Doodad Kind of Town

Quick Takes on "Precious" and "Pirate Radio"
November 23, 2009, 3:09 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

I suppose you could consider “Precious” a triumph-of-the-human-spirit story – it’s certainly being marketed as such- but it’s a damn bleak one. The title character (played by newcomer Gabourey Sidibe) is an illiterate, morbidly obese sixteen-year-old junior high schooler, pregnant for the second time by her mother’s boyfriend (who is also her father.) Her mother hurls books, ashtrays and other objects at her while telling her how stupid and worthless she is. She escapes into fantasies of herself as a sought-after actress and model, and seizes an opportunity from a kindly teacher to attend an alternative school where she discovers a talent for writing poetry. But for every step Precious takes toward a better life there is least one devastating setback and even as the closing credits roll, her future happiness is by no means assured.

Kudos to director Lee Daniels for allowing “Precious” to neither sentimentalize nor sensationalize its title character’s horrific struggles. Sidibe’s stunning debut performance is everything you’ve heard and more. Her Precious is not just a predictably sad and beaten-down fat girl; from the very beginning, she allows to see glimmers of the cynicism, anger and tenacity that keep Precious going. There’s also an impressive turn from an aggressively de-glammed Mariah Carey as the world-weary social worker who attempts to help. But it’s comedienne Mo’Nique, as the monstrous (and monstrously needy) mother whose performance takes this film in the Oscar-bait stratosphere. Her final scene in the social worker’s office, where she comes clean about her boyfriend’s abuse of Precious while pleading for continuation of her welfare benefits, is a tour de force of desperation, anguish and raw emotional need that will literally take your breath away.

(Warning: a few spoilers)
I’m a sucker for the cheerful, love-is-all-around silliness of Richard Curtis films (his most recent was that overstuffed basket of holiday cheer, “Love, Actually.”) So it’s with great sadness that I tell you the newest Curtis creation, “Pirate Radio,” is a bit of a mess.

Curtis has taken an essentially true story and embellished it wildly for not-always-successful comic effect. There was, in fact, a “pirate radio” rock and roll station in the mid-1960s which broadcast from a boat off the coast of England, but not because rock had been banned from the British airwaves. The BBC was merely caught off guard by the demand for rock and roll, and, not wishing to pre-empt other popular programs in order to play it, took time to create a new station which devoted itself entirely to pop/rock. However, in Curtis’ version, the BBC and the British government were repressive villains trying to shield the entire nation’s youth from the potentially subversive effects of a cool beat, while the guy on the boat were secretly worshipped as cultural revolutionaries by Britain’s young and hip.

It’ll be no surprise to connoisseurs of Curtis that the “pirate radio” ship is filled with sweet, bumbling young DJs who are yearning for true love; they’re headed up by a super-cool producer (Bill Nighy) and an American DJ played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman, who seems to be channeling his earlier performance as rock critic Lester Bangs in “Almost Famous.” The almost non-stop pop-rocky music is a delight, but you can feel Curtis straining to find a visual style and rhythm to match the buoyant good spirits of his soundtrack, and he never manages to achieve it. For all that the music makes you want to get up and move, there’s precious little dancing going on here. Instead, we get repeated montages of avid listeners – schoolgirls, university students, night-shift nurses, even people sitting on the toilet for God’s sake! – huddled around the wireless in rapt attention. Only in one or two brief shots does it occur to any of them to get up and bust a move.

When a new DJ is brought to the boat to attract European advertisers (after the British government has forced domestic advertisers to withdraw), he’s played by the lean and mischievous Rhys Ifans, but Curtis has no idea how to showcase his puported appeal in any way that lets us understand why his joining the station is so crucial. (And, yes I know a DJ’s sex appeal is all in his voice, but this a movie, and when a sex God character enters, we ought to be able to see why he’s a sex God. Here we get Ifans in a ridiculous feathered hat with big sunglasses and the whole scene is filmed and framed in such a messy, offhand way that it’s anything but momentous. And when he first speaks into a microphone, that’s no big deal either.)

At it’s best, “Pirate Radio” is a loose, shambling collection of genial vignettes of life on the rockin’ boat, and Curtis succeeds in making us cheer for his cast of lovable losers. And Kenneth Branagh’s unctuous government official, in his repeated attempts to shut “pirate radio” down was so hilariously clueless that, at some point, I started to laugh everytime he came onscreen, whether he said or did anything funny or not.

But at its worst, you realize that there’s not much story to tell here, and Curtis makes a gross miscalculation in forcing a story arc by going all “Titanic” on us in the third act. Then he pulls out a misguided epilogue in which he attaches a political significance to the existence of the “pirate radio” station that it simply doesn’t warrant. I like the Turtles and the Dave Clark Five as much as the next aging boomer, but, please. They’re not worth dying for.

Mostly Off Topic: Fear of 50 (and a few words about "Antichrist")
November 21, 2009, 6:00 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

If you think this Doodad Kind of Town has been more like a Ghost Town this year, you’re not wrong.

In its two-and-a-half year history, this blog has been on hiatus more often than Joan Rivers has been in a plastic surgeon’s office. But the dead spaces have been longer and more frequent in 2009.

I’ve chalked this up to work stress and overtime, but really, it’s more than that.

My fiftieth birthday is now less than six weeks away, and as it grows ever nearer, I get increasingly introspective and gloomy. I divide my precious moments of spare time between competing in Bejewelled Blitz tournaments with old college friends on Facebook and meditating depressively on the question “What have I done with my life?” Which is generally accompanied by thoughts like “My body is falling apart!” or “I’m too immature to be this old!”

On the subject of falling apart:

I’ve never been what you’d call athletic (as my high school gym teacher and the girls who always picked me last for their volleyball teams would attest.) But in my forties, I became something of a gym rat. I dropped forty pounds while embracing the endorphin-producing pleasures of the treadmill and the elliptical trainer, and savoring the appearance of defined abdominal muscles that resulted from the hours logged in Pilates classes.

And then, a few months before my 49th birthday, I pulled a hamstring. I pulled it real good. And it didn’t heal properly. Eventually, the muscle got so contracted that it pulled my lower spine out of alignment. And so on the Sunday before Christmas 2008, I awoke to find my back in such painful spasms that I literally couldn’t get out of bed.

That was the beginning of a long, slow, painful discovery that everything I’d taken for granted about my body – its abilities to withstand injury, stress, or lack of sleep; its tendency to regain a pleasing shape and size after a period of sloth and overeating with just a week or two of fewer carbs and more treadmill time – was forever gone. Even after weeks of muscle relaxers, pain pills, physical therapy, and daily exercises, I was still hobbling though life. Formerly minor, mindless actions like cleaning the cat box or picking up a fork I’d dropped on the floor became drawn out, carefully choreographed maneuvers in which I clutched furniture for support and executed awkward deep knee bends to avoid stress on my aching back. I grimaced through my days at work, popping Advil every four hours, and coming home on gloomy winter nights to sit in a recliner equipped with a heating pad and back support pillow – and a ginormous bowl of Hershey’s kisses close at hand. Always something of an emotional eater – and now deprived of my daily endorphin rush at the gym – I now ate chocolate every night to feel better. (And it worked, until my jeans got so tight, I couldn’t zip them up. Eventually I gave in and bought bigger jeans, which I’m still wearing today.)

I think moments like this come to everyone when they hit middle age – that one injury, that nagging physical problem, that day when you take a good look in the mirror and ask “Where the hell did this pot belly come from? – that whup you upside the head with the revelation: “You can no longer neglect your body without consequences.” Over the past year, my back has become the absolute and foolproof measure of how well I’m taking care of myself. If I’m going to regular yoga classes and eating right and getting enough sleep, I feel little-to-no pain. If, however, I’m working late, and getting no exercise for weeks on end, I will experience a day like the one I had two weeks ago: I will have trouble getting out of bed, I will hobble around my house trying to “work the kinks out” of my seriously screwed-up back, and I will finally have to work from home because I will be physically unable to get into my car.

With regard to those other thoughts:

I think it’s also true that everyone in middle-age, no matter how much they’ve accomplished or how great their lives and families are, asks themselves “What have I done with my life?” After all, that’s why the phrase mid-life crisis was invented.

Hell, even 51-year -old Alec Baldwin, in this month’s Elle magazine, bitches and moans about the fact that “I haven’t had a luxe life,” and how he wants to marry a rich woman so he can spend the rest of his life travelling and reading books. (I’m not sure what constitutes a ‘luxe life’ in Baldwin’s world, but I would think that a man with a hit TV show, an apartment on Central Park West and a big house in the Hamptons might be doing a little better than OK. I’m just saying. But I digress.)

As for that other observation – “I’m too immature to be this old!” – that’s a tougher one for me to deal with. The acknowledged milestones of adulthood in our society are getting married and having children, two things I have not done (and, at this point in life, don’t ever expect to.) Sure, I do other adult things like hold down a responsible job, own a home, and so forth. But what I don’t have is a legacy to hand down. And with fifty approaching, the notion of what I’ll leave behind when I go is weighing heavy on my mind.

“Children and art,” wrote Stephen Sondheim, are what we leave behind when we leave this world. I’m not leaving any children behind. What I do hope to do before I die, I realize with greater clarity as each day passes, is to produce some piece of writing that matters, that touches someone and helps them to feel less alone. What form that will take is not in my control. I’m not expecting to produce a masterpiece, or even a best-seller. But I’m beginning to doubt that I’ll accomplish it by being, for example, the 400th person in the blogosphere to weigh in on “Antichrist.”

But, since I brought it up:

I saw “Antichrist” three weeks ago, but I haven’t felt compelled to write a single word about it.

What makes this odd is that it’s a Lars Von Trier film, and I’ve always had lots to say about his work. Every other Von Trier film I’ve seen – whether I’ve loved it (“Dogville”) hated it (“Manderlay”) or had mixed feelings (“Dancer in the Dark,” “Breaking the Waves”) – has lingered in memory for days after watching it, giving me plenty to mull over and analyze. And there’s a lot going in “Antichrist,” too, but it was completely out of my system by the next day. I have no desire whatsoever to revisit it.

Then, too, I broke my own cardinal rule of never reading another review until I had written my own. The day after seeing “Antichrist,” I read a lot of reviews. And if you want to read the best and most balanced of them, I would refer you to Andrew O’Hehir’s thoughtful piece on Salon. I’d also refer you to this fine piece from the deceptively titled site Pajiba: Scathing Reviews, Bitchy People. I say the site is deceptively titled, because this review is neither scathing nor bitchy; in fact, it’s remarkably generous and fair-minded. It also contains the single greatest sentence ever written about the bad of boy of Danish cinema: “Von Trier doesn’t push the envelope; he burns down the entire fucking post office, but for what cause, I couldn’t begin to fathom.”

And that about sums it up. I’m not sure whether “Antichist” is meant to be a misogynist screed, a straight-on horror story or a fever dream from Von Trier’s admitted bout of clinical depression. It’s certainly a serious work of art, but it’s a brutal and disturbing one without much in the way of a discernible point. It’s also the only Von Trier film that’s ever made me laugh out loud (when the obviously animatronic talking fox takes a break from chewing on its own entrails to warn Willem Dafoe that “Chaos reigns!”)

If that sounds a little weird, well, that’s the least of it. “Antichrist” has been decried as “arthouse torture porn” and an ‘endurance’ sort of film, along the lines of Pasolini’s “Salo.” In my opinion, it is neither, and I’m a notoriously and excessively squeamish viewer. Its scenes of graphic gore cumulatively account for less than two minutes of the film’s running time, and I only had to avert my eyes for about 20 seconds of that. (Hint: When Charlotte Gainsborough reaches for the scissors, beware of what’s coming.)

I can’t dismiss “Antichrist,” but neither can I recommend it. I will say this though: it’s the most difficult, disturbing and confounding film you’ll see all year.

Meanwhile, as I struggle with getting older, I trust my readers will not mind if I take this blog off-topic occasionally to delve into more personal issues. I feel a change is in the wind here, but I don’t have a clear picture of where this blog is headed just yet.

Stay tuned…