Doodad Kind of Town

Hey Torquemada, Whaddya Say?
June 20, 2010, 11:42 pm
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Yeah, I know all about Mel Brooks. His shtick is relentless, over-the-top and tasteless in the extreme.

But, damnit, the man makes me laugh.

I spent some time with my Dad today watching a significant chunk of AMC’s Mel Brooks Marathon, mostly “History of the World, Part 1.” It’s loaded with cheap gags and cameo appearances by old-school comics, and it’s not the Best of Brooks by any stretch of the imagination. But I yukked it up at the French Revolution section anyway, especially Harvey Korman endlessly hissing at underlings who addressed him as Count Da Money (“Count De Monet! Mo-nay!”) I know it was a retread of the running Headley Lamarr/Hedy Lamarr joke in “Blazing Saddles,” but it still worked for me.

And this Spanish Inquisition sequence shows us what Brooks does best. Whatever else you might say about him, Mel Brooks knows how to turn out a hummable Tin Pan Alley-esue tune, and how to stage a musical number with a dizzying blend of shameless vulgarity and old-fashioned razzle-dazzle. This number is the best and funniest thing in “History of the World Part 1” and it foreshadows the the kind of dead on, delirious, everything-but-the-kitchen sink musical euphoria that Brooks and director/choreographer Susan Stroman would later bring to the stage musical version of “The Producers”. Enjoy.

In Praise of "Stealth Performers"
June 13, 2010, 8:32 pm
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With “Please Give” and her previous effort, “Friends with Money,” Nicole Holofcener has become to affluent Americans what Mike Leigh is to working-class Brits. Like Leigh, Holofcenter is a generous director – more an observer than a storyteller – who gives her actors considerable room to live and explore their characters’ lives, and unfailingly elicits stunning performances in return.

Catherine Keener, Holfocener’s favorite leading lady, is back for “Please Give,” this time as a Manhattan furniture dealer who, along with her husband, (Oliver Platt) buys up the furniture of the recently deceased from their grieving relatives and sells it at a considerable markup in her chic downtown store. Keener and Platt have also recently purchased the apartment of their nonagenarian neighbor (Ann Morgan Guilbert) with an eye to expand their own digs, a plan which doesn’t sit well with the neighbor’s granddaughters (Amanda Peet and Rebecca Hall).

Racked with guilt about both her livelihood and her remodeling plans, Keener compulsively hands out cash to homeless people, rails at her teenage daughter (Sarah Steele) for coveting $200 jeans, and trolls the internet late at night in search of worthy causes and unfortunate people to whom she might volunteer her time. (In one painful scene, she offers her doggie bag to an African-American man standing outside a restaurant; he coolly informs her that he is waiting for a table.) Peet – surly, sassy and perpetually fake-tanned – succumbs to an affair with Platt, while Hall, the meeker and nicer sister, struggles to appease their foul-tempered grandmother.

There are no grand epiphanies for these characters, only subtle shifts in perspective, and the film feels lighter and wiser for that. Keener and Platt are, as always, wonderful, but I come today to praise the work of two other actors.

Rebecca Hall is the kind of actress I’ve come to think of as a ‘stealth performer.’ In largely thankless, low-key roles, she has a groundedness and an unstudied grace that slowly sneak up on you. Penelope Cruz may have been the most celebrated cast member in “Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” but Hall’s Vicky – unforced and unexpectedly luminous – was every bit the equal of Cruz’ mad, disheveled Maria Elena. Here again, Peet has the showier role between the two sisters; she’s the sexy, angry smart-ass to Hall’s subdued, slightly dowdy caretaker. But Hall transforms her role into something more complex than your standard sad martyr. In her first scenes, she’s not especially sympathetic. Shut down and intolerant of small talk, she has an angry aloofness that isn’t immediately explained. But in subsequent scenes as we watch her interact with her patients (she’s a mammogram technician) and suffer through awkward blind dates, her innate goodness and decency begin to quietly shine through, until you finally realize that hers is the true and steadfast heart of the story. It’s a performance that evolves in sweet, subtle baby-steps and is all the more remarkable for that.

Another welcome presence in “Please Give” is Sarah Steele, who hasn’t been onscreen much since playing Adam Sandler’s daughter in 2004’s “Spanglish” and I was thrilled to see her return. Out of a cast of experienced performers, Steele sort of leapt off the screen in that film, playing a bright, vulnerable 12 -year-old with a confidence and honesty that were wholly original and beyond her years, yet blessedly free of precociousness. In an age of manufactured and carefully managed teen performers (yeah, I’m looking at you, Miley Cyrus), Steele is astonishingly genuine and vulnerable. And here, neither her smart mouth or her aching heart are played for easy laughs or tears respectively. Although she’s pushing 22 in real life, Steele comes off authentically as 15 years old.

On the other end of the spectrum –

Peter Medak’s biting 1972 satire “The Ruling Class” has been languishing in my DVR queue for some time now. When I finally got around to it on this gray, rainy Sunday afternoon, it turned out to be a lot less than I expected.

Parodies can ruin you for appreciating good films and actors. Thanks to Woody Allen’s “Love and Death,” for example, I’ve never been able to take “Persona” entirely seriously. Forbidden Broadway’s classic “Chita Rivera is not Rita/Rita Moreno is not Chita” number, has forever impeded my enjoyment of “America” from West Side Story, the tune to which it is set.

And, long ago, a two-minute SCTV sketch made me laugh till I cried – and effectively made it impossible for me to ever see Richard Burton, Richard Harris – or Peter O’Toole – in the same flattering light again.

In the mock trailer for “The Pope Who Would be King,” we’re told that these three stars are “better than any American actors could possibly be, because they know how to use their voices!” Joe Flaherty then skewered O’Toole’s mercurial declamatory style in about three seconds, screaming to the rafters, “I want to be pope, Pope, POPE!!!” then collapsing suddenly into forlorn tears and whimpering quietly “I want to be pope.”

O’Toole’s performance in “The Ruling Class” felt, to me, very much like an extended riff on Flaherty’s impersonation. (Very extended, I might add – the film runs a stultifying 2 hours and 45 minutes). As the batshit-crazy Earl of Gurney, an aristocrat who believes himself to be Jesus Christ, O’Toole is in constant motion – alternately preaching, cajoling, raging, exulting, agonizing, singing and dancing, while his relatives look on aghast. It’s an exhausting, histrionic performance, and it’s no surprise to me that O’Toole got an Oscar nomination.

The first half of “The Ruling Class” plays like some weird bastard child of Monty Python’s “Upper Class Twit of the Year” sketch and Dreyer’s “Ordet,” with a constantly labored wackiness that started to wear me out after about 20 minutes. This is the kind of movie where O’Toole segues inexplicably from quoting scripture to quoting lyrics from “Mairzy Doats,” arrives in the bedroom on his wedding night riding a tricycle, and drapes himself on a huge cross when he’s feeling stressed. Characters break into choruses of “The Varsity Drag” or “My Blue Heaven” for no reason at all. Emphasis on “no reason at all.” Yes, we all know that the British upper class is loaded with inbread nutters who are running the country to ruin. We figured that out by the time the opening credits were over. Why go on and on for another two and half hours?

Unlike my esteemed fellow blogger Greg at Cinema Styles, who loves the first half of “The Ruling Class” and hates the second, I found myself emitting a deep sigh of relief once O’Toole was “cured,” and his performance toned down into something cooler and more malevolent. For most of the film, however, I found myself longing to see more of Coral Browne. Nealry the only performer in the film who isn’t relentlessly twinkling at the audience or indulging in histrionic highs and lows, Browne commands her scenes with an cool, unflappable bemusement that is a welcome respite from the cranked-up hijinks around her. She’s the “stealth perfomer” in “The Ruling Class.”

Letters to Juliet
June 7, 2010, 10:40 pm
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(Warning – some spoilers)

Who the hell writes romantic comedies these days?

I mean, sure, they usually have standard writing credits, two names at most in the opening titles. But, really, I suspect they’re all cranked out by a committee squirreled away somewhere in a windowless conference room in spirited “brainstorming” sessions that play out like an off night at an improv club.

“Give me a prestigious-but-unfulfilling profession for the leading lady!” someone might say. “Give me a reason that her fiancee is too busy to pay attention to her! Give me a romantic foreign locale!”

On the particular day when the answers to those questions were, respectively: “Fact checker for the New Yorker!”, “He’s opening a restaurant!” and “Verona, Italy!” the film “Letters to Juliet” was apparently thus born. Oh, sure, there’s a little more to it than that – there’s also more than a nod to “Romeo and Juliet.” But you could see that coming too, couldn’t you?

Amanda Seyfried – once so delightful in “Mamma Mia” but anemic and bland here – plays the unfulfilled fact-checker, Sophie, who’s dying to get an article in print if only she could get a moment of her distracted boss’ attention to pitch her ideas. She’s nearly as invisible to Victor, her fiance (Gael Garcia Bernal), who’s inexplicably chosen to open his new Italian restaurant mere weeks after their upcoming wedding. So as not to disrupt the restaurant plans, they agree to take a “pre-honeymoon” to Verona, the “city of love.”

Except it turns out to be not so romantic. Victor prefers to spend the days visiting vineyards, savoring local food, and hunting for rare, delectable truffles (as any passionate chef would), activities in which Sophie takes no interest. Turns out, she’d rather wander aimlessly though the streets of Verona in search of local color and scenery that makes her want to open her notebook and write. We’re meant to understand that Victor is too focused on business to appreciate Sophie’s delicate, questing soul , but please… What truly artistic soul doesn’t find joy and romance in great food and wine? (I know I’d rather read an article about a truffle hunt than some dopey, self-absorbed account of her absent-minded wanderings.) Eventually, she discovers the wall of Juliet, a site where the lovelorn pen notes to Shakespeare’s heroine and tuck them into the bricks, hoping for some sage advice in reply.

Through a series of fortunate connections (meant to show us what an enterprising little reporter-in-the makings she really is), Sophie winds up writing a reply to one of these long-lost letters, penned 50 years before by an young Englishwoman who was heartsick at leaving behind her Italian lover, Lorenzo. Sophie’s reply improbably reaches the actual letter-writer in England – and induces her to return to Italy with her grandson in tow to find long-lost Lorenzo – all within the space of about two days. Sophie winds up accompanying them on the hunt, even though she and the grandson (Christopher Egan) despise each other on sight. But we all know where their verbal jousting is going to lead them, now don’t we? You can practically count off the minutes till they’re giggling together over gelato cones in the piazza.

There’s a potentially charming little rom com here that unfortunately sinks under the weight of leaden dialogue, phoned-in performances and uninspired visuals. (Shots of the Italian landscape are merely serviceable when they should be ravishing.) Seyfried and Egan are like the Disney Channel’s idea of what a Brown graduate and an Oxford-educated attorney would be, and the chemistry between them has all the snap and sass of warm cottage cheese. When Egan gets ahold of Sophie’s notebook, he proclaims “Your writing is really, really, really good!” (Hard for us to judge, since we’ve not seen a word of it, but I’m thinking it’s unlikely that a real Oxford grad would be so airheadedly effusive.) And the in the film’s final scene, when Egan proclaims “I am madly, passionately, and deeply in love with you, Sophie!” my bewildered response was “When the hell did that happen?”

Only Redgrave, her performance soaring above the proceedings like an exquisite grace note springing unexpectedly from a tinny, plodding melody line, brings anything like genuine romantic feeling to this dreary little film. There’s more joy and wonder in a single one of her fleeting facial expressions than is contained anywhere else in the proceedings. Normally that’d be one reason to see “Letters from Juliet,” but in this case, Redgrave so far outclasses her co-stars that it’s positively embarassing to watch.

Back in Business!!!
June 5, 2010, 2:40 pm
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Last summer, a good friend told me, “You need to write more often. You’re happier when you’re writing.”

My friend knows me better than I do.

Not that I haven’t been happy – sometimes deliriously so – during the three-and-a-half months that this blog has lain dormant. I fell in love during this time, and now have a wonderful Significant Other who makes my life fuller and sweeter, if also a bit more hectic.

Love is grand, but there’s also a writer here who’s been unproductive for far too long and is starting to feel unfulfilled. I’m itching to get back into the blogosphere, re-connect with fellow bloggers, and rejoin the conversation in cyberspace.

So here I am – launching Doodad Kind of Town once more. Stay tuned!