Doodad Kind of Town

Quick Take: "Baby Mama"
April 28, 2008, 12:15 am
Filed under: Tina Fey

It’s probably a bad sign that I didn’t really laugh until a good 30 minutes into “Baby Mama.”

It’s probably an even worse sign that when I did finally laugh, it wasn’t at Tiny Fey or Amy Poehler, but rather at a clip from “America’s Funniest Home Videos” in which a little boy batted a whiffle ball straight into his father’s testicles.

Most depressing of all? That’s probably the hardest I laughed during the entire movie.

It’s not that “Baby Mama” is bad, exactly. It works well enough, albeit rather predictably, as a standard-issue, “chick flick.” But who wanted that? Fey and Poehler are two of the most wickedly and subversively funny females on the planet. Pairing them as an uptight executive with a loudly ticking biological clock and the white trash dingbat who carries said executive’s baby as a surrogate seemed like, um, fertile ground for inspired comedy. (OK, bad pun.)

Instead what “Baby Mama” clearly demonstrates is that neither of these ladies, however talented, has what it takes to be at the center of a movie.

The biggest disappointment, for me, is that Tina Fey didn’t write “Baby Mama.” Fey is brilliant writer, not so great as an actress. She gets off a good line or throaway piece of physical comedy here and there, but she’s mostly playing straight woman to Poehler and a gallery of actors (Sigourney Weaver, Steve Martin, Siobhan Fallon and others) in featured comic roles. The script (by SNL alum Michael McCullers) asks that we sympathize with and cheer for Fey’s character, but Fey is too chilly an actress for us to truly take her to heart.

Poehler is a brilliant sketch comic, but sustaining a role through the length of entire movie seems to sap her energy. Anyone who’s seen her one-legged, defiantly flatulent “Bachelor” contestant on SNL knows how far Poehler can go with a white trash character, but in “Baby Mama” she’s rarely allowed to pull the stops out. Rather, her character has to learn something and grow and be a better person, and that learning curve tends to extinguish her usual manic spark. She isn’t convincing (partly because she’s a good decade too old for the part), and she isn’t nearly as funny as the trailer would lead you to believe.

And though reviewers are all abuzz over Steve Martin’s performance – as Fey’s boss, the ponytailed, tragically hip CEO of a organic grocery chain – he didn’t do it for me either. The character sounded hilarious on paper, but in actual performance, it barely made me smile.

"Flight of the Red Balloon"
April 23, 2008, 1:13 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

There’s a scene late in “Flight of the Red Balloon” in which a teacher asks a group of young students to look at a painting of a little boy with a red balloon.

“Is the painting happy or sad?” she asks them.

“It’s both!” they answer, noting that the sun is shining on the little boy, but there are also dark clouds in another part of the picture.

And that’s a pretty apt description of the movie itself. “Flight of the Red Balloon” indeed has some sunny patches, but much of the film is tinged with the cloudiness of melancholy.

It’s been many, many years since I saw the classic French children’s film “The Red Balloon,” and my memory of it is dim (although I did get a nice refresher from this lovely remembrance by Marilyn at Ferdy on Films). So I didn’t bring a lot of preconceived notions to “Flight of the Red Balloon,” which its director, Hsiao-hsien Hou, intends as an homage to the earlier classic. For the first 20 minutes or so, the film’s trajectory felt as random and aimless as the flight of the titular red balloon floating slowly above the rooftops of Paris. But, eventually, the film’s acutely observed details of a few Parisians’ lives drew me in completely.

As in its 1956 predecessor, there is a red balloon and a little boy (Simon Iteanu) in “Flight…”. But in the newer film, the boy’s life is filled with complications. His mother (Juliette Binoche), a blowsy, bleached blond (whose mercurial mood swings give the film a shot of needed adrenaline whenever she appears) makes a living providing lively narration for puppet shows. His father, Pierre, is absent; he’s off in Montreal working on a novel and it’s strongly suggested he won’t be returning. Two of Pierre’s friends rent a downstairs flat from Binoche on which they seldom pay rent. His half-sister, Louise – who is also unseen, but who looms large in the boy’s imagination – is studying in Brussels. She’s expected back soon, and Binoche wants to evict the downstairs tenants in order to make room for her. There are a steady stream of people in and out of the boy’s home, and a sense of chaos pervades.

Into this picture comes a new nanny, a Chinese film student named Song (Fang Song). From her first scene, Song establishes a presence of serenity and competence. She doesn’t judge or react to the loose ends at which Binoche operates; she simply accepts the circumstances and gets to work. Song tells Simon that she loves the film “The Red Balloon” and wants to make a movie about red balloons, often including him in the filming. Song and Simon bond in a straightforward and simple way that is neither cute nor particularly heartwarming. But, right from the get-go, you know the boy is well taken care of. There a subtlety and a unforced realism in their relationship that I don’t think you would find between two similar characters in a mainstream American film.

Binoche and Song compliment one as well, much like a pair of bookends. Binoche is flighty – self-absorbed and angry one moment, warm and loving the next – but it’s a seamless performance in which you never catch her acting. (There is one particularly lovely scene in which she storms into her flat from a heated argument with the tenant and goes directly to taking a telephone call from Louis in which she learns that her daughter is not returning to Paris. Heartbroken and weary, she hugs her son and tells him “Grownup things are complicated,” then asks him to tell her about his day. And as he does, you see her slowly brighten and then she looks around the flat -at her son, at Song, at the piano tuner who is at work on the family’s spinet – and she positively glows with love, appreciation and acceptance of her life. It loses something in the telling, but, trust me, it’s amazing to watch.)

Song, on the other hand, is the grounding force for Binoche’s flights of temper. She gives a stability to the boy’s life, as well as to the narrative of the film.

The final scenes show a red balloon hovering outside the boy’s bedroom window, then over his house and finally over the rooftops and spires of Paris. The balloon becomes a symbol of a benevolent presence watching over the boy, a guardian angel of sorts, and leaves us with a feeling that all will be well.

“Flight of the Red Balloon” is never too eager to please. It doesn’t dispense lessons or wisdom, and no one gets smarter or better between the first frame and the last. Yet you grow to love the characters and feel privileged to have glimpsed a bit of their lives. It will undoubtedly tug at your heartstrings, but you may not be aware of it until that final image fades.

And, really, isn’t that refreshing?

Of Sunshine (At last!) and Catching Up with Foreign Classics
April 21, 2008, 12:14 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

“Little darlin’
It’s been a long, cold, lonely winter.
Little darlin’
It feels like years since it’s been here.
Here comes the sun.
(Doo doo doo doo doo)
Here comes the sun.
And I say it’s alright.” – George Harrison

I’ve been cranking this tune on the “Abbey Road” CD all weekend because spring has finally come to the Midwest. Actually, it feels more like summer, with abundant sunshine and temperatures in the mid- seventies. A mere week ago we had sleet and wet snowflakes falling, so this weekend feels like a miracle.

I could not bring myself to spend much time indoors this weekend. In fact, I opted to spend this afternoon hanging out at the park with my niece and nephew rather than enter the darkness of a movie theatre. So I’m postponing my viewings of “The Visitor” and, possibly “In Bruges” (on the lone screen where it’s still playing) for later this week.

I did manage to make a small dent in the DVR queue this weekend, and the film I caught was anything but a sunny harbinger of happy summer frolics. Rather, I watched Fritz Lang’s classic thriller “M” for the first time. Made in Germany in 1931, “M” details the search for and capture of a child murderer, played with a convincing (if somewhat overheated) touch of madness by Peter Lorre. What follows are some of my uneducated impressions of the film.

Given how long ago it was made, “M” must have been groundbreaking in the techniques it uses to create tension and mood and to suggest violence without actually showing it. Some of the images used to telegraph offscreen mayhem are still as disturbing and devastating to watch as they must been in 1931.

Early in the film for example, we see Lorre approach a little girl – but we don’t initially see his face, only his shadow falling on a “Wanted” poster for the child killer. We then see him buying the child a balloon doll which wears a little dress not unlike the child’s own. Later, when the girl fails to come home for dinner, her mother shouts for her as Lang cuts to shots of an empty stairwell, an empty courtyard, the street beyond, and then finally to a shot of the balloon doll hopelessly tangled in some telephone wires. It’s a simple but chilling progression of images that builds to an almost unbearable climax. And that’s just in the first 5 minutes.

Lang creates a atmosphere of suspicion and paranoia fairly effectively in the scenes that follow, even though Lorre drops out of sight for a good while. We see an innocent gentleman beset by an angry mob simply because he talks to a young girl and asks where she lives; police intervention saves him from their wrath. There are also some good bits of slightly dark humor (in a vein similar to what we would later see in Alfred Hitchcock’s work), particularly in a scene with Lorre’s sweet but hard-of-hearing landlady.

But Lang also serves up some endlessly ‘talky’ scenes in which the police or the local crime syndicate (whose activities have become less profitable given the police’s unrelenting scrutiny of the neighborhood) discuss and debate how to catch the murderer. My thoughts during these scenes: tell me less, show me more. I’m not bright enough to know whether these extended philosophical debates were meant to illuminate Wiemar Republic-era thoughts on crime and law enforcement; I had the distinct feeling that they were filled with subtle political messages that were flying right over my head. And I kept wishing they’d get back to Peter Lorre so we could see what he was up to now.

The penultimate scene has Lorre captured and interrogated by an angry mob. And another talky debate ensues. Lorre, eyes bulging and his voice bordering on screams, begs for mercy on the grounds of his insanity, his utter inability to control his need to commit crimes and his disassociation from the actual act when in the midst of it. I had the sense that this sort of psychological defense was modern, even revolutionary, for the times in which “M” was filmed.

And I didn’t quite know what to make of the final shot in which a trio of grieving mothers in black veils sit together in a courtroom with one intoning: “”And if they take his life? Will that bring our babies back to us?” followed by a black screen and the mother telling us in voice over that “we must all watch over our children.” The ending deprives us of any sense of resolution or any reassurance that good triumphs over evil. This might be a bit of a reach, but as I write about it now, I keep thinking about “No Country for Old Men,” and its similarly ambiguous and its anything-but-reassuring finale. And in that light, “M,” feels as unsettling and contemporary as this year’s thrillers.

"Smart People"
April 17, 2008, 11:09 pm
Filed under: Romantic Comedies

About two minutes into “Smart People,” I started to wonder why college literature professors in movies are always arrogant, emotionally stunted pricks. Wouldn’t it be a kick if once – just once– they made a movie about a college professor who was a really great guy? One who had a stable emotional life and good relationships with his spouse and kids and who was really liked by his students? I’m sure those people exist in real life, but they’re pretty damn hard to find on celluloid.

Well, within those first two minutes, you find out that “Smart People” won’t be that kind of movie. Like his predecessors in films like “Wonder Boys,” “The Squid and the Whale,” and “The Savages,” Dennis Quaid’s character (Lawrencce Wetherhold, a Carnegie-Mellon professor of Victorian literature) is a self-absorbed, pompous windbag who doesn’t get on well with anyone.

What almost redeems “Smart People” (‘almost’ being the operative term here) is its honest observations that 1)college professors aren’t the only people who are self-absorbed and emotionally stunted; and 2) sometimes, self-absorbed windbags know they’re self-absorbed windbags and feel real pain about it.

After his car is towed (for parking illegally across two parking spaces, his usual habit), Wetherhold attempts to break into the lot where the car is being held by scaling the fence. He falls and hits his head, which triggers a seizure, and he ends up in the emergency room where his doctor is the comely Janet Hartigan (Sarah Jessica Parker). Hartigan is a former student, but Wetherhold doesn’t recognize her. (Not surprisingly, since he barely recognizes the students he currently teaches.) Unable to drive after the seizure, Wethehold must enlist his ne’er do well brother, Chuck (Thomas Hayden Church) to be his chauffeur; his uptight, acid-tongued, Young Republican daughter, Vanessa(Ellen Page), is too busy studying for her SATs to take on the job.

So Chuck moves into the Wetherhold household, introduces Vanessa to pot and beer and tries – none too successfully – to loosen her up. Meanwhile, Lawrence begins an awkward romance with Janet. What follows is not predictable, and I will grudgingly give props to writer Mark Poirier and director Noam Munro for that. The standard choice would have been for Janet to be the emotionally open, nurturing and forgiving woman who brings Lawrence to life, but instead, Janet turns out to be a bit difficult herself. The relationship develops in fit and starts, largely due to Janet’s passive-aggressive and withholding nature.

Meanwhile, Lawrence emerges as an ever more sympathetic character as we begin to see how deeply he is still grieving for his late wife, and how much pain his own behavior causes him. Although the other three main characters continue to operate with the understanding that Lawrence is the one with the problems, it becomes ever clearer that their behavior towards him is often insensitive and casually cruel.

Props are given grudgingly to Poirer and Munro, however, because while I admire what they attempted to do here, it isn’t all that interesting to watch. My friend, Mary Anne, who saw “Smart People” with me, put it very succinctly:”These characters are stunted and the movie is stunted, too.” You keep waiting for a chemistry to develop between characters, for one blistering or heartbreaking exchange of dialogue that sharpens and illuminates your understanding of the characters. And it never comes to fruition. Instead, “Smart People” just keeps muddling along from one well-intentioned-but-half-baked scene to the next.

It’s a shame, too, because these four actors are talented people who could have used a surer directorial hand. Hayden Church falls back on his lovable stoner persona fairly successfully, but we’ve seen that before. And I won’t be the first to note that Page basically plays Juno McGuff as Young Republican, and it’d be nice to see something different from her, too. I had trouble believing Parker as an emergency room doctor, although she does capture a certain prickliness in her character which works well. And Quaid falls pretty far short of the gold standard set for this kind of role by Jeff Daniels in “The Squid and the Whale.” He sports all the right profesorial affectations (beard, paunch, and an awkward, shuffling kind of walk), and gets at the emotional depth of the character, but I never once believed he was a real academic.

"Romance and Cigarettes"
April 15, 2008, 11:59 pm
Filed under: Musicals

John Turturro’s “Romance and Cigarettes” is a heaving, throbbing, unholy mess of a movie. It is lovely in places, hilariously profane in others – but getting to the good parts is a bit like digging for diamonds in a dung heap.

“Romance in Cigarettes” was completed in 2005 and played all over Europe that year, but didn’t reach U.S. screens till late in 2007. According to Andrew O’Hehir’s breathless, glowing review on Salon, that’s because the purported American distributor just didn’t know how to market it or didn’t trust American audiences to get it.

Maybe. Or maybe it’s just that the movie is weird, sloppy and ill-conceived to the point of being almost unwatchable.

James Gandolfini is a Queens steel worker named Nick Murder, and Susan Sarandon is his exasperated wife, Kitty. As the film opens, Kitty confronts Nick with a scrap of paper she’s found; it contains a poem he’s written to his mistress, lovingly extolling his favorite part of her anatomy. A heated exchange ensues, then Nick steps outside, music swells on the soundtrack, and he begins lip-synching to Engelbert Humperdinck’s “A Man Without Love,” soon joined by other men in the neighborhood – from sanitation workers to boys on bicycles.

And so, as in earlier films “Pennies From Heaven” and “The Singing Detective,” we enter a world where characters express their deepest, truest emotions through lip-synching to their favorite songs. Later, we will see Kitty pouring her heart out in a sing-along to Dusty Springfield’s “Piece of My Heart.” It’s never entirely clear in what time period “Romance and Cigarettes” is intended to take place. A scene set in an Agent Provocateur lingerie store would indicate the present day; the character’s clothes have a downmarket ’80s feel, while the cars they drive appear to be from the late ’60s or early ’70s. But the music is definitively 1960s, all overheated pop ballads by the likes of not only Springfield and Humperdinck, but Tom Jones, Vikki Carr and others of their ilk.

Although set in a grimy, working class neighborhood, there’s not much realism in “Romance and Cigarettes.” The characters have BIG emotions and they’re expressed in over-the-top ways: frantic, badly choreographed musical numbers; wild flights of dialogue; and shameless mugging. It’s hard to watch at worst, and hard to follow, at best.

I’m not usually a bullet-pointy kind of reviewer, but in this case, I’d like to get right down to the heart of what works and what doesn’t work in “Romance and Cigarettes” so here’s a handy guide to the Good, the Bad and the Ugly**:

The Good:

–Kate Winslet as Gandolfini’s foul-mouthed mistress. Hilarious and touching by turns, nearly unrecognizable under a mop of red hair and sporting a Manchester accent thick as clotted cream, Winslet very nearly steals the movie.

–Elaine Stritch as Gandolfini’s mother. The grand dame of Broadway musical theater has only one scene, and one potentially wacky/unsavory monologue, but she invests it with so much genuine woundedness and bewilderment that the whole cockamamie movie slows down and you become absolutely transfixed by her.

–The final few scenes of the film. Up to this point, it’s all been over the top and fantastical, but in its final moments, “Romance and Cigarettes” suddenly offers a quiet and wistful reflection on the few things that have been good in Nick and Kitty’s long and troubled marriage. The very last scene will you have all choked up.

The Bad

–Eddie Izzard. He isn’t bad, actually, he’s just criminally underused. As the local priest, his role is barely more than a cameo. One wonders if some good Izzard scenes were left on the cutting room floor.

— Nick and Kitty’s daughters. Two of them are played by Mary Louise Parker and Aida Turturro. Need I mention that these two women are far too old to be James Gandolfini’s daughters? There are hits of sass and subversion in Parker’s brief appearances that almost distract you from the fact that she’s actually over 40, but there are no such compensations in Turturro’s performance (see The Ugly below.) Mandy Moore is their third sister, and she isn’t given enough screen time to make any kind of impression. The three of them spend a lot of time playing “rock band” in the back yard (with actual instruments and teenage-girl-like enthusiasm), a spectacle that isn’t particularly enjoyable to behold.

–Bobby Canavale, as a neighbor who is briefly engaged to Moore. I had no idea what this character was supposed to be, other than a neighborhood boy who likes to sing along with the sisters’ rock band. He’s a embarrassing cartoon.

–Most of the musical numbers. I’m not asking that Turturro pretend he’s directing “Chicago.”But even when the “dancers” in a musical number are garbage men working on the street or a gaggle of pregnant housewives walking by, the number needs a focus, a sense of the flow of the dancer’s movement and a director who knows where to point his camera and when to cut. Tuturro’s numbers (choreographed by Tricia Bourk) are choppy, unfocused and all over the place. You’re never sure what or who you’re looking at, or why. Woody Allen’s “Everyone Says I Love You,” where incidental characters like hospital workers and jewelry store clerks would break into a dance on cue, is the obvious (and far better done) precursor of this type of musical, and Turturro might have done well to take a good look at it.

The Ugly

— Aida Turturro’s performance. She’s the director’s cousin, he should have done better by her. We’ve already noted that’s she far too old to be playing a teenager, and her apparent technique for playing younger is to play deranged. Ms. Turturro has two featured monologues – one delivered to Kitty in which she says something about Kitty not being her real mother; don’t ask me, I couldn’t understand a word. She also dictates something into a tape recorder late in the film -again, couldn’t tell you what, couldn’t understand a word. And it wasn’t a volume problem with the DVD player. Eveyone else was coming in loud and clear. I know Aida Turturro can act – I’ve seen her Janice Soprano – but I’m not sure what she was supposed to be doing here.

The final word? I had originally planned to drive down to Champaign later this month to see “Romance and Cigarettes” at Roger Ebert’s annual Film Festival (read the post on Ferdy on Films) , where the screening will include an appearance by Aida Turturro. As you may have already guessed, I’m very glad I stayed home and watched it on On Demand from the comfort of my recliner.

**(with apologies to fellow blogger Daniel G at Getafilm, who uses a similar method to focus on the positive and negative aspects of a film)

April 13, 2008, 10:21 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

Flawless” is the best new movie I’ve seen so far this year.

You may take this with a grain of salt if you wish, as I’ve spent very little time in multiplexes in recent weeks. But I honestly can’t remember being so invested in any crime/heist/suspense movie since Spike Lee’s “Inside Man” in 2006.

In this coolly stylish thriller, set in London in 1960, Demi Moore plays the only female manager in a leading British diamond merchant’s company. Ahead of her time both in her accomplishments and her ambitions, Moore is increasingly frustrated in her attempts to break into the old boys’ network and become a managing director. At the office, she writes herself encouraging notes on index cards (“Don’t give up. Work harder. You will win.”); at home in her lonely, luxurious flat, she spends pensive evenings clutching cigarettes in her impeccably manicured fingers and pondering what to do next.

Then along comes the office janitor (Michael Caine) who finds Moore’s discarded “pep-talk-to-self” index cards in the trash, and who witnesses the higher-ups discussing plans to stall her career. He approaches Moore with the information, and presents her with a scheme to exact revenge. Caine – a harmless old man whom no one would notice, let alone suspect of misdeeds – spends late evenings cleaning the floors just outside the company’s diamond vault. If Moore can secure the code that opens the vault, Caine suggests, he can get in, fill his empty coffee thermos with valuable diamonds, and give her half the profits once he sells them.

Moore rebuffs him at first, but as her chances for promotion appear to grow ever dimmer, she finally gives in. Complications arise when surveillance cameras are installed outside the bank vault door, but she and Caine hatch a method for Caine to evade the camera’s notice.

And then the stakes get much higher. The theft is discovered quickly, but it’s far more than a thermos full of diamonds that’s gone missing. The entire contents of the vault are gone. And so “Flawless” kicks grandly into high gear. Answers to the obvious questions (How did Caine get all the diamonds out? And what’s his motive anyway? And will he and Moore get away with it?) are doled out with tantalizing restraint. And unpredictability. I can honestly say I never saw any of it coming.

Under Michael Radford’s assured direction, “Flawless” crackles along with a tension both elegant and efficient. The interiors of the London Diamond offices are cool and polished, the lobby is airy and brightly lit – and yet these spaces feel strangely sinister. The story, underscored by period-appropriate jazz (Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five” among other pieces), moves along at brisk but unhurried pace. Clues and complications are stacked up and then neatly resolved with a pace and a precision that leaves you hanging, breathless, on every line of dialogue.

Moore is gorgeous: stunningly outfitted in stylish, career-woman period costumes, red-lipsticked and impeccably coiffed. There’s a inscrutability to her performance that irritated me at first. I started to wonder how an actress more skilled at nuance – Cate Blanchett, for example – would handle the part. But I slowly realized that Moore’s inscrutability is exactly what the role calls for. Her character has years of practice in submerging her true feelings, acquiescing to male superiors and tamping down her emotional longings in service of her career ambitions. Her frosty reserve, with the merest hint of desire beneath it, makes perfect sense. Caine, too, is understated, withholding more than he gives away. Nothing about his character suggests that he is particularly kind or generous, but nothing is suspicious or worrying either. You can’t really guess at his motives, but when they’re revealed, his character finally clicks into place.

“Flawless” isn’t necessarily a descriptive title for this film. There are niggling problems and oversights here and there. Moore speaks with a just-passable English accent, yet her character is clearly identified as an Oxford-educated American. I had to wonder why she bothered. There are talky bursts of exposition in the first half of the film that are maddeningly difficult to follow. And the ultimate fate of Moore’s character seems more than a little contrived. But the flaws wind up being small matters. “Flawless” is, finally, a slick and satisfying entertainment with a great story and a seductive sense of early ’60s period ambience.

Charlton Heston 1924-2008
April 6, 2008, 5:16 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

I turned on the local news this morning before church to discover that Charlton Heston had died.

I was never a big fan of Heston’s, nor do I consider him a great actor. However, I grew up in a movie-loving household, where my dad often led my brother and I to certain movies he considered great. “Ben Hur” -for which Heston received an Oscar – was one of those. The network television premiere of “Ben Hur” was a major family event -I think we even got to eat dessert in front of the TV that night so as not to miss a single minute. That was the first thing I remembered upon hearing the news of Heston’s passing.

I had forgotten about Heston’s atypically amusing portrayal of Cardinal Richelieu in Richard Lester’s mid-1970s remake of “The Three Musketeers,” but the remembrance on Coosa Creek Mambo this morning jogged my memory. (In fact, it made me want to go back and see the movie again.)

Sad that Heston’s final appearance on film was in Michael Moore’s “Bowling for Columbine,” responding with anger and befuddlement to Moore’s questions about the NRA and school shootings. Given the subsequent revelations about Heston’s battle with Alzheimer’s, Moore looks all the more villainous for staging what was essentially an ambush of Heston in his own home.