Doodad Kind of Town


The Bad Girls of Basic Cable: "Saving Grace" and "Damages"
July 30, 2007, 12:42 am
Filed under: Holly Hunter

I have just one question: when did it become OK for people to say “Holy shit!” on basic cable?

I mean, really? Aren’t there still standards and censors for commercial networks, even the ones you can only watch if you have a cable box? Or am I out of touch?
Don’t answer that. I’ll do it for you. Yes, I’m totally out of touch with basic cable. Series like “Rescue Me” and “The Shield” and “Nip/Tuck” and “The Closer” and so forth have all gone unviewed in my home. For the past several years, my TV watching has been limited primarily to HBO, Bravo, Turner Classic Movies and a handful of the smarter network sitcoms (e.g. “The Office”).
So it was kind of a revelation to me when I turned on two new summer series this week to hear all this “holy shitting'” going on everywhere.
The emphasis is on the “holy” part in “Saving Grace,” a quirky drama starring Holly Hunter as a hard livin’, hard drinkin’, detective who has an encounter with the divine.
Despite all the hype celebrating “Saving Grace”‘s groundbreaking originality, this character turns out to be pretty much your standard-issue Southern spitfire in tight jeans and cowboy boots. She flirts, she cusses, she chain smokes. She drinks both beer and Jack Daniels straight from the bottle. She straddles her married lover with wild abandon (showing as much skin as basic cable allows), sucker-punches another man in return for an unwelcome come-on, and in between these mini-dramas, zooms around town in a mud-splattered Porsche (Which is a nice touch, since I would have expected a battered pick-up truck). All this is meant to suggest that Grace is beyond redemption, but God apparently thinks otherwise. After a night of hard drinking and reckless driving, Grace is visited by an angel. Since this feisty little missy is unlikely to be impressed by, say, Della Reese or Roma Downey, God sends Earl – a grizzly, tobacco-chawing old dude in denim (who I TOTALLY thought was Neil Young, but turns out is played by an actor named Leon Rippy.) Why the angel chose her – what God has in mind – well, none of that is clear, but there’s a whole series ahead to explore those questions.

The pilot is a bit overloaded with background information and introductions of supporting characters: Grace’s brother is a priest, her best friend (Laura San Giacomo in big, black, nerdy specs) is a devout Catholic; her beloved nephew lost his mom in the Oklahoma City bombing. Oh, and Grace has slept with pretty much every man in town. Now that we’ve got all that established, I hope this series gets going on giving some dimension to characters other than Hunter’s. It’s all fine to unleash Hunter’s force-of-nature energy into a part like this, but for the series to really work, she needs some folks who can balance her out. Personally, I’m always up for some unconventional exploration of God and faith, so I wish this series well.
“Damages ” filled me with nostalgia for an earlier, simpler time – the early 1980s. A time when Glenn Close played characters who were neither evil nor insane, but, rather, smiled beatifically and radiated goodness from beneath a halo of soft, blond curls. (If you are too young to remember this time, go find “The Natural” on DVD. Or even “The Big Chill.”)

Don’t get me wrong, Close is a terrific actress. Although not a force of nature like Hunter, she dominates “Damages” as a skillful, coolly assured portrayer of thinly disguised sociopathic malice. But, honestly, Close can do this evil bitch act in her sleep by now. It’s been twenty years since “Fatal Attraction” – what other rabbits can she pull out of her hat? Or boil, for that matter, and yes, there is an act of cruelty towards in a small animal in the opening episode of “Damages.” Which is only one reason that I so intensely disliked it.

The show is creepy and sometimes pointlessly sadistic. It plays up its more graphic and arresting images to good effect, but develops its major characters almost not at all.
Take the opening scene in which a woman flees an upscale apartment building, wearing only a blood-splattered trench coat and high heels. That’s a heart-stopping image, but what the hell is it all about? We won’t find out soon – once she turns herself into the police in the next scene, the action flashes back six months to show this woman being hired fresh out of law school by Close’s law firm.
Close is a personal injury attorney who loves sticking it to corporations on behalf of the little guy, although it’s never clear why. She doesn’t have much love for the little guys on whose behalf she scores huge, punitive settlements. What she does love is terrorizing and intimidating her employees. Rose Byrne is the fresh-faced law school grad she hires, but it equally unclear what Close sees in her. Doe-eyed, soft-spoken and ineffectual, Byrne hardly suggests the ambitious go-getter she’s claimed to be. She’s no foil for Close, and therein lies the problem. As with “Saving Grace,” the big-name actress at the center of the out-acts the rest of the cast, basically eating them all for breakfast. I’m less inclined to keep up with “Damages” in the coming weeks, but if I do, I’ll hope that some of the other actors start coming alive.

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More on a Summer Spent Outside the Multiplex
July 29, 2007, 11:53 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

I used to go to the movies at every possible opportunity and never counted the cost. What was the price of a movie ticket in the grand scheme of things? My love of cinema knew no price tag. Every moment spent in the hushed and darkened confines of a movie theatre was priceless to me.

But times have changed, my friend.

For one thing, the confines of the movie theatre may be darkened, but they sure ain’t hushed. Over the past few years, I’ve notice an alarming increase in movie talkers. I’m not referring to the innocent parties who whisper an occasional comment to one another – I’m talking about the folks who repeatedly yammer right out loud, dissecting every scene of the movie as if they are in their own living room, rather than a public place. And it’s not kids who are the guilty parties (although teenagers, being teenagers, tend to whisper and giggle and squeal a bit in every generation), it’s middle-aged adults! You know people raised in the 60s and 70s, way before permissive parenting ; i.e. People Who Should KNOW Better! Now, granted, I’m a wee bit on the self-righteous side from time to time, but I simply cannot get over myself on this issue. I want everyone to obey that pre-film command: “Please, don’t add your own soundtrack to the movie.” Damnit!

And there’s the whole issue of the price tag….

At suburban multiplexes near me, the cost of a movie admission ranges from $9 to $9.75, depending on the franchise. Add just one small Diet Coke and one bag of popcorn to that, and you’re easily in for $17.50. Then you get to watch advertisements until the previews start. And when the movie finally starts, it’s highly likely to be disappointing. (I can think of exactly three movies I’ve seen this year that were actually worth the money to me: “Notes on a Scandal,” “La Vie En Rose,” and “The Lives of Others.”)

For the first time in my life, I’ve become a discriminating moviegoer. This weekend, when offered an opportunity to join friends at “No Reservations,” I actually paused to consider the cost in terms of both cash outlay and general aggravation. Hmmm $9.50 to get in – $3.75 for stale, unsatisfying popcorn, fighting for a parking space, fighting to hear the movie over the middle-aged couple yakking behind me…. ah, forget it! (Besides, I felt like I’d pretty much gotten the whole story from the trailer for free: Type-A female chef has one-dimensional, love-free life; is made guardian of dead sister’s adorable child who forces her to confront her own Selfish Shallowness; meets hunky, laid-back, life-lovin’ male chef who teaches her How To Be Human; ends up with male chef boyfriend, adorable child and new-found wisdom about What Really Matters; THE END. If I failed to appreciate any subtle nuances in the story, please let me know.)

OK, I am now getting down from my Grumpy Old Lady soapbox.

I try not to do any serious TV watching in the summer, but this year, I’m takin’ a break from the multiplexes and enjoying some new and truly entertaining offerings on the small screen. Over the next week, I plan to post about some of the most entertaining of the bunch.

Stay tuned.
(photo from imdb.com)



I Miss Jack Cafferty in the Mornings….
July 26, 2007, 11:02 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

Here’s a little YouTube clip that cheered my heart. Jack Cafferty of CNN actually refused, on-air, to read the story of Lindsay Lohan’s latest DUI – asking that the story be removed from his teleprompter: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4OL9zl9IMlA&NR=1.

Ah, Mr. Cafferty, how I’ve missed you!

Time was, in my house, weekday mornings started with coffee and CNN. Every day at 5:40 am, I’d settle into my sofa with a fresh, hot mug and turn on “American Morning.” There was my preppy-cute, early morning crush, Bill Hemmer. Beside him, Soledad O’Brien, likable in a Katie Couric sort of way, but not nearly so full of herself. And slightly off to the side, perched on a stool and slouching with irritated world-weariness, was dear, curmudgeonly Jack Cafferty. Never smiling, always scowling. Bill would throw out a headline, Soledad would chime in with some other breaking news story, then it was over to Jack who would let loose with some cranky, disgusted, “Can you believe this?” commentary on whatever in the world was happening that day that struck him as particularly absurd.

Bill and Soledad had solidness and likability covered, and waking up to them was like settling down for a nice, comfort-food breakfast, even when the news was bad. They gave it to you straight, were objective. Cafferty, however, was the shot of Tabasco in your morning omelet; he was there to get your brain working and your motor racing. He was simply incapable of reporting on government corruption or celebrity fluffery without sharing whatever derisive comments were going through his (and everyone else’s) minds. In the the world of morning news, where reporters are usually well-coiffed and smiling, Cafferty kept it bearably real.

But some programming “genius” swooped in – as “geniuses” are wont to do – and remade “American Morning.” Gone was Bill Hemmer – reportedly offered a demotion to CNN’s afternoon programming. Bill said “No, thanks,” and absconded to Fox News. (FOX NEWS?!? WHY, BILL, WHY????). The personality-free Miles O’Brien took the anchor chair next to Soledad O’Brien, apparently no relation. And dear Mr. Cafferty was shuffled off to deliver shots of his well-practiced curmudgeonliness in the dead of the afternoon in Wolf Blitzer’s “Situation Room.” One media wag at the time said that Cafferty “scares people who just want to eat their damn breakfast cereal.” Well, I vehemently disagree. Everyone I know who watched “American Morning,” watched it for Jack Cafferty. And I think we all got our cereal down just fine.

I don’t know who watches “American Morning” now; I don’t. I’ve long ago switched to the local NBC affiliate with occasional jaunts over to “Morning Joe” on MSNBC. Now with “Mild” and Soledad at the anchor desk, mornings at CNN have become just so much televised wallpaper. (There’s also an alarmingly high percentage of “Freak show” news – think Anna Nicole- as opposed to real news, a phenomenon that CNN founder, Ted Turner derided as “pervert of the day coverage” years after he sold the station to Time Warner.) Apparently, however, Mr. Cafferty is still doing his thing, if only at an inopportune time for most people with jobs to be able to enjoy it. Fortunately, we have You Tube, which means his best moments are available to savor anytime.

Here’s another one: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LYqywbORQ-M&NR=1. Enjoy.


My new favorite web site …
July 25, 2007, 1:55 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

Next time you want to reach for a tasty snack, go first to hungrygirl.com.

This is a wonderful web site full of great ideas for deceptively low-calorie, low-fat snacks. Check out today’s recipe for a low-fat version of fried mozzarella sticks: http://www.hungry-girl.com/chew/chewdetails.php?isid=1156. (Hint: it involves low-fat mozzarella sticks, crushed Fiber One cereal, Egg Beaters and baking.)

They also reguarly blow the lid off supposed “healthy” items on popular restaurant menus, exposing the ugly truth of their calorie and fat gram counts. (Among the surprises is a veggie burger at Ruby Tuesday that weighs in at over 900 calories!!!)

If you go to the site, you can sign up for a free daily newsletter and be alerted of all the latest developments in low-calorie snacking.

Now that I am back on good old Weight Watchers, I find this site to be a real inspiration!



Seeing Europe at the Movies
July 23, 2007, 11:49 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

When the summer heats up, the cool darkness of the movie theatre beckons me.

Unfortunately, I have developed somewhat of an aversion – really, almost an allergy – to summer blockbusters. Loud special effects do not impress me. I have always been a connoisseur of quieter cinematic pleasures. Nor do I like crowded multiplex theatres. (In fact, I am not a fan of crowds anywhere.) So I have avoided all films with Pirates, Transformers, Harry Potter or Spider Man in the title.

Another siren song that sings in my ear when summer comes is the one which beckons me to travel. More specifically, to travel overseas. I’ve been lucky enough to travel to Europe several times, but it’s become prohibitively expensive this year, what with the poor performance of the US dollar vs. the Euro. Not that Europe is that great a place to visit in the summer anyway, ’cause everyone is there! (See aforementioned aversion to crowds.)

Fortunately I’ve found a way to indulge both my summer passions at low cost and generally without large hoards of people in the popcorn line. I’ve been experiencing a little bit of Europe on the silver screen in art house theatres right here in the suburbs. Here’s a little on what I’ve seen:

“Paris Je T’aime” is a compendium of 18 short films, all set in the storied City of Lights, each directed by a different American or European director. It’s not quite the twinkly, picture-postcard travelogue you might expect, but it is very entertaining nonetheless. The films vary wildly in tone – from romantic to political, from sad to ironic, from knee-slapping funny to head-scratching weird. Highlights are: a love story between two mimes; a Coen Brothers-directed segment with Steve Buscemi being taunted and terrorized by a young French couple as he waits for a Metro train; Juliette Binoche as a grieving mother who finds a way to reconnect with her recently deceased young son, if only in her imagination.

A few segments, however, are flatter than last week’s champagne. I groaned at Alexander Payne’s segment, narrated by a fat, fanny-pack-and-Reeboks-wearing tourist in egregiously bad, American-accented French. It’s such a cheap and easy shot, and all too consistent with Payne’s tendency (in films like “About Schmidt”) to poke cruel fun at unsophisticated middle Americans. But, happily, he redeems the segment with an unexpectedly touching finale.

Then there’s the vignette in which old pros Gena Rowlands and Ben Gazara play a long-separated couple divorcing at last and discussing the details over a glass of wine in a cafe. Their wry, knowing humor would play well if the actors were about twenty years younger, but seeing this scene played by septuagenarians is just plain creepy. If hearing the 76-year-old Rowlands purr about her young, bicycle-racer boyfriend and the equally elderly Gazara chuckle ruefully about his pregnant, 30-year-old fiancee doesn’t make you squirm in your seat, I don’t know what will. It’s like watching your grandparents perform in a bedroom farce. Gerard Depardieu has an all-too-brief cameo as their bartender.

For a look at Paris of a bygone age – plus a side trip to swanky, post-WWII Manhattan – check out “La Vie En Rose,” a sensational bio of the iconic French singer, Edith Piaf. Marion Cotillard (last seen as the girl who stole Russell Crowe’s heart in “A Good Year”) is magnificent as Piaf. She surpasses mere impersonation of the legendary “Little Sparrow” to vividly embody both her fragility and the indomitable life force. In every one of Piaf’s incarnations – the teenager who sang in the streets to earn a few coins; the celebrated star of cabaret and concert hall surrounded by celebrity friends; and, finally, the tiny, ravaged woman, prematurely aged from years of heavy drinking and morphine addiction and fighting to stay alive and sing – Cottilard is breathtaking and emotionally true.

Many have criticized the film’s non-linear structure for being confusing, and they’re right: “La Vie en Rose” jumps back and forth between time periods in Piaf’s life with very little setup or explanation. It’s also been criticized for completely omitting significant events in Piaf’s life, and again, that’s probably fair. (On the basis of this film alone, you’d never guess that World War II even happened.) But neither of these flaws really bothered me. I was completely engrossed in what felt like a sort of impressionistic collage of Piaf’s emotional life. I left feeling I’d glimpsed the singer’s soul.

Oh, and Gerard Depardieu pops up again in an extended cameo as the man who discovers Piaf and launches her career. What up with Monsieur Depardieu and all these drive-by performances? Does he do starring roles anymore, or does he just pop in and add a tantalizing soupcon of his Depardieu-ness to help sell major French films overseas? Discuss….

One film bio to skip is “Klimt,” starring John Malkovich as the legendary Viennese painter. Gustav Klimt. Malkovich is rapidly devolving from a fine, interesting actor into a reliable but annoying purveyor of quirks, tics and eccentricities. He’s the go-to guy when you need a freak show performance in a little indie film. Here he’s a bit more contained, but there’s no real center to his performance, and you’ll come away knowing almost nothing about Klimt.
(What you do learn from this film may even turn out to be completely untrue. It’s strongly implied here that Klimt died of syphilis; in reality, he died from a stroke. Emilie Floge, Klimt’s real-life companion/muse/model, pops up everywhere, but Klimt barely pays attention to her and she comes off desparate and needy. In the context of the film, she may or may not be Klimt’s girlfriend, but she sure as heck wants to be.)
Like “La Vie en Rose,” “Klimt’s” structure is impressionistic rather than linear. Supposedly this is meant to evoke Klimt’s painting style, but it rarely does. The overall effect is more like a exhibition of every Bad Art Film cliche known to man: here is a Kafakesque “Sekretar” character who exists only in Klimt’s imagination and appears at critical moments to question him; here is a particularly laughable scene in which various people from Klimt’s life appear at different doors and Klimt must choose which door to enter! Wow, dude, that’s symbolic! The last time I was impressed by this kind of stuff, I was a college freshman. At least the Vienna scenes were visually sumptuous – and the many scenes set in Vienna’s pastry-laden coffeehouses gave me a mighty hankering for some apple strudel with vanilla cream.

Finally, this weekend I got around to seeing this year’s Oscar winner for Best Foreign Language film, “The Lives of Others.” I’m happy to report that this is that rare film from which I emerge to tell my friends, “That wasn’t just a good movie, that was a great movie!” Set in the bleak, pre-Glasnost East Berlin of 1984, it is the story of a government surveillance man assigned to monitor a well-known writer and his actress girlfriend who are suspected of having anti-socialist leanings. He bugs their apartment and listens to their every move and conversation, reporting back dutifully to his superiors. But in the process, something unexpected happens to this buttoned-up government operative: moved by the couple’s passions for art and for one another, he finds his conscience and his soul. Listening over the surveillance equipment as the writer plays a piano sonata in honor of a deceased friend, he weeps. He breaks into their apartment to steal a book of poetry which he reads, enraptured, in his drab little apartment. (WARNING – Spoiler ahead – stop reading now if you intend to see this movie). Ultimately he sacrifices his own career to ensure that the writer’s report on the alarming suicide rate in East Germany is smuggled out of the country and published in the West. The film ends on a redemptive note. I love any film in which a character is spiritually transformed by Great Art, and this one had me at Guten Tag. Every moment was riveting. Ulrich Muhe, who plays the surveillance man, gives a beautiful performance – tightly wound, furtive, controlled, but with a deep, haunted sadness in his eyes for a life half-lived. I’m picking this one up on DVD for my permanent collection.

(photos from imdb.com and Google photos)



I’m Back and I’m Doodaddin’
July 23, 2007, 11:47 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

Hello loyal readers – all two or three of you.

I took most of the month of July off, but I’m back and posting.

Stay tuned….