Doodad Kind of Town

Don’t Forget – Tomorrow is "TOERIFIC" at Only the Cinema
July 19, 2009, 3:29 pm
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It’s TOERIFC time again!

(That’s The Oldest Established, Really Important Film Club, of course).

The discussion on Paul Verhoeven’s “Zwartboek (Black Book)” starts at 10 am EST tomorrow, Monday, July 20, hosted by the prolific and unfailingly insightful Ed Howard of Only the Cinema.

Ed’s choice is another great one for the club, and I expect the discussion to be lively and challenging as always. (Although I’ll likely be showing up later in the day, due to a hellacious schedule of meetings at work tomorrow, I wouldn’t miss this for the world.)

Anyone who’s seen this film recently is welcome to join the conversation, new voices always welcomed and encouraged. Hope to see you there!

New Rom Coms: There’s Good News and Bad News
July 15, 2009, 11:43 pm
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First the bad news. We might as well get it out of the way.

We’re now seven years past the summer of “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” and Nia Vardalos is still managing, if just barely, to cruise along on the enormous goodwill generated by that monster hit. But if her latest film is anything to go by, Vardalos’ days as a rom-com darling may be numbered.

I find it odd that a film titled “I Hate Valentine’s Day” is being released in July, even odder that it’s playing the arthouse/IFC In Theaters On Demand circuit (a distribution pattern usually reserved for foreign films and offbeat indies rather than crappy mainstream comedies). But those are the least of its problems.

“… Valentine’s Day” starts promisingly enough, with a peppy opening credit sequence of Vardalos greeting other merchants in her neighborhood as she heads out to open her flower shop on the day before Valentine’s day. It’s atmospheric and set to a lively pop tune, and it’s kind of fun. But then we see John Corbett stepping out into that neighborhood street, and from there, the entire plot of the film becomes a foregone conclusion.

Because John Corbett doesn’t have to act anymore, he doesn’t even have to try! All he has to do is show up. In the lingering afterglow of his roles in “Big Fat Greek Wedding” and “Sex and the City,” Corbett’s mere presence is shorthand for “This is the decent, honest, sex-on-a-stick kind of guy who will teach the leading lady the meaning of true love.” (It’s about time Corbett switched it up and played an arrogant prick or two, don’tcha think?)

But if Corbett barely makes an effort to distinguish this character from the others he’s played, Vardalos is guilty of trying way too hard. She wrote and directed “… Valentine’s Day” in addition to starring; that’s at least two more jobs than she was equipped to handle. More on than a bit later.

Vardalos’ character, Genevieve, loves romance and dodges commitment. She gathers her adoring, love-starved friends for lunches at the local sandwich shop where she delivers canned lectures on her dating wisdom: meet someone, have five great, romantic dates with them, then dump them and move on before the romance dies. Her half-wit friends hang on her every word, but Corbett’s hunky restaurateur isn’t having it. He dumps her after date four (or date five, depending on whose side you take in a very tiresome running argument.) The rest of the film devotes itself to a long, contrived, not terribly interesting run of misunderstandings and miscommunications, with some side trips to Genevieve’s dysfunctional family history. By the time it all gets resolved, you’ll be so tired of both of them that you won’t really care.

How can I put this kindly? Nia Vardalos isn’t the best person to direct herself. I still contend that Vardalos is more of reliable straight woman than a gifted comedienne; her likability is considerably enhanced when she’s surrounded by a cast of eccentric goofballs to play off. No such ensemble feeling is apparent in “I Hate Valentine’s Day.” The lovable goofballs are there, but they’re definitively second or third bananas. Vardalos holds center stage all to herself.

Or should I say center frame? Because that’s where she usually is – feet planted firmly, a too-wide predatory smile plastered across her face, as she favors Corbett with non-stop pearls of wisdom on matters of both commerce and the heart. Flirtation is the obvious intention here, but Vardalos’ stilted, overemphatic line readings are more reminiscent of a mediocre community theatre actress performing her tried-and-true audition monologue. We get just enough cuts to Corbett looking on, quizzical and mildly enchanted, so that we understand how irresistible Genevieve is when she can’t stop talking bullshit. And should Corbett ever fail to summon sufficient enchantment, there’ll be tinkling, romantic music on the soundtrack to hammer home the message that these two crazy kids belong together, damn it!

It never seems to occur to Vardalos that the best way to show us how much these two are attracted to each other might be to – at least occasionally – shoot them in the same frame! There’s one brief, sweet scene with them sitting side by side on a park bench that ends with Corbett leaning his head gingerly into Vardalos’, and it feels so utterly real and fresh that it seems to have been spliced in from another director’s movie entirely. It’s the only minute of genuine chemistry between the two stars in the entire 94.

Otherwise, when Corbett isn’t around, we’re treated to Genevieve’s relentless tendency to make, goofy, sputtering, slow-leak kinds of noises when she’s frustrated or depressed. All in all, this film is the most horrific example of a director celebrating her own, self-perceived adorableness since Barbra Streisand’s “The Mirror Has Two Faces.”

And would it be churlish of me to suggest that, at 46, Vardalos is getting a bit long in the tooth for this kind of nonsense? In “I Hate Valentine’s Day,” she’s written herself a role that might have been great for Kate Hudson. Five years ago. You can feel both sympathy and empathy for a 25-year-old with Genevieve’s hang-ups, but when you encounter them in a 46-year-old, you pretty much just want to slap her upside the head.

Now for some good news. Well, better news anyway.

“The Proposal” feels fresher and sweeter than it has any right to be, given that’s it’s yet another retread of the very tired, “Busy Business Lady” rom com formula. Large credit for that must be given to its leads.

Sandra Bullock hasn’t made a romantic comedy in years, and more’s the pity. Unlike many actresses who’ve essayed the genre of late (Renee Zellwegger and Katherine Heigl spring right to mind), Bullock actually is a gifted comedienne. She has a nice flair for physical comedy and a way of putting an unexpected, ticklish spin on her line readings that generates laughs where lesser comic talents would never know to find them. Above all, she’s reliably likable and sympathetic, even when the characters she plays aren’t.

Those qualities pay off in “The Proposal” where Bullock plays a tough-as-nails, bitch-on-wheels, Canadian-born publishing executive. The “Canadian-born” part is important, because she’s ignored restrictions on her green card and is about to be deported. To keep her Manhattan publishing gig, she pretends to be engaged to her assistant (Ryan Reynolds). Soon she and Reynolds are winging their way to his hometown to celebrate the 80th birthday of his Grammy Annie (a peppery and fitfully funny Betty White – think Sue Ann Nivens, not Rose Nylund).

Aside from Bullock, what gives “The Proposal” its unique appeal is that, for most of the movie, you can’t tell how it’s going to end. Whether the icy relationship between Bullock and Reynolds will thaw sufficiently to become a romance is never a foregone conclusion; in fact, it doesn’t feel terribly romantic, at all. For one thing, Reynolds is twelve years Bullock’s junior, an obvious fact which is never directly addressed. For another, the warmth and understanding that eventually develops between the two is unforced and un-formulaic, and doesn’t involve much passion. You really do keep guessing up until the last minute. No rom com in recent memory has been this subtle and evasive about where it was heading.

Reynolds proves a good foil for Bullock. I’ve been slow to warm to his charms as a leading man, but his performance here is subtle, confident and generous. He complements, but doesn’t outshine, his leading lady – as is appropriate for the solid, decent, prinicipled guy his character is meant to be.

“The Proposal” isn’t perfect. There are some woefully misguided moments (chief among them a very strange scene where Bullock discovers White out in the woods, wearing Native American garb and chanting prayers to Mother Nature; it’s a WTF moment out of nowhere that’s never brought into the larger context of the story.) But it’s suffused with such a glow of good will and charm that you’ll likely forgive the rough spots.

Saluting the "Spirit of Ed Wood" Blogathon on its Final Day
July 12, 2009, 7:13 pm
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It’s been a lively week in the blogosphere with the “Spirit of Ed Wood” blogathon – hosted by Greg at Cinema Styles – in full swing.

Sadly, on this the final day of the blogathon, I’m only just starting to catch up with the many fine posts. I was unexpectedly slammed with a mountain of extra work and overtime this week, so my post on exploitation-filmmaker-turned-born-again-Christian Ron Ormond and his cheesy Cold War cautionary tale “If Footmen Tire You, What Will Horses Do?” will have to wait for a quieter time.

As I noted on someone’s comment thread this week, everything I know about Ed Wood I learned from Tim Burton. In that spirit, I offer this clip; Ed’s state of mind in this scene pretty much mirrors my own for the past week, given the slate of near-impossible tasks I’ve been asked to take on at work. Fortunately I’ve stopped short of donning an angora sweater and running out to the nearest bar. Enjoy.

The Founding Fathers Sing!
July 3, 2009, 2:23 pm
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While I love the stage musical of “1776,” I’m not a huge fan of the movie. Let’s just say it didn’t translate well to film.

Even so, this number – in which Jefferson, Adams, Franklin and others – argue about who’s gonna get stuck with writing the Declaration of Independence – is a real favorite of mine. The lyrics are irresistibly witty, even if the choreography is a bit uninspired.

Should you be curious to see the rest, “1776” will be aired on TCM this Independence Day at 10:15 pm EST (just in time to watch after the fireworks).

Happy Fourth of July everyone!!!!