Doodad Kind of Town

The Blog that WordPress Killed
February 19, 2011, 5:18 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

Moving this blog to a WordPress Site was supposed to revitalize it , but instead, it’s gone stone cold dead.

After struggling for two hours last weekend and STILL not being able to add a Donation button for the Film Noir Blogathon to my sidebar, I surrendered. 

With a cry of “Screw this!  Blogger may not be fancy and flexible, but at least I knew how to add things to my sidebar!” (In 30 seconds or less, I might add), I decided it was time for this prodigal blogger to pack up, shut down and take my musings back to relatively simpler pastures of Blogger-land.

So with heartfelt apologies who have already changed their “Doodad…” blogroll links to this address, I humbly ask that you follow me back to where it all began.

Thank you for your support.


Farewell, Blake Edwards
December 16, 2010, 10:10 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

I rarely write obituary posts, but I could not let the news of Blake Edwards’ death today go by without comment.

I’m old enough now to have experienced the deaths of all my grandparents and many of my aunts and uncles; with each of those deaths,  I have felt as though a part of my childhood had gone away with them. Until today, I had never felt anything like that same kind of loss from the death of a filmmaker, but Edwards has seemed almost like a member of my extended family for as long as I can recall.

My father is, was and always shall be a die-hard Peter Sellers fanatic.  We grew up with Sellers’ films, watching so many of them together as a family that Sellers started to feel as much as fixture in our living room as the TV set itself.  And as a kid nothing made me laugh harder than the sight of Sellers wearing his guitar for protective modesty in the nudist colony scene of A Shot in the Dark.  When the Pink Panther franchise was relaunched in the 1970s,  it carried the same rush of heady excitement in our household as the release of each new Harry Potter film does for today’s families.  As each new Panther film arrived, we would excitedly plan our opening weekend trip to Lafayette, IN – some 50 miles away – to have the all-you-can-eat fish and fries special at Wag’s Restaurant, followed by a trip to the cinema to see Dad’s favorite actor bring the hysterically bumbling Inspector Clousseau to life once again.

It’s that magical slapstick collaboration with Sellers that Edwards is being most remembered for today. (Along with his direction of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, which, for me, is not one of his greatest accomplishments. The casting of Mickey Rooney as Holly Golightly’s upstairs Japanese neighbor alone is just about unforgivable.)  But Edwards’ gift for directing slapstick extended beyond his work with Sellers, and when I was growing up, the next best thing to wathcing a Sellers movie was gathering around the TV set with our bowls of popcorn  for a late show viewing of The Great Race. (Later, as a college student, I was amused to read Andrew Sarris’ effusive accolades for its climactic pie-throwing-fight-to-end-all-pie-throwing-fights: “the last spasm of action painting in the Western world,” he called it.)

My appreciation of Edwards was only enhanced when I learned he was married to the woman I had idolized since the age of 4.  I spent most of my childhood wanting to be Julie Andrews, endlessly singing along the soundtrack albums from Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music, and trying to perfect an ability to sing with an English accent (as Julie did) somehow imagining that it was the highfalutin accent that qualified her singing as being really good.   Many years later, I would see their collaboration Victor Victoria not only on film, but also onstage in its pre-Broadway run at Chicago’s Shubert Theatre in 1996.  While my main remembrance of that afternoon is of basking in Andrew’s amazing, light-up-the-stage star power, I also recall being rather dazzled at how deftly Edwards was able to stage the same kinds of over-the-top slapstick bits that characterized his films.  (And we’re talking that dangerous, somebody’s-gonna-get-hurt kind of slapstick, the kind of stuff that, in his films, was usually followed up by a shot of Inpector Dreyfuss with a big bandage on his nose or his arm in a sling: at one point the far-from-young character actor Richard B. Shull went right off the lip of the stage and into the orchestra pit.)

Last year, on Christmas afternoon, my father broke out his DVD of The Party and we laughed ourselves silly over the antics of Peter Sellers in what is arguably Edwards’ funniest film, even surpassing the Panther series. Something tells me we will be replaying that film this year.

In honor of Edwards, here is the final send-off of Felix Farmer from his corrosive Hollywood satire SOB. 

Good night, sweet prince:

Who’s Your Daddy?: A Tale of Two Jennifers
October 2, 2010, 8:53 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single woman in possession of an overwhelming desire for a child will meet the man of her dreams as soon as she opts for an artificial insemination.

Or at least that’s how it works in the movies these days.

The Jennifers (Aniston and Lopez) have been much derided of late for taking parallel trips down this dubious narrative road in a pair of underperforming rom coms The Back-Up Plan and The Switch.  Never mind that these two films aren’t remotely in the same league. Since they both feature aging actresses who are: 1) annoyingly omnipresent in the media and 2) ill-positioned for midlife career transitions, it’s just too convenient to batter them with the same club.

In the case of The Back-Up Plan, it’s admittedly a little hard NOT to think of brandishing a big old club when confronted with its awfulness and aggressively offensive humor. How offensive can it be, you ask?  Well, I sincerely hope this is the last and only time I see a leading lady forced to extract her home pregnancy test result from a huge puddle of dog vomit. Or in which Lopez neurotically apologizes to her gynecologist for not having gotten a pedicure for her insemination procedure, only to have him pop up cheerfully from between her legs to announce “I’m not looking at your toes, I’m looking at your cervix!”  (And I’m just getting started….)

That ill-calculated insemination scene opens the film  From there, it’s a matter of mere minutes till Lopez is on the curb fighting over a cab with a Central Casting “studly yet sensitive guy” (Alex O’Laughlin).  Yes they finally wind up sharing the cab.  Yes, he pops up again at the farmer’s market she visits the following Saturday, feeds her some of his delicious, homemade cheese, asks her to dinner, and well….. you don’t really need me to tell you where that leads.

You can feel Lopez and O’Laughlin working like gangbusters to infuse some red-hot chemistry into their scenes, and in all fairness, the thin and uninspired script (by Kate Angelo, a veteran of TV’s Will and Grace) gives them precious little to work with.  When the most that’s at stake on a first date is whether Lopez reveals that she bought a new dress especially for the occasion, you know you’re in for a long slog of a movie. 

I’ll confess I’ve seen little of Lopez’ work outside the romantic comedy genre, and the best I’ve seen from her was in Steven Soderbergh’s Out of Sight, some twelve years ago.  But she strikes me as particularly unsuited for rom com roles;  in this film, as in her earlier attempts (The Wedding Planner, Maid in Manhattan), there’s an underlying desperation in her attempts to be adorable, a sense that’s she’s straining to hit the comic beats rather than feeling them naturally.  (As opposed to, say, the effortlessly loopy and vulnerable Sandra Bullock, an actress who never met a punchline from which she couldn’t wring a heartfelt laugh.) The offscreen Lopez is a bit of a powerhouse – successful in the music, fashion, and fragrance industries and a triathlon competitor to boot – and I sometimes have the impression she’s busting her chops to add “endearingly goofy film comedienne” to her resume as well.  That particular accomplishment may be forever out of her reach, but is that so bad?  Maybe Lopez needs to give up on assuring us that she’s still Jenny from the block, and find some meatier, more complicated roles that exploit her innate determination and ambition. It depresses me that her next career move is straight into an American Idol judge’s chair .  Like so many other 40ish-and-up actresses (Glenn Close, Kyra Sedgwick, Juliana Margulies, Holly Hunter), I have a hunch that Lopez could be doing bang-up work on scripted series TV.  Someone write her a fabulous character, please.

Meanwhile, on the Jennifer Aniston front….

The Switch is worlds apart from The Back-Up Plan.  From its opening scenes, it feels less like a calculated mainstream entertainment than a scruffy indie flick, whose literary pedigree (it’s based on a New Yorker short story by Jeffrey Eugenides) is assured.  And despite the fact that she’s out there giving the interviews and battling Bill O’Reilly on the ethics of single motherhood, it ain’t Jennifer Aniston’s movie.  The Switch belongs, almost completely, to Jason Bateman.

Bateman plays Wally, a hard-drinking, neurotic mess of a guy who’s concealed his true feelings for Kassie (Aniston) over the course of their 6-year platonic friendship.  When Kassie hits 40 , still single and longing for a baby, she announces that she’s getting inseminated and plans to raise a child on her own.  The opening scene of the film, in which she delivers the news to Wally over lunch, is promising, perfectly capturing the tetchy rhythms of a conversation between old friends who both love and infuriate one other, who know which of the other’s buttons to press and which things should be left unsaid.

At Kassie’s insemination party (a scene not nearly as awful as it sounds), Wally drunkenly stumbles into the bathroom, accidentally spills the sperm donor’s sample into the sink and winds up replacing it with his own. Come morning, a seriously hung over Wally has no memory of what he’s done, and Kassie soon takes off to her hometown in Minnesota to have her baby and raise it among family.  A forlorn Wally is left in Manhattan to forge a new life without her, awkwardly at best.  There is an uncomfortably brilliant scene in which Wally and his date break the ice by jokingly imagining their doomed future together;  it devolves into him picturing himself as a pathetic middle-aged divorcee on the prowl for younger women and his date as am embittered alcoholic. Both Bateman’s nervously droll delivery and his date’s slow-morphing reaction from good-natured laughter to cool politesse to outright mortification are letter-perfect.

And that’s about where Eugenides’ story ended, but screenwriter Allan Loeb tacks on a second act that delivers a few pleasant surprises before fizzling and falling down the rabbit hole of formulaic predictability.  Kassie gets a job at ABC and returns to New York, her precociously bright and deeply oversensitive six-year-old son in tow.  It’s all too obvious that the boy is Wally’s son, even if the physical resemblance that strangers can’t help remarking on is, in fact, totally non-existent. (Child actor Thomas Robinson has enormous, owlish brown eyes in contrast with Bateman’s’ relatively beady, ice-blue peepers.) The ways in which their neuroses and fears line up, even their shared habit of moaning ecstatically over good food, unmistakably brands them as members of the same tribe.  Kassie pushes them to develop a relationship, and though the bond is predictably uneasy at first, Bateman and Robinson have such a sweet, unforced chemistry that their growing closeness is a joy to watch.

It’s only when Kassie’s sperm donor (Patrick Wilson) inexplicably re-enters the picture and becomes her lover, that The Switch detours into the safe, predictable formula that characterizes all the worst of contemporary romantic comedy, and it runs completely off the rails.  I’ll spare you the details, but I can’t resist warning you that the happy ending it finally spins towards is in no way credible given all that’s preceded it.

Bateman’s Wally is a meticulously modulated characterization, neither playing Wally’s tics and eccentricities for broad comic effect nor softening the more difficult aspects of the character into audience-friendly cuddliness.  And although she has a few nice scenes early on, Aniston pretty much gives the picture away to him (New York Times critic Stephen Holden aptly compared her screen presence here to that of a vanilla milkshake). Whether that’s by the directors’ design or due to unintentional sloppiness is hard to say.  I’ve always contended that Aniston can be a fine, affecting performer when she works with a good director (e.g. Nicole Holofcenter on Friends with Money, Nicholas Hytner on the underrated Object of My Affection). But Josh Gordon and Will Speck, who cut their directorial teeth on Geico’s “Caveman” commercials, might not possess the delicate touch needed to get the best out of their leading lady.

Or at least, not consistently.  During the insemination party sequence, there’s a very tender and beautifully played scene in which Wally finds Kassie alone at her bedroom window, away from the drunken revelry outside her door.  “I thought having a party would make it fun, but now I’m really depressed,”  she confides to him, and it’s an honest acknowledgment of the serious life step she’s about to take.  Wally manages to comfort and reassure her without once falling back on his trademark irony and cynicism.  If The Switch had managed more of those kinds of scenes in its final third, this review would be glowing rather than merely lukewarm.

The Road from May to December
September 18, 2010, 6:26 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

I recently saw Harold and Maude for the first time in my life.  I suspect I came to it about 30 years too late.

Many people in my acquaintance treasure this darkly comic May-December romance between a baby-faced, death-obsessed teenager (Bud Cort) and the saucy septuagenarian (Ruth Gordon) who teaches him how to embrace life. I think it’s notable, however, that most of these enthusiasts were teenagers or very young adults at the time of the film’s 1971 release.  Even from my fussbudgety, middle-aged perspective, I can easily appreciate how the film’s broadly drawn caricatures of “establishment” types (Harold’s socialite mother, war hero uncle, psychiatrist and priest) and its breezy, Cat Stevens-scored exhortation to “sing out/be free” may have spoken powerfully to rebellious youngsters of the Nixon/Vietnam era.

But, seriously, this movie is not aging well.

Sure, it’s fun to watch the transition in Cort’s sad, jittery Harold, his frightened, watery eyes gradually taking on a glint of subversive mischief as Maude draws him out of his shell.  And Gordon’s Maude may have a few lines on her face, but she moves and smiles with the extroverted confidence of a natural-born flirt.  She so good that you completely buy into Harold’s attraction to her, and she almost manages to rise above ridiculous lines like “Give me an L! Give me an I! Give me a V!  Give me a E! LIVE!” 

In the space of its brief 90 minutes, though, Harold and Maude managed to wear me out completely.  Call me cranky, but a woman who routinely steals other people’s cars isn’t a free spirit, she’s a thief.  (In her mind, Maude is merely delivering a “gentle reminder” to the cars’ owners that they shouldn’t be attached to their material possessions.  That may have gone down with the aspiring flower children of the day, but doesn’t play so well in our economically stressed times.)  Maude’s tendency to collect anything and everything and stuff it all into her cozy home may have brightened Harold’s face into a beacon of delighted wonder,  but nowadays I think we’d just call her a hoarder.   And bad, reckless driving really isn’t a cute, attractive character trait in anyone, not even for Annie Hall and certainly not for an almost 80-year-old nutjob. 

The other adults in Harold’s life are so exaggeratedly awful and Maude is so exaggeratedly in love with life (she’s a senior version of the stock character who would come to be known as the Manic Pixie Dream Girl) that the deck is heavily, defiantly stacked in favor of the improbable (and doomed) couple from the get go.  It might have been fresh and startling 39 long years ago , but seen from this backward perspective – years after the Cat Stevens theme song was co-opted to sell iPhones – Harold and Maude seems like nothing so much as a relic of a bygone and irretrievable era.

Another May-December romance film of the era, which is far less remembered but holds up much better for me is Alan Pakula’s Love and Pain and the Whole Damn Thing.

It starts in uncomfortably quirky, Harold and Maude-like territory, but gradually and gracefully evolves into something sweeter and wiser – and more enduring  – than its better-known predecessor.

When we first meet Walter Elberston (Timothy Bottoms) he’s listening to his Pulitzer-Prize winning father lecture him about his lack of initiative and direction, and – inexplicably – clutching a small turtle and an Almond Joy bar.  We never learn what’s up with the turtle and the candy bar, but soon Walter is packed off on a group cycling trip of Spain.  Unable to master either bicycle riding or speaking Spanish, the hapless Walter hops onto a tour bus, in the process spilling water from his canteen into the prim, spinsterly skirt of Lila (Maggie Smith).  Lila is herself a bit of an eccentric, given to reciting lyrics from Gilbert and Sullivan to calm herself when she is lonely or stressed, and shocked to find herself fighting off the advances of numerous Spanish men (though she manages to do so with icy propriety.)

Walter follows Lila around like a bewildered but devoted child, and Lila takes a schoolteacherly approach to him, exhorting him to work his Spanish.  Eventually, after a night of flamenco dancing and a botched suicide attempt by Lila (she has troubles I can’t expound on without delivering a huge spoiler), the two stumble their way to an awkward romance, and take off on their own trip to LaMancha in a Volkswagen Beetle with a beaten-up trailer clattering behind.

I like that the film doesn’t wallow in May-December clichés.  Lila does let her hair down and swaps her fussy suits and starchy blouses for jeans and t-shirts, but she resolutely remains her prissy, snippy, schoolteacherly self.  For his part, Walter remains sweet, inarticulate and open-hearted, and ultimately grasps the concept of love in a wholly mature, clear-eyed way.  “You’re a real pain in the ass, but I love you!” he rails at Lila (and who among us has not said as much to our own spouse or significant other?)  Pakula has a nice, sympathetic touch with misfit characters who find love, as demonstrated in his directorial debut The Sterile Cuckoo.  Here, he gives Smith and Bottoms the time and space to evolve the delicate balance of their characters’ stumbling path to genuine love.

Smith, of course, is delightful (as I once noted, I’d pay good money even to watch her take out the trash), and displays  a sadly underused flair for physical comedy.  The scene in which she rolls out of bed and into a floor lamp, making repeated unsuccessful attempts to right both herself and the lamp, is worthy of Lucille Ball, if not necessarily Chaplin. Bottoms’ performance has a quiet, earnest quality that builds into confidence over the course of the film, nicely capturing the trajectory of Walter’s emotional journey.

If Harold and Maude was a rallying cry for the young and the disaffected, Love and Pain and the Whole Damn Thing is a love story best appreciated by grown-ups. If it occasionally veers onto too-broad comic side roads or tends towards the heavy-handed (it can’t be insignificant that the two lovers are headed to LaMancha), those missteps can easily be forgiven – it’s ultimately too wise and too well-acted to be so little seen. 

The Return of real romance (?)
September 16, 2010, 1:59 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

Anyone who reads this blog with regularity (all two or three of you!) knows how much I love a good romantic comedy… and how infuriated I become in the face of the far-too-many rom coms that are routinely stamped out of Hollywood’s flimsy, uninspired templates.

Bossy, briefcase-toting bitches in Manolos and power suits who need an earnest, blue-collar hunk to show them the meaning of love.  Foul-mouthed, pot-bellied man-children who, once they succumb to love (inexplicably proffered by fabulous, gorgeous women) put down their bongs, shut off the internet porn and become responsible wage-earning adult men. Struggling twenty-somethings who incongruously live in palatial apartments and wear designer clothes.  Katherine Heigl trying like hell to convince us she’s a spunky, lovable comedienne.  They’re all fantasies, but cynically empty ones, not so much reflective of our deepest longings for intimacy and connection as of our shallower desires for mind-numbing escapes and cool stuff.

And so it is with cautious hope that I report: “Going the Distance” may well be the first glimmer of the light at the end of the contemporary rom-com’s murky tunnel.  It’s not perfect by any means; there are too many sidesteps into entirely unnecessary raunchy humor and it runs out of steam in its second act.  But its leads, Drew Barrymore and Justin Long (who are sometimes a couple offscreen as well) as so sweet together and they have the kind of lovely, unaffected chemistry that’s been woefully absent among screen couples in recent years.  What’s more, “Going the Distance” is resolutely not – as so many other recent rom coms resolutely are – a shameless showcase of product placement and real estate porn.  The film is true to the economic realities its characters face. Realities that are, in fact, at the heart of the story.

Barrymore and Long play a couple whose passionate desire to be together is thwarted by their dwindling career hopes.  She’s an aspiring newspaper reporter, he’s a struggling publicist for a fast-dying record company.  They meet over beers and games of Centipede in a down-at-the-heels bar, mere weeks before her internship at a New York newspaper ends, forcing her to return to San Francisco (where she lives with her sister’s family and waits tables) while he stays behind in a messy bachelor pad shared with two roommates.  After a few weeks of whirlwind romance, they decide to make a go of a long distance relationship.

While they start with high hopes, soon the messy realities of high-priced plane tickets, time zone differences and awkward phone sex threaten to derail the romance.  Both try very hard to find a job in the other’s city – neither succeeds.   There’s only so much joy and connection to be had through phone calls and video chats, and by the two-thirds point, you’ll be wondering exactly what foundation these two are building their everlasting love on.  I won’t give away the ending, except to say that it feels contrived and, at the same time, the only way the story could have been resolved.

I wish that Long’s roommates (played by Jason Sudekis and Charlie Day) had been a little more real and little less like transplants from a lower-tier Judd Apatow production. And I wish that Christina Applegate, as Barrymore’s protective, tartly funny big sister, might have been given a bit more to do.  But I appreciated director Nanette Burstein’s light and indulgent touch with her actors.  It’s a credit to her, as well as to the extremely likable leads, that a montage of frolicking-on-the-beach scenes – followed by a park bench conversation about the sweetness of watching old couples walking together – feels true and tender rather than hackneyed and trite.

Labor Day Weekend Movie Diary, Part 1
September 5, 2010, 4:16 pm
Filed under: George Clooney, Kenneth Branagh

Friday, September 3:

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994)

 Kenneth’s Branagh’s gloriously nutty take on the classic horror film proves to be a ravishing, if overdressed, period piece with feverish performances by (elsewhere) very fine actors who leave no piece of the gorgeous scenery unchewed.   Each and every scene is risibly overwrought, and Branagh fully indulges his penchant for grandiose, distracting camerawork.  (Fast-moving, 360-degree shots are used so many times that their dramatic impact is lost entirely, and you wind up feeling as though you are intermittently watching the film from a Tilt-a-Whirl car.) In one scene, the camera swoops in – apparently from the upper reaches of the stratosphere – to close in on a lone figure trekking across a vast expanse of Alpine snow, and it plays like a wintertime version of  The Sound of Music‘s prologue.  I half expected the character (Robert DeNiro as the monster, hamming it up behind stunningly grotesque make-up) to start twirling as the shot closed in on him and singing that “the hills are alive!!!!” The shot is breathtaking – and breathtakingly silly – all at once.  As is the rest of the film.

The Last Station 

Michael Hoffman’s comedy/drama on Tolstoy’s last days – and the fight between his wife and the members of the “Tolstoyan” movement over his will – is a vastly entertaining trifle thanks to the masterly performances by all involved.  Christopher Plummer’s Tolstoy wears both his exhausted sadness and fleeting moments of joy with impressive lightness, while Helen Mirren finds layers of tenderness and grief within in a role that could all too easily have been played for shrill, comic desperation alone. 

But greatness from Mirren and Plummer is certainly no surprise, and between them, they’ve garnered enough award nominations for these roles to underscore that point.  Instead, I found myself admiring  another, unheralded performance in The Last Station. 

James McAvoy is a reliable and somewhat underrated actor whose gift for playing the thankless ‘witness to history’ role was well-demonstrated opposite Forrest Whitaker’s terrifying Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland.  Here McAvoy plays a young emissary from the Tolstoyan movement, sent to accompany Tolstoy is his final days to ensure that the rights to the eminent author’s works are passed to the Russian people rather than kept by his conniving wife.  Instead his character becomes a trusted and sympathetic confidant to both Tolstoys, and it’s McAvoy’s nuanced and generous performance that helps the audience to sympathize with and love both those characters, even at their most monstrous and irrational moments.  I’ve written before about “stealth performers,” the kind of actors whose quiet brilliance sneaks up on you in the midst of the more histrionic performances that surround them.  McAvoy is definitely one of those performers.

Saturday, September 4

The American

Surprise, surprise, surprise!!

George Clooney’s latest star vehicle turns out to not be a multiplex-friendly action/suspense yarn in the mode of the “Bourne” franchise, but rather a moody, contemplative European art film.  Much to the consternation of the audience with which I saw The American, I might add.  You could actually hear the murmurs of “What the hell?” as the audience shuffled out during the closing credits.  The dingbat couple next to me, who kept giggling through the sex scenes, actually got up and left at the 2/3 mark.  And they weren’t the only ones.

That being said, let us remember that European art films aren’t necessarily all they’re cracked up to be, and though I admired the spare and calculatedly weary tone of The American, I found it a bit difficult to get through.  The film takes its sweet time establishing the day-to-day details of Clooney’s existence in a tucked-away Italian village.  His performance as a burned-out hit man working in secret is contained and controlled to the point of near-tedium.  The film put me in mind of nothing so much as mid-tier, late-period Antonioni.  Which is admirable, but still, you know, mid-tier as opposed to top-tier (i.e. The Passenger as opposed to Blow Up.)

One interesting feature: there is absolutely no musical score until near the very end, when it suddenly cranks up a run-of-the-mill, suspense-building musical underscoring.  This baffled me.  I asked my boyfriend afterwards, “Why do think they suddenly inserted music at the end of the movie?”  His reply? “To keep Americans awake and in their seats.”  He’s a smart cookie, that man.

We’ve moved our act to a new kinda town
September 4, 2010, 2:06 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

Welcome to new home of Doodad Kind of Town!  Stay tuned.

Hey Torquemada, Whaddya Say?
June 20, 2010, 11:42 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

Yeah, I know all about Mel Brooks. His shtick is relentless, over-the-top and tasteless in the extreme.

But, damnit, the man makes me laugh.

I spent some time with my Dad today watching a significant chunk of AMC’s Mel Brooks Marathon, mostly “History of the World, Part 1.” It’s loaded with cheap gags and cameo appearances by old-school comics, and it’s not the Best of Brooks by any stretch of the imagination. But I yukked it up at the French Revolution section anyway, especially Harvey Korman endlessly hissing at underlings who addressed him as Count Da Money (“Count De Monet! Mo-nay!”) I know it was a retread of the running Headley Lamarr/Hedy Lamarr joke in “Blazing Saddles,” but it still worked for me.

And this Spanish Inquisition sequence shows us what Brooks does best. Whatever else you might say about him, Mel Brooks knows how to turn out a hummable Tin Pan Alley-esue tune, and how to stage a musical number with a dizzying blend of shameless vulgarity and old-fashioned razzle-dazzle. This number is the best and funniest thing in “History of the World Part 1” and it foreshadows the the kind of dead on, delirious, everything-but-the-kitchen sink musical euphoria that Brooks and director/choreographer Susan Stroman would later bring to the stage musical version of “The Producers”. Enjoy.

In Praise of "Stealth Performers"
June 13, 2010, 8:32 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

With “Please Give” and her previous effort, “Friends with Money,” Nicole Holofcener has become to affluent Americans what Mike Leigh is to working-class Brits. Like Leigh, Holofcenter is a generous director – more an observer than a storyteller – who gives her actors considerable room to live and explore their characters’ lives, and unfailingly elicits stunning performances in return.

Catherine Keener, Holfocener’s favorite leading lady, is back for “Please Give,” this time as a Manhattan furniture dealer who, along with her husband, (Oliver Platt) buys up the furniture of the recently deceased from their grieving relatives and sells it at a considerable markup in her chic downtown store. Keener and Platt have also recently purchased the apartment of their nonagenarian neighbor (Ann Morgan Guilbert) with an eye to expand their own digs, a plan which doesn’t sit well with the neighbor’s granddaughters (Amanda Peet and Rebecca Hall).

Racked with guilt about both her livelihood and her remodeling plans, Keener compulsively hands out cash to homeless people, rails at her teenage daughter (Sarah Steele) for coveting $200 jeans, and trolls the internet late at night in search of worthy causes and unfortunate people to whom she might volunteer her time. (In one painful scene, she offers her doggie bag to an African-American man standing outside a restaurant; he coolly informs her that he is waiting for a table.) Peet – surly, sassy and perpetually fake-tanned – succumbs to an affair with Platt, while Hall, the meeker and nicer sister, struggles to appease their foul-tempered grandmother.

There are no grand epiphanies for these characters, only subtle shifts in perspective, and the film feels lighter and wiser for that. Keener and Platt are, as always, wonderful, but I come today to praise the work of two other actors.

Rebecca Hall is the kind of actress I’ve come to think of as a ‘stealth performer.’ In largely thankless, low-key roles, she has a groundedness and an unstudied grace that slowly sneak up on you. Penelope Cruz may have been the most celebrated cast member in “Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” but Hall’s Vicky – unforced and unexpectedly luminous – was every bit the equal of Cruz’ mad, disheveled Maria Elena. Here again, Peet has the showier role between the two sisters; she’s the sexy, angry smart-ass to Hall’s subdued, slightly dowdy caretaker. But Hall transforms her role into something more complex than your standard sad martyr. In her first scenes, she’s not especially sympathetic. Shut down and intolerant of small talk, she has an angry aloofness that isn’t immediately explained. But in subsequent scenes as we watch her interact with her patients (she’s a mammogram technician) and suffer through awkward blind dates, her innate goodness and decency begin to quietly shine through, until you finally realize that hers is the true and steadfast heart of the story. It’s a performance that evolves in sweet, subtle baby-steps and is all the more remarkable for that.

Another welcome presence in “Please Give” is Sarah Steele, who hasn’t been onscreen much since playing Adam Sandler’s daughter in 2004’s “Spanglish” and I was thrilled to see her return. Out of a cast of experienced performers, Steele sort of leapt off the screen in that film, playing a bright, vulnerable 12 -year-old with a confidence and honesty that were wholly original and beyond her years, yet blessedly free of precociousness. In an age of manufactured and carefully managed teen performers (yeah, I’m looking at you, Miley Cyrus), Steele is astonishingly genuine and vulnerable. And here, neither her smart mouth or her aching heart are played for easy laughs or tears respectively. Although she’s pushing 22 in real life, Steele comes off authentically as 15 years old.

On the other end of the spectrum –

Peter Medak’s biting 1972 satire “The Ruling Class” has been languishing in my DVR queue for some time now. When I finally got around to it on this gray, rainy Sunday afternoon, it turned out to be a lot less than I expected.

Parodies can ruin you for appreciating good films and actors. Thanks to Woody Allen’s “Love and Death,” for example, I’ve never been able to take “Persona” entirely seriously. Forbidden Broadway’s classic “Chita Rivera is not Rita/Rita Moreno is not Chita” number, has forever impeded my enjoyment of “America” from West Side Story, the tune to which it is set.

And, long ago, a two-minute SCTV sketch made me laugh till I cried – and effectively made it impossible for me to ever see Richard Burton, Richard Harris – or Peter O’Toole – in the same flattering light again.

In the mock trailer for “The Pope Who Would be King,” we’re told that these three stars are “better than any American actors could possibly be, because they know how to use their voices!” Joe Flaherty then skewered O’Toole’s mercurial declamatory style in about three seconds, screaming to the rafters, “I want to be pope, Pope, POPE!!!” then collapsing suddenly into forlorn tears and whimpering quietly “I want to be pope.”

O’Toole’s performance in “The Ruling Class” felt, to me, very much like an extended riff on Flaherty’s impersonation. (Very extended, I might add – the film runs a stultifying 2 hours and 45 minutes). As the batshit-crazy Earl of Gurney, an aristocrat who believes himself to be Jesus Christ, O’Toole is in constant motion – alternately preaching, cajoling, raging, exulting, agonizing, singing and dancing, while his relatives look on aghast. It’s an exhausting, histrionic performance, and it’s no surprise to me that O’Toole got an Oscar nomination.

The first half of “The Ruling Class” plays like some weird bastard child of Monty Python’s “Upper Class Twit of the Year” sketch and Dreyer’s “Ordet,” with a constantly labored wackiness that started to wear me out after about 20 minutes. This is the kind of movie where O’Toole segues inexplicably from quoting scripture to quoting lyrics from “Mairzy Doats,” arrives in the bedroom on his wedding night riding a tricycle, and drapes himself on a huge cross when he’s feeling stressed. Characters break into choruses of “The Varsity Drag” or “My Blue Heaven” for no reason at all. Emphasis on “no reason at all.” Yes, we all know that the British upper class is loaded with inbread nutters who are running the country to ruin. We figured that out by the time the opening credits were over. Why go on and on for another two and half hours?

Unlike my esteemed fellow blogger Greg at Cinema Styles, who loves the first half of “The Ruling Class” and hates the second, I found myself emitting a deep sigh of relief once O’Toole was “cured,” and his performance toned down into something cooler and more malevolent. For most of the film, however, I found myself longing to see more of Coral Browne. Nealry the only performer in the film who isn’t relentlessly twinkling at the audience or indulging in histrionic highs and lows, Browne commands her scenes with an cool, unflappable bemusement that is a welcome respite from the cranked-up hijinks around her. She’s the “stealth perfomer” in “The Ruling Class.”

Letters to Juliet
June 7, 2010, 10:40 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

(Warning – some spoilers)

Who the hell writes romantic comedies these days?

I mean, sure, they usually have standard writing credits, two names at most in the opening titles. But, really, I suspect they’re all cranked out by a committee squirreled away somewhere in a windowless conference room in spirited “brainstorming” sessions that play out like an off night at an improv club.

“Give me a prestigious-but-unfulfilling profession for the leading lady!” someone might say. “Give me a reason that her fiancee is too busy to pay attention to her! Give me a romantic foreign locale!”

On the particular day when the answers to those questions were, respectively: “Fact checker for the New Yorker!”, “He’s opening a restaurant!” and “Verona, Italy!” the film “Letters to Juliet” was apparently thus born. Oh, sure, there’s a little more to it than that – there’s also more than a nod to “Romeo and Juliet.” But you could see that coming too, couldn’t you?

Amanda Seyfried – once so delightful in “Mamma Mia” but anemic and bland here – plays the unfulfilled fact-checker, Sophie, who’s dying to get an article in print if only she could get a moment of her distracted boss’ attention to pitch her ideas. She’s nearly as invisible to Victor, her fiance (Gael Garcia Bernal), who’s inexplicably chosen to open his new Italian restaurant mere weeks after their upcoming wedding. So as not to disrupt the restaurant plans, they agree to take a “pre-honeymoon” to Verona, the “city of love.”

Except it turns out to be not so romantic. Victor prefers to spend the days visiting vineyards, savoring local food, and hunting for rare, delectable truffles (as any passionate chef would), activities in which Sophie takes no interest. Turns out, she’d rather wander aimlessly though the streets of Verona in search of local color and scenery that makes her want to open her notebook and write. We’re meant to understand that Victor is too focused on business to appreciate Sophie’s delicate, questing soul , but please… What truly artistic soul doesn’t find joy and romance in great food and wine? (I know I’d rather read an article about a truffle hunt than some dopey, self-absorbed account of her absent-minded wanderings.) Eventually, she discovers the wall of Juliet, a site where the lovelorn pen notes to Shakespeare’s heroine and tuck them into the bricks, hoping for some sage advice in reply.

Through a series of fortunate connections (meant to show us what an enterprising little reporter-in-the makings she really is), Sophie winds up writing a reply to one of these long-lost letters, penned 50 years before by an young Englishwoman who was heartsick at leaving behind her Italian lover, Lorenzo. Sophie’s reply improbably reaches the actual letter-writer in England – and induces her to return to Italy with her grandson in tow to find long-lost Lorenzo – all within the space of about two days. Sophie winds up accompanying them on the hunt, even though she and the grandson (Christopher Egan) despise each other on sight. But we all know where their verbal jousting is going to lead them, now don’t we? You can practically count off the minutes till they’re giggling together over gelato cones in the piazza.

There’s a potentially charming little rom com here that unfortunately sinks under the weight of leaden dialogue, phoned-in performances and uninspired visuals. (Shots of the Italian landscape are merely serviceable when they should be ravishing.) Seyfried and Egan are like the Disney Channel’s idea of what a Brown graduate and an Oxford-educated attorney would be, and the chemistry between them has all the snap and sass of warm cottage cheese. When Egan gets ahold of Sophie’s notebook, he proclaims “Your writing is really, really, really good!” (Hard for us to judge, since we’ve not seen a word of it, but I’m thinking it’s unlikely that a real Oxford grad would be so airheadedly effusive.) And the in the film’s final scene, when Egan proclaims “I am madly, passionately, and deeply in love with you, Sophie!” my bewildered response was “When the hell did that happen?”

Only Redgrave, her performance soaring above the proceedings like an exquisite grace note springing unexpectedly from a tinny, plodding melody line, brings anything like genuine romantic feeling to this dreary little film. There’s more joy and wonder in a single one of her fleeting facial expressions than is contained anywhere else in the proceedings. Normally that’d be one reason to see “Letters from Juliet,” but in this case, Redgrave so far outclasses her co-stars that it’s positively embarassing to watch.