Doodad Kind of Town

Happy New Year from Doodad Kind of Town
December 31, 2008, 6:29 pm
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Some Thoughts on "Frost/Nixon"
December 30, 2008, 12:26 am
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When I’m really engaged and engrossed in a movie, I tend to physically lean towards the screen. If the seat ahead of me is vacant, I’ve been known to even end up clutching the back of that seat. “It had me on the edge of my seat,” is not just an empty cliche when it comes from me. If the movie is good enough, I’m not just on the edge of my seat, I’m practically out of it.

No fewer than three times while watching “Frost/Nixon” last night, I moved to the front in my seat in wide-eyed fascination. That ought to indicate the greatness of the film I was watching, but today I find myself second-guessing some of my initial enthusiasm.

You see, I’m old enough to remember the events of “Frost/Nixon” quite well. And much as I was taken with the magnificent performances of Michael Sheen and Frank Langella in the title roles, the life-or-death historical significance that the film assigns to the television interviews which are its subject just does not jibe with my memories of the actual events.

What I like about this film, apart from the caliber of the acting, is that it absolutely rings true with regard to its portrayal and observations of Richard Nixon. What I don’t like is that it seems to elevate lightweight celebrity interviewer David Frost to journalistic hero status, a transition I don’t think ever took place in real life.

I was a 17-year-old high school senior when David Frost’s infamous interviews with the disgraced former president were aired. We didn’t watch them in their entirety at our house, but I can recall watching excerpts on the news, reading and listening to the post-interview commentary. And what I remember most clearly is the parody that aired on Saturday Night Live the following weekend. Eric Idle’s unctuous Frost allowed Dan Aykroyd’s Nixon to drone on and on with endless, convoluted stories about his childhood (how his mother made oatmeal, how his father would mix hot and cold water in a basin in preparation for his morning shave). The sketch ended with a credits roll which attributed just about everything short of the creation of the world to David Frost – and behind which Idle performed dog tricks like “fetching” and sitting on Aykroyd’s command.

The indelible impression I received from both that parody and the serious commentary was that the Frost/Nixon interviews were long on evasive, gasbaggy details, short on substance and revelations. Ultimately, this ‘major television event’ just wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. And Frost’s seriously overstuffed ego remained an object of ridicule.

I guess I can’t really beat up screenwriter Peter Morgan (who adapted his own stage play) for taking dramatic license with historical events; it no one did that, the movies would be a very dull medium indeed. (Not to mention theatre. And books.) The interview scenes in this film are riveting. They’re the points at which I went to the edge of my seat. But even as I did so, somewhere a voice in the back of my head was saying “Oh, pul-lease!”The dialogue is historically accurate, but judiciously edited for maximum effect. And the actors’ well-rehearsed line readings give it a power and punch that was never achieved in real life (If you doubt that, go look at some of the actual interview clips at

Yes, Nixon did make the incriminating statement “If the president does it, then it’s not illegal.” But not nearly as emphatically as Langella make that point.

It’s hip and fashionable – and incredibly easy – to take potshots at director Ron Howard. He is a competent purveyor of slick, middlebrow entertainments, but certainly no innovator. If “Frost/Nixon” is one of his more electrifying efforts, it’s because it didn’t take a lot of work on his part to make it so. All he had to do was put a camera on Langella and another one on Sheen and let ’em rip. Recreating their original stage roles, this duo is compulsively watchable.

Frank Langella doesn’t look anything like Nixon and doesn’t sound much like him either, but Nixon impersonators are a dime a dozen. What Langella does, like no one before him, is to reach into and illuminate the depths of both the man’s deviousness and inner torment. He’s all tics and Nixonian mannerisms, but those tics are grounded in a powerful undercurrent of melancholy and self-loathing. In a film which ultimately glorifies “the reductive nature of the television closeup,” Langella works his final close-up like nobody’s business; he quivers with unexpressed regret, sadness, defiance and humiliation, almost all at once. It’s the kind of performance that you completely forget is a performance. You lose sight of the fact that you’re not looking at the real Nixon.

Sheen, as David Frost, has the thankless role – unlike his interview subject, Frost doesn’t loom large in our collective psyche, and doesn’t trigger strong emotions. But Sheen gets at Frost’s smarmy self-regard and shallow charm while making him an ultimately sympathetic character. That Sheen is both considerably more attractive and a much more agreeable presence than Frost himself certainly helps here.

And on the subject on Frost, here’s one more thing the film gets wrong. Frost was hardly a washed-up celebrity at the time of the interviews. His U.S. talk show may have been behind him, but he was still, certainly a Very Big Deal. And, also contrary to what this film implies, not all that well-liked in celebrity circles. I’m a big British comedy fan, and from what I’ve read, he is widely reviled among the prominent comedians of his generation. Certainly Eric Idle’s SNL appearance was not the first time he’d taken on Frost. Here’s a clip from Monty Python’s Flying Circus in which Idle skewers Frost in the form of a thinly veiled caricature named Timmy Williams:

Happy Holidays from Doodad Kind of Town
December 23, 2008, 5:48 pm
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“Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” has always seemed to me a peculiarly melancholy Christmas tune, even when I hear it sung by singers other than Judy Garland and in contexts other than this scene from “Meet Me in St. Louis.” (In fact, next to Joni Mitchell’s “River,” it’s the biggest downer of a holiday tune that I can think of)

And melancholy is how I feel this holiday, as I nurse a back injury while coming to terms with the winter storm now raging outside my window, a storm which will very likely prevent me from spending Christmas Eve with my family in Indiana for the first time in my life.

But I’ve decided to put an end to this pity party, ’cause life could be a helluva lot worse. I have heat, food, Christmas Eve invitations from three nearby friends, presents under the tree and health insurance to cover any doctor visits that this back injury ultimately requires. In those respects and so many others, I am a very fortunate girl.

And, God knows, I’ve got movies to watch!

From me to you, have a wonderful holiday, be safe, be happy and may all your troubles be out of sight in 2009!

And Yet Another Meme… Actors this Time
December 19, 2008, 12:00 am
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You knew it was only a matter of time.

After the “20 Favorite Actresses” meme took the blogosphere by storm, it was inevitable that the “20 Favorite Actors” lists would immediately follow. Miranda, of the fabulous CINEMATIC PASSIONS, has posted a list of her favorite men of the screen. Here’s mine.

And I cheated. I couldn’t stop at 20, I had to go up to 23.

And now, in alphabetical order (and notes on the performances I’ve most loved) I give you:

1. Mathieu Amalric (Kings and Queen, Heartbeat Detector, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly)

2. Alec Baldwin (Working Girl, The Cooler, Running with Scissors, 30 Rock)

3. Warren Beatty (Bonnie and Clyde, Reds, Heaven Can Wait, Bulworth)

4. Kenneth Branagh (Henry V, Dead Again, Hamlet)

5. Marlon Brando (Streetcar Named Desire, On the Waterfront, The Godfather

6. Michael Caine (Alfie, The Man Who Would be King, Hannah and Her Sisters)

7. George Clooney (O Brother Where Art Thou?, Good Night and Good Luck)

8. John Cusack (Say Anything, Being John Malkovich, Grosse Point Blank)

9. Daniel Day Lewis (My Left Foot, The Last of the Mohicans, There Will be Blood)

10. Robert Downey, Jr. (Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Wonder Boys, Restoration, Chaplin)

11. Victor Garber (Titanic, Godspell, Alias, Me and My Shadows)

12. Cary Grant (Bringing Up Baby, His Girl Friday, The Awful Truth, North by Northwest)

13. Hugh Grant (Impromptu, All About a Boy, American Dreamz, Four Weddings and a Funeral)

14. Gene Hackman (Bonnie and Clyde, The Conversation, Hoosiers, The Royal Tennenbaums)

15. Tom Hanks (Nothing in Common, Big, Philadelphia, Catch Me if You Can)

16. Dustin Hoffman (The Graduate, Tootsie, Papillon, Little Big Man)

17. Phillip Seymour Hoffman (Flawless, Boogie Nights, Capote, The Savages)

18. Anthony Hopkins (Magic, Silence of the Lambs, Amistad, Shadowlands, The Edge)

19. Ben Kingsley (Mrs. Harris, Schindler’s List, Triumph of Love, House of Sand and Fog)

20. Jack Lemmon (Some Like it Hot, The Apartment, Days of Wine and Roses, The China Syndrome)

21. Robert Redford (The Way We Were, All the President’s Men, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid)

22. Kevin Spacey (The Usual Suspects, American Beauty)

23. Billy Bob Thornton (Sling Blade, Pushing Tin, Primary Colors, Bad Santa, A Simple Plan)

Another Day, Another Meme…
December 18, 2008, 3:10 am
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Tonight, I’ve decided to take up Rachel’s open invitation to the “ONE” meme. It’s easy, it’s fun and it’s a little revealing.

Here it is:

1.One movie that made you laugh: Tropic Thunder

2. One movie that made you cry: Finding Neverland

3. One movie you loved when you were a child: Mary Poppins

4. One movie that you have seen more than 10 times: Some Like it Hot

5. One movie you’ve seen multiple times in the theater: Amadeus. I saw it five or six times. I was like the “Amadeus” evangelist – I kept telling people, “You have to see this!” and then bringing different sets of friends to the theatre with me for repeated viewings. I think I may have been responsible for as many as 25 people seeing that film.

6. One movie you walked out on: The Last King of Scotland. Not because it was bad, but because it got too intense and gruesome for me. When Forrest Whittaker pulled out those hooks, I said to myself “I know what happens next and I don’t want to watch.” And I hightailed it out of there.

7. One movie that you can and do quote from: Fargo. And so can most of my friends. We can drop lines like “Blood has been shed, Jerry” or “He’s fleein’ the interview!” into a conversation, and everyone knows what’s going on.

8. One movie you loved, but were embarrassed to admit it: Life if Beautiful. No real cinephile is supposed to like it, and the second half teeters a bit uncomfortably on the narrow edge of tastelessness. But I think the first half is one of the most sublime comic romances ever put on film.

9. One movie that you keep meaning to see but just haven’t gotten around to watching yet: Here are two: Dogville and Manderlay. They’ve both been in their red Netflix envelopes gathering dust for weeks. I keep meaning to have my little Lars Von Trier double feature, and then blog about it, but something better always comes up.

10. One movie you hated: Cassandra’s Dream. Definitely the worst movie Woody Allen ever made.

11. One movie that scared you: Dr. Strangelove. Yeah, it’s funny, but it’s a real uncomfortable kind of funny. That scene where Slim Pickens is riding the bomb, yippin’ and yahooin’all the way, sends chills up my spine.

12. One movie that made you happy: Slumdog Millionaire. It wasn’t a happy film all the way through, but the ending was so joyous.

13. One movie that made you miserable: Jarhead

14. One movie musical for which you know all the lyrics to all the songs: I’d have trouble naming one I didn’t know all the lyrics to. I’m a musical theatre geek.

15. One movie that you have been known to sing along with: Evita, when no one else is watching it with me (And yes, I know all the lyrics.)

16. One movie you would recommend that everyone see: I Served the King of England. It wasn’t released nearly as widely as it should have been.

17. One movie character you’ve fallen in love with: Mark Darcy (Colin Firth) in the Bridget Jones movies

18. One actor that would make you more inclined to see a movie: Mathieu Amalric

19. One actor that would make you less likely to see a movie: Adam Sandler

20. One of the last movies you saw: Funny Face

21. One of the next movies you hope to see: Milk

And now, would you like to play? Then, consider yourself tagged!

Random Thoughts on "Slumdog Millionaire," "Twilight" and Kay Thompson
December 15, 2008, 11:43 pm
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A rave review should be an easy thing to write, shouldn’t it?

So why am I having such a hard time getting started with “Slumdog Millionaire”?

Maybe it’s because the movie is so many things, sometimes all at once, that it defies description. It’s suspenseful, gruesome, horrible, beautiful, exciting, heartbreaking, joyous and exhilarating. It’s about the enduring bonds of both brotherhood and romantic love, the power of perseverance in the face of hardship, the division of rich and poor in contemporary Mumbai – and the communal, healing power of television game shows.

I could attempt to summarize the plot: Jamal Milik (Dev Patel) is the product of the Mumbai slums, a lowly tea server (‘chai wallah’) at a cell phone company, who inexplicably stands poised to win 20 million rupees on the Indian version of “Who Wants to be a Millionaire.” As the film opens, he’s being tortured and interrogated by police in an effort to determine if he is cheating. In flashbacks intercut with both Jamal’s game show performance and his interrogation, we see how, in the course of his bitterly hard young life, Jamal has come into knowing the answers that are about to make him rich.

But, believe me, that doesn’t begin to do it justice.

I was amazed to find that director Danny Boyle (“Trainspotting,” “28 Days”) had never visited India until making this film. “Slumdog Millionaire” has the feel of being made by an insider, someone intimately familiar with the seedier side of Mumbai. In fact, the city almost functions as an additional character in the story. And the film has a driving, pulsating energy that can probably be partly credited to Boyle and partly to his cinematographer, Anthony Dod Mantle. (According to Andrew O’Hehir’s interview with Boyle, Mantle got some of the film’s most urgent and heartstopping shots by running through Mumbai’s slums with a small, handheld camera.)

During the final scenes of “Slumdog Millionaire,” I could literally feel my spirits soaring. (Yes, I know that’s a cliche – but honestly, it was my spirits that were most affected, and they were flying high.) And I thought to myself – in precisely these words – “this is everything we go to the movies for.”

And I had planned to go back for more. But on Saturday night, my trek back to the multiplex for a repeat viewing of “Slumdog Millionaire” was scuttled due to freezing rain and icy roads. So my friend, Mary Anne, drug me to the little six-screen movie house in my neighborhood to see “Twilight.”

It wasn’t on my list of must-see movies, but I have to admit: as teenage vampire movies go, it’s not a bad way to spend a couple of hours. Especially if you like your film experience enhanced by non-stop giggling and whispering from an entire row of twelve-year-old girls.

Kristen Stewart plays the heroine, Bella. I liked her the moment I saw her play volleyball – unenthusiastically and with an obvious fear that the ball might come towards her and then she’d have to do something about it, like hit it or, better yet, duck. That’s the way I’ve played volleyball in every game I’ve been forced to participate in since seventh grade Phys Ed. I also liked how Bella makes friends easily at her new school, even though she’s all broody and preoccupied and can’t be bothered to muster even a shred of fake enthusiasm over typical teen stuff like prom dresses. She’s a perfect match for the hunky vampire (Robert Patinson) who fortuitously shares her biology-class microscope; they eventually fall into a sort of chaste, non-blood-sucking love in swoony scenes where they do things like lie together on the forest floor and gaze at each other, or fly through the trees with Bella riding on Edward’s back. Conveniently, Edward does not turn into a bat.

Obviously, I’m not the person you want to talk to if you want a straight-faced review of a vampire flick; they’re not my thing. But an old MGM musical? Now that’s a flick I can get into.

Which is why on Sunday night, after a long day and our choir’s final performance of the Messiah, I snuggled under an afghan with a glass of wine and watched the film I had recorded off TCM weeks ago, “Funny Face.”

Visually, “Funny Face” is stunning. As plots go, it’s onion-paper-thin. And the romance between Fred Astaire and Audrey Hepburn is a tiny bit hard to swallow since Fred is, like, old enough to be Audrey’s grandfather! But Fred, of course, is dapper and elegant and dances like a dream. Audrey’ singing is just about adequate, but her gamine charm carries the day; no one ever looked cuter in a bouncy ponytail and beatnik black.

But – yowsa! – how fabulous is Kay Thompson?!! Why isn’t this woman in more movies? Where were they keeping her? She has every attribute a classic movie “broad” requires – a brassy, belt voice, great gams, deadly comic timing. I can see where a little of her outsize presence might go a long way, but tell me she isn’t great in this number. ( I really wanted to embed this clip, but You Tube isn’t letting me.)

Here’s what I know about Kay Thompson: she wrote a lot of material and vocal arrangements for Judy Garland, she was Liza Minnelli’s godmother and she wrote the “Eloise” series of children’s books. Per her Wikipedia entry, she was also a sometimes radio and nightclub performer, and she discovered Andy Williams. All great – but why didn’t someone write her a Broadway show or let her front of a camera more often? She’s fantastic!

Quick Read: Carrie Fisher’s "Wishful Drinking"
December 13, 2008, 3:30 am
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I picked up Carrie Fisher’s “Wishful Drinking” at my local Borders store about 4 hours ago. Since then, I’ve had dinner, made a series of phone calls to friends and family, watched a Seinfeld rerun – and read the book from cover to cover.

As Shakespeare once wrote, “Brevity is the soul of wit,” and by that standard, “Wishful Drinking” is the wittiest book you’ll pick up all year. At $21, this slender volume carries a mighty hefty price tag. But perhaps I’m being ungenerous. As its famously troubled author admits, “I tell this story partly as a means to reclaim whatever I can of my former life.” And by former life, she means the part that preceded a series of electroconvulsive therapy treatments which have caused her to lose portions of her memory.

That sounds tragic, as do most of Fisher’s well-publicized battles with manic-depression, addiction, rehab and crazy celebrity parents. But Fisher isn’t interested in throwing herself any pity parties. In this book -adapted from her stage show of the same name – Fisher is once again putting her coping mechanisms (razor-sharp humor and, dazzling wordplay) on full, unabashed display. Self-deprecating in the extreme, Fisher leaves no skeleton in any closet.

If you’ve read any of Fisher’s transparently autobiographical novels, you’ve already read most of this book. But “Wishful Drinking” does offer up some new information, not only about making the “Star Wars” films, but also about Fisher’s marriage to Paul Simon . (She confirms what I’ve always suspected -that most of the songs on my favorite Simon album, “Hearts and Bones,” were written about her.) On their rekindled, post-divorce romance, she writes: “Samuel Johnson once said that remarrying. . . is ‘the triumph of hope over experience. So, for me, remarrying was the triumph of nostalgia over judgment.’ “

She’s unsparing, too, about her experiences in mental hospitals (although there are even more details in her novel “The Best Awful.”) Fisher names her bipolar mood extremes Rollicking Roy and Sediment Pam. “Roy. . . is the wild ride of a mood,”she writes. “Sediment Pam. . . stand on the shore and sobs. Pam stands for ‘piss and moan.’ One mood is the meal, and the next mood is the check.”

At the birth of her daughter, Billie, Fisher sent the following announcement:

Someone’s summered in my stomach
Someone’s fallen through my legs
To make an infant omelet
Simply scramble sperm and eggs

Are you starting to sense, as I did, that Fisher is the closest thing we have to Dorothy Parker in this era?

If “Wishful Drinking” felt more than a little self-indulgent at times, I was ready to forgive that. Fisher’s lack of self-pity is refreshing, and her obvious delight in the English language is infectious. As celebrity tell-alls go, this is one you can read without embarrassment. But if you’re frugal (like I usually am), you may want to get this at the library or wait for the paperback.