Thursday, February 26, 2009

Day 54: A Pookah for Our Generation - Blow-Up Doll Style

Film 34: “Lars and the Real Girl” (2007)

It may say more about me than this film, but I laughed for a hour half straight, beginning at the moment that too-shy-to-be-touched Lars (Ryan Gosling) introduces his new girlfriend Bianca (a blow-up “Real Doll”) to his brother Gus and his wife Karin. After all, it seems to be all anyone – ladies at church, the work receptionist, his family – ever asks him about. “Lars, are you seeing anyone? Don’t you have a girlfriend yet?” Why not? She’s the perfect dinner guest – small appetite, friendly smile and easy-going on the dress code.

Alfred Hitchcock made edge-of-your-seat thrillers decades before special effects could show us the details of any biological terror. He didn’t need them, because as he famously said, and I’m paraphrasing wildly here, “The horror is in the reaction, not the deed.” “Lars and the Real Girl” is that kind of reaction film. At first, we laugh because of how horrified everyone else is at Lars’s sudden delusion. His brother Gus, played with real man skepticism and pain by Paul Schneider, seethes. How the hell is he going to explain this one at the factory? This is a sex toy, not a girlfriend. Can’t his brother be normal and hide her in the bedroom? Why should Lars suddenly be nuts? It’s not funny at all to Gus, and we suspect that he might just pop the thing to prove a point. “Fix it,” he demands of their doctor.

Emily Mortimer, a physically fragile actress, plays Gus’s wife, Karin – and her growing belly as an expectant mother seems to weigh not just her down, but the whole family as the film progresses. At first, she and Gus hope this is a fad that will soon pass, but as she starts having trouble getting out of chairs and getting the nursery ready, Lars is asking Bianca to marry him. Karin and Gus realize, “He’s not going to get better, is he?”

This is the moment that their horror reaction – and our comic one – transcends the goofy plot device. How are they going to cope with a loved brother who can’t cope with reality?

Red-haired Patricia Clarkson, often the wild diva of the indies, instead grounds this moment. Her Doctor Dagmar, the small Far North town's resident GP and psychologist (“She says you have to be both this far north,” quips Karin) shows more sensitivity than twenty trained psychotherapists. She reacts so steadily, so naturally to Lars’s new belief system, that the entire town begins to follow suit. Beautiful comic moments attain poignance: Lars’s co-workers invite Bianca to a party, the church lady gives Bianca flowers and compliments her on “her snappy figure,” and one by one, people in Lars’s life accept her – and him.

Somewhere in there, I began to wonder why this transformation worked so well. Was the writing brilliant, or were the performances? Was it the deft direction, or the subtle scoring?

Answer: Yes. You don’t make a great film out of a bad script, and Nancy Oliver’s nuanced, steadily paced world is brilliant. Characters don’t become real people without excellent acting, and everyone here is pitch perfect. Each performance deserves an Oscar, even the smaller ones – from Lars’s action-figure obsessed cubicle mate (Maxwell McCabe-Lokos) to the shy, teddy bear-loving Margo (Kelli Garner), who only wants one date with Lars before he marries Bianca. Crass direction could easily have pushed this delicate drama into the land of the absurd, but Craig Gillespie restrains the camera. No forced close-ups of Lars’s grin, no lingering body shots of Bianca’s anatomically correct body.

In fact, neither Lars, nor the entire crew of the movie, has any intention of sexually exploiting Bianca. This is a consensual, sensitive relationship – between the viewer and the small, lonely world that Lars inhabits. We want him to get better, but we don’t want him to lose the precious innocence that Bianca, his blow-up sex doll, shows us. We move from laughter and discomfort to empathy and understanding. From ridicule to love.

That, my friends, is perfect storytelling, and this is perfect filmmaking.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Day 52: Love in the '70s and the Land of Cholera

Classic romance today – one funny, one earnest. Two fairly funny-looking heroes. And just for fun…a little poetry.

Film 32: “The Goodbye Girl” (1977)

Written by Neil Simon (“Biloxi Blues,” “The Odd Couple,” “Barefoot in the Park”)
Directed by Herbert Ross (“Footloose,” “Secret of My Success,” “Pennies From Heaven”)

I had to watch the comedy first, of course. Even if it starred Richard Dreyfuss – an actor whose frequent “witty and charming” faces can tire me out, so that I sometimes miss his occasional brilliance.

Neil Simon spent most of the 20th century trying to keep big ideas updated for the modern era – love, patriotism, success. Here he’s drawn two intelligent New Yorkers – single working mom Paula McFadden (Marsha Mason) and struggling actor Eliot Garfield (Dreyfuss) – and forces them to share an apartment. I’ll leave the love story for the poem. What really works for me in this movie, though, isn’t the relationship; its issues of commitment and balance and trust (post-divorce and pre-2nd marriage) are honestly explored, but little about it now resonates as new insight (though I’m sure it did at the time).

Me being me, I was riveted by McFadden’s exploration of power as she reinvents herself in the wake of her new attraction. This flick really acts as a time capsule of sexual politics in the 1970s. Can McFadden be sexy and vulnerable and still independent? Does emotional intimacy equal weakness? Should it? Does it have to?

The 1970s being what they were, the answers disappoint me. I feel like the heroine gives in too easily to the notion of her own weakness. She feels abandoned every time Garfield leaves for a bagel, and the self-righteous neediness that squirls in grates my 21st century teeth. It’s not terrible – certainly better and less apologetic than Jane Fonda’s Corie Bratter managed a decade before in Simon’s “Barefoot in the Park.” What actually fascinates me about it is how often “women’s films” revolve around this issue of love versus independence – especially with so many of them being written by men.

Anyway, on to the goofiness.

Modern Romance via “TGG”

Bye bye love…
No, wait.
Hello, sexy.
No, wait again.
Get out of here.
Hang on.
You’re cute.
You’re hairy.
You’re impossible.
You’re a…a…a man. [spit]

Well, actually, I’m an actor….

Film 33: “Love in the Time of Cholera” (2007)

Adapted by Ronald Harwood (“The Piano”) from the novel by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Directed by Mike Newell (“Four Weddings and a Funeral,” “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire”)

One of the seminal novels of Magical Realism, on film here for the first time. Producer Scott Steindorf (“Empire Falls”), according to IMDB, courted Marquez for 3 years before obtaining the rights. And I have to say, I’m glad he did.

The off-beat rhythm of Spanish actors speaking English, the goofy Monkees hairdo of Javier Bardem, and the all-arts-flick pacing combined to kill this movie for the critics. Audiences, including me, believed them, as we so often do, and now, per usual, I kick myself for listening.

The movie, had it been filmed in Spanish, might have become florid instead of stilted, magic instead of marooned. Javier Bardem, had he not just won an Oscar for playing a sadistic, steely-eyed killer, might have won us over more quickly as the slump-shouldered, shy lover. But there’s still a lot here to enjoy, provided you’re the type who can enjoy the occasional languid indie film. (Merchant Ivory’s “The Golden Bowl” comes to mind in terms of pacing. No race track, but the car does eventually cross the finish line.)

With the notable exception of Bardem’s aging hero, the movie is gorgeous. (Okay, not ALL of him is unattractive. In fact, some parts are quite the opposite. See poem below.) Old Spanish Colonial buildings from the Columbian location crumble slowly, and rich Edwardian interiors suggest all the pampering a Jane Austen heroine could want or require. And hey, stuff happens, too.

Messenger boy Florentino (Bardem) falls in love with Fermina (Giovanna Mezzogiorno) even before he grows a beard, and she reacts to his illicit love letters with appropriate panting. Then mood-killer Daddy-kins (a sinister John Leguizamo) breaks the whole thing up, betting that Fermina can pull richer tail than Florentino.

He’s right. (How annoying.) Doctor Urbino (Benjamin Bratt) wants her, and how. Fermina fights it, but after seeing Florentino again for the first time in a year, and feeling nothing, she accepts Urbino. In a Catholic country without divorce, most men would give up here. Not our Florentino. He decides to wait – for Urbino to die. Then he’ll woo Fermina all over again.

In the meantime, Florentino discovers a new hobby that helps clear his mind of his walking grief. Liev Schreiber makes a too-brief appearance (too brief: not for any cinematic reason, purely personal) at a whorehouse to help our hero along this new path.

What is it? Well, here’s the little ditty that springs to mind.

Clearly Crazy in the Land of Cholera

Bardem buttocks
Old man leer
Waxy mustache and lip sweat –
Irresistible to legions.
Fifty-three virgin years
Waiting for
one woman.
(The other 622,
a pressure valve.)

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Day 51: Eve's Apple in Fairyland - "Legend" (1985)

I suppose it’s the way of all New Year’s resolutions.
January = Discipline.
February = Peevishness.

When people work out as a resolution, I think right about now is when they start trying new sports to ‘keep things fresh.’ Cross-training with kickboxing. Power yoga. Polo.

I don’t have a horse, but I do know Ed Decker. ( And between his haiku movie reviews, and published poems of life behind the Happy Hour counter, Barzilla, I think I could have a solution for the 20 movies waiting in the queue.

Stay tuned.

For today, let’s talk women and evil.

Film 31: The Legend of “Legend” (1985)

Written by William Hjortsberg
Directed by Ridley Scott

Okay, you’ve seen it. (And if you haven’t, you were obviously not part of the Class of ‘89.)

BUT I now own Scott’s “Ultimate Director’s Cut” – and it’s a whole new ballgame. Half an hour longer with a totally different score (the more operatic original by Jerry Goldsmith instead of the funkily awesome Tangerine Dream), and a stronger emphasis on the dark things that go bump in your soul…I am so in!

Before I really get going, a few caveats:
Ø If you don’t like fairy tale or fantasy, you’re probably not gonna get this movie.
Ø I became addicted to this flick in the 9th grade, even before I saw it, after catching a TV “Behind the Scenes” special about it. It’s an essential piece of my adolescence, so I have very little real perspective on how much it might appeal to others. It’s like asking me why “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” is one of the best movies ever. No words for why. It just is.
Ø If you comment that this is all just silliness, I will ignore you.

Just to get everyone up to speed, the plot: Princess Lily (crazy beautiful Mia Sara) frolics with Child of the Forest Jack (crazy young Tom Cruise). He adores her and decides to share the forest’s most sacred animals with her – the unicorns. He means for them to watch from afar; she decides they’re far too beautiful not to be pet. She does just that. All hell (here represented by the perfect Tim Curry as Darkness) breaks loose.

Now for the best part – Darkness is himself captivated by Lily’s innocence. Sexually captivated. He does his best to seduce her…plays her beautiful music, sends out a mysterious, masked dancer in a magnificent (and revealing) gown and stays hidden until Lily, dizzy from twirling around the room with this sensual creature, at last opens her arms and invites the dancer in.

My big question: will Lily’s seduction ballet remain one of the sexiest things on film?

Answer: Hoo-yeah.

Even without the off-kilter carousel music, this scene – with Sara panting, trembling and finally embracing the unknown power – rocks the house. Why do you feel so tingly, Lily? Mmm?

And here, let me offer an answer. But first…

Scott’s two cents: he wanted Lily to be a cat. Literally. As soon as she embraced the unknown, she was accepting evil, and so she would transform slowly – as she took each small step to the ‘other’ side – ending up as a silky black hybrid, human/feline, much as Darkness is a modified satyr – half-human/half-horse. Then, at the end, when heroic, unspoilt Jack (who has killed a-plenty by that time, but of course only evil boys and girls) saves and kisses her – boom. Back to lovely, all-human Princess Lily. Budget and technical considerations squashed this idea, and I think we can all sleep a little better for that.

Second, the web. Many geeks out there love this flick as much as I do, bless ‘em, while there are a few who never got it (Colin Jacobson at – I mean you). By and large, positive or negative, they seem to agree with Scott’s interpretation of a modified “Beauty and the Beast” tale. (Scott cites Jean Cocteau’s 1946 French version as his inspiration.)

Am I the only one who sees Adam and Eve all over this?

Two innocents in the forest touch something strictly forbidden. In fact, the woman touches it. The heavens are sent whirling out of whack, and evil seeps into their protected world. She becomes ashamed of her innocence. A Very Naughty Creature tempts her to turn her back on all she knows in favor of adventure and beauty. Murder enters their sphere. And both the man and the woman realize that they’ll never be the same, that no one can be all good or all bad in the real world. We make mistakes, but they don’t have to control us. We have free will.

Sound at all familiar?

I’m sure Scott was trying to pay homage to Cocteau’s tale, but I believe that in the process, he created something very different. “Beauty and the Beast” is about sacrificing the known for the unknown. Leaving the safe harbor of home in favor of the frightening castle and monster. “Legend” suggests the opposite: adventure isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Maybe it’s because I’m a woman, and I was a girl just beginning to grow up when I saw this coming-of-age tale…but I have never seen Lily as only “good” or “evil” – much less as redeemed by Jack’s kiss at the end. I’ve drawn strength through the years from the notion that her journey is their journey. They both discover personal might in previously forbidden realms – the brute strength and subtle cunning of both war and sexual power.

When Jack is told he has to become a Champion to save the unicorn, he balks. “But I know nothing of weapons!” One of the film’s delicious morsels is watching him evade ingestion by swamp creature Meg Mucklebones. He flatters and distracts her with her own image in his shield as he unsheathes his sword and tries to find the courage to use it for the first time. (It’s an even longer morsel in this version – yum! Trek trivia: Mucklebones is played by Robert Picardo – the holographic Doctor in “Voyager.” Now that’s range!) There’s no explanation of Jack’s proficiency with the bow and arrow at film’s end, but we don’t care. He’s already drawn blood, and we know he can do it again.

Lily, trapped alone with Darkness in the deepest levels of his lair, faints when he reveals himself. (Again, one of the primo moments of cinema for me is watching Curry step out of the 20-foot mirror.) She wakes up as he swoops in for a kiss. In the extended version, Darkness has already proposed just “taking” her, adding more menace to the moment. She scoots away, rightly terrified, and has just moments to form a survival plan.

Scott, in his commentary, refers to what follows – her talking with Darkness over one seriously creepy dinner table – as Lily’s “manipulation” of the demon. In fact, Scott insists that Lily manipulates more and more throughout the film – that this is evidence of her “evil.” And yet in the beginning of the movie, we see her whine and wheedle free food out of a forest family and a kiss out of Jack – in the midst of her “lily” white innocence. Now that she’s forced to outsmart a ruthless killer to save her life, as well as the rest of the world, she’s manipulating. Right.

Lily knows the only thing she has in her favor is Darkness’s desire for her. This means he’s already placed his pride and his hopes in her hands. When any of us – men included – receive that kind of power over someone else – freely given – we have no choice about its being given. We do choose what to do next. Lily didn’t take this power from Darkness. He gave it to her. The only important question now: how does she use it? She undoes her mistake. She frees the unicorn.

I would go further. I would argue that the world of classical fairie, where Scott has consciously set his tale, is much more complex than ‘good’ and ‘evil.’ (He was gleeful about Gump actor David Bennent’s German accent because it would remind audiences of the Grimm tales’ Black Forest origins – alas, never heard in the end, every line overdubbed at the request of an exec who couldn’t tolerate “Nazis in Fairyland.”) Gump’s original entrance, cut from the U.S. release, reappears here – as a death threat. He and his cute little woodland sprites show up only after the sudden winter rages, and they blame Jack. Jack first has to solve a riddle in exchange for his life before Gump and the others take him on the adventure. Fate is fickle, and temperament even more so.

In the end, I suppose it doesn’t really matter to the viewer what the filmmakers or critics have to say about a movie they love. We love it because it speaks to us, and “Legend” continues to speak to me – about the shades of darkness we all need to survive the cruelties of the world.

And I don’t mean black cats.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Films 28-30: Pre-Code Bad Girls Make Out - and Make Good

Oh, hell. I have nothing new to say about these movies. I’ve sat and stewed for over a week, broiling under the pressure of a promised feature. This is it: they’re wonderful, sexy, powerful. Watch them if you can.

Time to move on.

The basics:

Film 28: “The Locked Door” (1929)
Adapted by C. Gardner Sullivan from the novel by Channing Pollock
Directed by George Fitzmaurice

Ann Carter (Barbara Stanwyck) – a victim of attempted rape – marries well in spite of her one mistake in judgment (trusting her boss’s son on a date). When he comes back to seduce her stepdaughter Helen (Betty Bronson), Ann tries everything she can to protect the girl – short of being honest with her husband. Barbara Stanwyck’s first real movie – melodramatic villain (cue the silent Mustached Kidnapper Theme), but the issues of trust and blame are still relevant and controversial.

Favorite scene: the long tracking shot in opening sequence of Twenties urbanites at an endless bar getting blitzed on an illegal “booze cruise”

Film 29: “Ladies of Leisure” (1930)
Adapted by Jo Swerling from the play by David Belasco and Milton Herbert Gropper
Directed by Frank Capra

Yep. That Capra. The man responsible for enshrining Donna Reed as Queen of the Good Girls in “It’s a Wonderful Life” here relishes the double entendrees of professional “party girls” Dot Lamar (Marie Provost) and Kay Arnold (Stanwyck again) – and showing them repeatedly in their undies.

Can serious artist Jerry Strong (Ralph Graves) take his irreverent model Kay seriously?

Of course he can. Even Capra gets bored with the de rigueur social maven girlfriend quickly; we don’t see her after the first 20 minutes of the film. Who wouldn’t rather watch Babs parry and thrust instead with the establishment? Even our hero’s mother Mrs. Strong (Nance O’Neil) stops in to give Kay a long, forgiving kiss on the mouth.

Not your grandmother’s take on morality and sexuality, that’s for sure. HER grandmother was a lot more fun, it seems.

Favorite Quotes:
Dot Lamar, after being teased that a single girl can’t afford to eat too heartily: “Sex appeal has no weight limit!”

Local playboy Bill Standish: “Most men never get to be 18, and most women are over 18 when they’re born.”

Film 30: “Double Harness” (1933)
Adapted by Jane Murfin from the play by Edward Poor Montgomery
Directed by John Cromwell

If you don’t know Ann Harding, this film is a perfect intro. Very rarely seen after the implementation of the heinous 1934 Production Code, Harding always played the most consistently well-educated, sexually independent women of the pre-Code era.

Too old to pretend to be a virgin, too accomplished to play the ingénue, she fascinated her leading men precisely because she wasn’t Ginger Rogers. (Of course, not even Ginger Rogers was really Ginger Rogers. Most of the time, her feet were bleeding as she smiled and hopped alongside Fred Astaire.)

Here Harding plays Joan Colby, a shrewd woman infatuated with John Fletcher – a petulant and caddish William Powell. Joan’s already sleeping with John when she realizes she’s in love with him, but he’s not “the marrying kind.” So she conceives a scheme to push him into wedlock, but immediately regrets it. To assuage her guilt, she pushes him to do well in Daddy’s business. And he’s apparently grateful. Hmmm – okay, so these women weren’t all the way liberated.

But who cares? The normally reserved Harding is sexually obsessed and the always gentlemanly “Thin Man” Powell is a dog. That’s entertainment!

And just in case you’re one of those people who sincerely believe that the 35 years of censorship that followed these movies helped create the wonderful, sassy women of the 1930s and ‘40s (instead of their existence in spite of the censors), I submit an excerpt from an excellent essay on Barbara Stanwyck’s career by Susan Doll on Turner Classic Movies site (

Stanwyck began to specialize in playing social mavericks or working class girls who didn’t always follow the rules of proper behavior in their efforts to get ahead, or to just survive. These were women who had grown weary of financial burden, cynical from constantly dodging the passes of rich men, and hardened from having children out of wedlock.

Yet, these characters had strong hearts and fiery spirits, and audiences could see the suffering beneath the hardened exterior. Her characters may have taken a wrong moral turn, but they remained sympathetic. Depression-era Americans, who were struggling with economic hardships themselves, could relate to the difficult decisions and impossible situations her characters faced.

Over the next few years, Stanwyck played this type of role in such films as Ladies of Leisure (1930), Forbidden (1932), Ten Cents a Dance (1931), and Baby Face (1933), among others. In 1934, after the introduction of the Motion Picture Production Code (the Hays Code of censorship), her screen image was altered or expanded to include more traditional female protagonists, because adulteresses, women with illegitimate children, or party girls were no longer acceptable as sympathetic leading ladies. But, the “tough-talking dame” aspect of her screen persona remained.

Well, huh. So much for not having anything to say.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Day 33: Laugh - or Not - but Learn in "Make 'Em Laugh"

This is just finishing up the last two episodes of the PBS series – on DVD as well.

Film 27: “Make ‘Em Laugh: The Funny Business of America” (2009) (PBS)

Never Give a Sucker An Even Break: The Wiseguys and
Sock it to Me?: Satire and Parody

Two quotes, both from the “Wiseguys” episode, finish up this series for me perfectly:

“I’m not really great at describing why something is funny because there’s nothing more boring than that.” – Judd Apatow

“I’m almost never comfortable. I’m never comfortable, and I think most comedians have this thing where they’re too aware of things. And you know what they always say, ‘Ignorance is bliss.’ So what’s the opposite? What’s the opposite? To be aware of every little thing, to notice everything. It’s hell. There’s a kind of hell to that.” – Chris Rock

I chose the first because even in the middle of fantastic gag reels from “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In,” Groucho Marx’s “You Bet Your Life,” and Carol Burnett’s infamous Scarlett O’Hara curtain-rod dress scene, I sometimes found myself wondering whether this was a Ken Burns wanna-be Guide to Comedy – heavy on biography and short on levity.

I chose the second because it explains the first. Before watching this series, I thought I didn’t enjoy comedy that relied on making people uncomfortable (e.g. “The Larry David Show” or Kathy Griffin). Now I realize that all socially relevant comedy does exactly that. Outside the pure nonsense of the Laurel and Hardy “Who’s on First?” routines, which were fashioned during the tense war years, every comic profiled here pushes someone’s button. Some of those buttons don’t bother me; some do. But that has everything to do with me, and very little to do with whether the comedian is intrinsically funny.

“Make ‘Em Laugh” in fact has showed me something great – my own funny button. Or as my uncles always liked to refer to it – the key to the “giggle box.”

Yuck it up, fuzzball.

Tomorrow: Sexual Adventure in 1929 Hollywood - pre-Code, baby!

Sunday, February 1, 2009

"Battlestar Galactica" and J.R. Ewing

Coming your way this week: Sex in the '30s vs. Violence in the '90s.

But first, in honor of my favorite show just getting better and better as it gets ready to phase out forever, I wanted first to share this excellent article on the death and resurrection of plotlines in TV, based on "Battlestar Galactica."

Excerpt from "Kill Your Television" by Mark Holcomb at Museum of the Moving Image online (

Has there ever been a more death-haunted TV show than Battlestar Galactica? From the culture-annihilating sneak attack on its human colonies in the inaugural 2003 miniseries, to the appallingly routine "deaths" of its ostensibly villainous Cylons, to the various revenge murders, mercy killings, and quasi-suicides of its incidental and crucial characters, BSG is saturated in mortality.Including, now, its own. The gruelingly drawn-out hiatus between the two halves of its final season finally ended with the premiere of new episodes in mid-January, but they marked a bittersweet return. This batch of 10 or so entries is the series' last gasp, and an opportunity for creators Ronald Moore and David Eick to make good on their assertion that the show had a beginning, middle, and end built in from the start. Such concessions—that fictional narratives, like life, operate on a limited timeline and have an unavoidable endpoint—are rare in American TV, and wrapping up BSG's arc once and for all (or revealing the "'Who Shot J.R.' of it all," as Moore recently put it) is a final nose-thumbing step for a series that's thrived on them.That doesn't make the looming prospect of a BSG-less TV landscape any less painful, but it's not like we weren't warned; Moore and Eick have been laying the groundwork for its climax for some time. By Season 4.0, which ended last June with arguably the bleakest cliffhanger in television history, and in the "webisodes" that bridged the gap until Season 4.5 began, a new and intense sense of urgency prevailed...

Full article:

Geek out!