dislike about musical theater and the movie musical genre. Sorry, my suspension of disbelief only goes so far, and it will never extend to Russell Crowe belting out a tune in Revolution-era France. But I digress…

Sing Street is a delightful film set in Ireland some time in the 80s. The hero is a high school aged kid whose parents can no longer afford to send him to the exclusive and open-minded Jesuit-run high school close by, which sends him instead to the local low-rent school, a far less enlightened place run by my old friends, the Order of Irish Christian Brothers. As you may recall from some months ago, I too went to a Christian Brothers high school. It was not a fun, nor even a remotely pleasant experience. This film really runs with that.

The Brothers who run this new school are intolerant, obtuse and small-minded–the kind of people who can’t really think for themselves and therefore elevate compliance with minor regulations to near-sacred status.

Of course, our hero bristles at this new environment, full of bad teachers, incompetent administrators and rough-around-the-edges kids. His salvation–music. It opens up a whole new world for him, of art, identity, self expression and confidence.

I hate to give too much more away, because the journey he takes, at first trying to impress a seemingly-un-reachable girl, is really the whole thrust of the film. It’s a true character piece that is also soaked in the trappings of its setting–urban Ireland some years ago.

And if that isn’t enough for you, check out the best song from the movie and try to resist that infectious groove:

Film Friday: Veronica Guerin

I once heard someone (I believe it may have been Colin Farrell) say that for people of a certain age from Ireland, the moment that everyone remembers is exactly where they were when they heard that Veronica Guerin had died. She was that important.

This film, the third in my “March of the Irish” series here on the blog, showcases the always-fantastic Cate Blanchett as the title character. For those who have never seen it, or maybe even heard of it, since it seems to have faded a little in the popular imagination here in the States, she was a crusading journalist killed by the criminals she exposed.

That synopsis hardly does the story justice. This movie takes you back to the bad old days, when rampant drug addiction and all the social ills that flow from that were plaguing Ireland. Veronica Guerin, frustrated by the seeming inability of law enforcement to do much of anything to combat it, embarked on a campaign to shine a light on the vast organized crime networks that fueled it. Of course, this threatened the income of a lot of people, many of them violent and dangerous. Eventually, Veronica was murdered in a public assassination that captured the attention of Ireland and spurred a n avalanche of reform. She won, but only by giving her life for the cause.

This movie paints that tragic, and yet ultimately hopeful true story in vivid detail. Definitely worth a watch.

Film Friday: Michael Collins

Many years ago, in the space between college and law school, I went backpacking around Europe for three months. Of that time, roughly three weeks were spent in Ireland. I had a rail pass and pretty much lived on the trains, wandering across the island seeing the sights, eating and drinking and generally soaking in the culture.

One of the days that I remember best was on a train ride from Dublin to Sligo. I happened to sit across from an old timer who quickly engaged me in conversation. If you’ve ever been to Ireland, you’ll know they are among the friendliest people on Earth. This fella was no exception. We talked for the whole trip, and once we got to Sligo, we got off the train and went to the pub, where we continued all evening. He regaled me with stories from way back when, and whether he was full of blarney, as they say, or not, the tales of his youth were amazing.

This was back in 1997, so it wasn’t at all uncommon to encounter an older gentleman in those days who had a living memory of the Irish Revolution. This guy had been a little boy back then, some 75-80 years earlier, but he still remembered meeting Eammon DeValera and told me all about it.

This week’s film takes you back to that time and place, in the form of Liam Neeson’s portrayal of the Irish revolutionary and martyr Michael Collins. I won’t give anything away for those who don’t know the story already (watch it this month) but the web is a tangled one, and not every “good guy” is all good, nor are all the bad guys totally bad.

Though released in 1996, when I saw it on video a few years after it came out, after I’d been in Ireland in 97, I had in mind the whole time that old guy who told me all the stories, of Ireland in revolt, of backstabbing intrigues and glorious struggles for freedom–which were sometimes one and the same. It’s worth a look in this month of all things Celtic.

Book of the Month: Five Points

In keeping with the theme of Ireland and Irish history on the blog, my book of the month selection is Tyler Anbinder’s 2001 “Five Points”.

For most folks, the subject matter will probably be most familiar from Scorsese’s Gangs of New York, which it pre-dates by about a year (re-issued in 2010 with a new cover and some additional material evidently). Although not specifically focused on the Irish, they play an out-sized role in the history of the place, owing to the enormous numbers of immigrants from Eire that flooded New York City at the height of this infamous neighborhood’s heyday. For that reason, many of the names in this volume are Celtic, and virtually of the major events in the books involve the Gaels to some degree.

This deep dive into the cesspool neighborhood that was America’s first slum shines a light on their immigrant experience, as well as the Jews, Germans and Italians who joined them. Meticulous but never boring, it chronicles their stories in all the blood, squalor and grime they deserve.

Anbinder expertly walks you through the unsafe tenements, introduces you to the roving gangs who dominated the area (some of which were referenced and depicted, although not altogether accurately in the film), and interweaves the ground-level dysfunction with government corruption inside the infamous Tammany Hall.

There are plenty of colorful characters, as well as tales of murder and mayhem. In a way, this was the urban East Coast’s answer to the Old West, although it somehow all got forgotten and papered over as the country matured. This book takes you back to it, in all its stinking violent glory.

It’s a ride worth taking.

Film Friday: In the Name of the Father

As March brings the celebration of St. Patrick’s Day, and I had the privilege of having two Irish grandmothers (one from New York and one from Boston) I am turning this month’s Film Friday into a celebration of the Emerald Isle, looking at four films that show different sides of that wonderful, but troubled island.

Once again, as we did last month, we begin with a Daniel Day Lewis picture “In the Name of the Father.”

I considered this for the Legal Fiction column, since a good bit of it involves a tense courtroom drama. Ultimately though, this film is entirely set in the British Isles, and while most of the American legal tradition descends directly from English Common Law, the practical aspects of it, procedural points and courtroom rules etc., are just too different for me to comment intelligently on any of them.

This film broke my heart when I first saw it, when I was about 20. It tells the true story of Gerry Conlon and his dad, two Irishmen falsely accused, convicted and imprisoned for a bombing in the 1970s, when all hell was breaking loose over the “Troubles” in Belfast.

The message here is one of perseverance in the darkest of situations, as Gerry and his father grow closer to one another during a lengthy confinement produced by shockingly unjust police tactics, including withheld and outright fabricated evidence. Emma Thompson turns in a stellar performance as the barrister who champions the cause of his innocence.

Ireland has long been a place of great suffering and instability, along with injustice and violence. Something important to remember as we celebrate the Emerald Isle this month. As easy going and convivial as their culture tends to be, it should never be forgotten that the island has not always been a happy one.