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Sidewalks of New York (2001)
Smart, palatable social comedy of errors with flavorful New York backdrop.
Similar, yet different, from his other films ("The Brother's McMullen" and `She's the One'), writer/director/producer/actor Edward Burns, with his typical minuscule budget, broaches on Woody Allen territory this time as he explores the ooohs, aaahs and owwwws (mostly the owwwws) of the marriage and dating game. The sights and sounds of New York is in the air as the movie zeroes in on six disparate Manhattanites, all of whom trying their damnest to find the no-real answer to happiness. No belly-laughs here, but a lot of knowing smiles.
This brash, perceptive, ultimately winning cyclical comedy first introduces us to good-looking, nice-guy Tommy (Ed Burns) who has just split up with his girlfriend and has been thrown out of her apartment. Tommy takes a sudden interest in evasive school teacher Maria (Rosario Dawson), whom he meets in a video store. Maria is divorced from small, tough-talking schlmiel Ben (David Krumholtz), a doorman and rock musician wannabe who cheated on her. Ben, still pining for Maria, finds a welcome distraction in edgy student/waitress Ashley (Brittany Murphy), who is having an affair with a much older and married dentist, Griffin (Stanley Tucci), whose suspecting wife Annie (Heather Graham), a real estate agent, has her eye on one of her customers, Tommy (back to Ed Burns again), who is (remember?) looking for a new pad since his girlfriend kicked him out. So much for the Kevin Bacon six degrees of separations and divorces angle.
To punch up the thought processes of our six relationship-minded specimens, Burns has given his film a documentary/reality TV feel. Each of our protagonists express their own individual and personal philosophies on the meaning of love and sex with a `man on the street' interviewer. These telling bits are conveniently spliced here and there into each of their ongoing stories, which are not only a biting commentary on the social scene, but often humorously contradict their actions and intent.
Burns, a native New Yorker, gives us a passionate, authentic, down-to-earth vision of his 'hood. No picaresque postcard images are to be found here. No tourist-like views of Rockefeller Center, the Statue of Liberty, Times Square, etc. And just as dressed-down and down-to-earth is his solid ensemble cast. The stories are evenly laid out with no one performance getting short shrift. Burns, Dawson, Tucci, Murphy, Klumholtz, and Graham all have meaty roles here and each of their stories are well-presented and attention-grabbing. The philandering Tucci character, the least sympathetic of the bunch, still manages to drum up some pity, if not sympathy, for his subsequent actions. What's more, the outside circle, the peripheral friends/instigators/colleagues, etc., add immeasurably to the humor and atmosphere of the piece, particularly Aida Turturro as a worldly wise teacher/friend of Dawson's, Dennis Farina as Burns' overt male chauvinist boss, Michael Leydon Campbell in dual roles as a rocker and male half of a bickering married couple, and Callie Thorne as the bickering wife.
No one treats New York better than Woody Allen. With "Sidewalks of New York" Edward Burns pays tribute to this fair city, and he pays homage to Mr. Allen -- 1992's "Husbands and Wives" in particular. Notice Burns' analytical approach to his characters, the hand-held camera work and jump-cut style of editing (which is actually smoother and less jolting than in Allen's above-mentioned film), the pneumatic jazz score, the reflexive, conversational-like bantering between his characters, the episodic storylines, and, most importantly, the obvious devotion he has for NY. It all but spells out W-O-O-D-Y. But, in this case, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. He's learned well from the master.
Bullets Over Broadway (1994)
Rollicking, rib-tickling 'Roaring 20s' comedy gem -- a diamond among the Woodman's recent rough.
Sadly, I've been let down by most of Woody Allen's recent comedies. So it was most rewarding indeed to see the Woodman back again true to form (after a lengthy drought) with 1994's Bullets Over Broadway." Fun, foamy, and clever, it has everything we've come to love and expect from the man.
While "Take the Money and Run" and "Bananas" first turned trendy audiences on to his unique brand of improvisational, hit-and-miss comedy episodes, and the more neurotic, self-examining cult hits like "Annie Hall" and "Manhattan" cemented his Oscar-winning relationship with Hollywood, the comedy genius has stumbled mightily in this last decade. Attempting to contemporize his image with the coarse, foul-mouthed antics of a Coen or Farrelly brother (see "Mighty Aphrodite") is simply beneath him, and has been about as productive as Stevie Wonder taking a turn at hip-hop. Moreover, casting himself as a 65-year-old romantic protagonist with love interests young enough to be his grandchildren (see "Curse of the Jade Scorpion") has left a noticeably bad aftertaste of late. With "Bullets Over Broadway," however, Allen goes back to basics and wisely avoids the pitfalls of excessive toilet humor and self-aggrandizing casting, and gives us a light, refreshing bit of whimsical escapism. Woody may not be found on screen here, but his presence is felt throughout. Though less topical and analytical than his trademark films, this vehicle brings back a purer essence of Woody and might I say an early innocence hard-pressed to find these days in his work.
John Cusack (can this guy do no wrong?) plays a struggling jazz-era playwright desperate for a Broadway hit who is forced to sell out to a swarthy, aging king-pin (played to perfection by Joe Viterelli) who is looking to finance a theatrical showcase for his much-younger bimbo girlfirend (Jennifer Tilly, in a tailor-made role). The writer goes through a hellish rehearsal period sacrificing his words, not to mention his moral and artistic scruples, in order to appease his mob producers who know zilch about putting on a play. The rehearsal scenes alone are worth the price of admission.
Aside from Allen's clever writing, brisk pace and lush, careful attention to period detail, he has assembled his richest ensemble cast yet with a host of hysterically funny characters in spontaneous banter roaming in and about the proceedings. Cusack is his usual rock-solid self in the panicky, schelmiel role normally reserved for Woody. But even he is dwarfed by the likes of this once-in-a-lifetime supporting cast. Jennifer Tilly, with her doll-like rasp, is hilariously grating as the vapid, virulent, and thoroughly untalented moll. Usually counted on to play broad, one-dimensional, sexually belligerent dames, never has Tilly been give such golden material to feast on, putting her Olive Neal right up there in the 'top 5' fun-filled film floozies of all time, alongside Jean Hagen's Lina Lamont and Lesley Ann Warren's Norma Cassady. Virile, menacing Chazz Palminteri as the fleshy-lipped Cheech, a "dees, dem and dos" guard dog, reveals great comic prowess while affording his pin-striped hit man some touching overtones. Dianne Wiest, who has won bookend support Oscars in Woody Allen pictures (for this and for "Hannah and Her Sisters") doesn't miss a trick as the outre theatre doyenne Helen Sinclair, whose life is as grand and exaggerated off-stage as it is on. Her comic brilliance is on full, flamboyant display, stealing every scene she's in. Tracey Ullman is a pinch-faced delight as the exceedingly anal, puppy-doting ingenue, while Jim Broadbent as a fusty stick-in-the-mud gets his shining moments when his actor's appetite for both food and women get hilariously out of hand. Mary-Louise Parker, as Cusack's cast-off mate, gets the shortest end of the laughing stick, but lends some heart and urgency to the proceedings.
While the play flirts with a burlesque-styled capriciousness, there is an undercoating of seriousness and additional character agendas that keeps the cast from falling into one-note caricatures. And, as always, Woody's spot-on selection of period music is nonpareil. With healthy does of flapper-era Gershwin, Rodgers & Hart, Cole Porter, Hoagy Carmichael, not to mention the flavorful vocal stylings of Al Jolson and Eddie Cantor, Allen, with customary finesse, affectionately transports us back to the glitzy, gin-peddling era of Prohibition and slick Runyonesque antics.
I remember the times when the opening of a new Woody Allen film was a main event. As such, "Bullets Over Broadway" is a comedy valentine to such days. In any respect, it's a winner all the way, especially for Woodyphiles.
Sweet Charity (1969)
Big, splashy musical bursts at the seams with flash and style, but still feels empty.
Ya gotta have heart...as they say in the song. But `Sweet Charity,' a story of a luckless girl's neverending search for true love, doesn't. It sings a lot...a LOT!...but it never really SINGS. Lord knows, it knocks you over the head in its attempt. Dancer/director Bob Fosse (in his debut) throws lots of pizzazz and pop art distractions our way, but he can't disguise the fact that underneath all the gaudy hoopla is a simple story that's begging to be told, well, more simply. It's hard to care for this girl when her story is buried under tons of unnecessary spectacle. Dancer/director Gene Kelly had the same problem with `Hello, Dolly!' Maybe it has something to do with a dancer's visual and flashy sense of style. When in doubt...accessorize! Oh well, whatever mistakes Fosse made with this one, he redeemed himself twelve-fold with `Cabaret' a few years later.
Shirley MacLaine is a smart, obvious choice to handle the midadventures of Charity Hope Valentine. MacLaine has been down this road many times before...the kooky loser, the prostitute with a heart of gold. Her credentials include some of the best: "Some Came Running," "The Apartment," and "Irma la Douce." As Charity, MacLaine is pure show biz. She gamely takes on all of Fosse's garish extras and doesn't get lost, but it's a strenuous, no-holds-barred performance and it shows. She has much to compete with and Fosse doesn't help things by foisting every imaginable 1969 techno flash invented on her - scores of stills, jarring zoom-shots, pop art psychedelics, you name it -- giving everything a choppy feel to it. Every dramatic scene oozes pathos and bathos. Every hopeful scene gushes with giddiness. Every song comes out of the starting gate bigger, glitzier, more manic, more depressing, more invigorating, and, ultimately, less effective than the one preceding it. From Shirley's dizzy 'Somebody Loves Me' sequence as she dances about New York City to the wide-eyed `If They Could See Me Now'; from the relentlessly somber `Where Am I Going' to the relentlessly overdone `I'm a Brass Band,' every souped-up song for Charity chips away at the heart and soul of her...making her more of a cartoon and showcase for a big star. With all due respect to MacLaine, I often wonder what Fosse's then-wife at the time, Gwen Verdun, who originated the role on Broadway, might have done. The multiple Tony-winning dancer/actress was not a bankable film star and had the same kind of thin, reedy voice as MacLaine, but there is a built-in frailty and openness in Verdun that might have better suited the role.
As for the support staff, John McMartin as Oscar, a prospective suitor/savior, is rather bland and lost in all the chaos, a dim memory by picture's end. Ricardo Montalban is typically suave and narcissistic while Barbara Bouchet is breathtakingly beautiful, but both of them are forgettable too. Stubby Kaye, usually a sunny scenestealer, doesn't get to show off his stuff as well this time with only a so-so version of "I Love to Cry at Weddings." Groovy Rat Packer Sammy Davis Jr.'s brief time on the screen gives the movie a time capsule feel with his `un-cool' version of `The Rhythm of Life.'
The true star is, of course, Fosse's trail-blazing choreography. Paula Kelly and Chita Rivera, as two of Charity's dance hall pals, add electricity to the seedy surroundings as they front the chorus of come-on gals in the crackling `Hey, Big Spender' number and join MacLaine in a soaring version of `There's Got to Be Something Better Than This.' The highlight, however, belongs to the kitschy `Frug' sequence. Fosse is at his best here though the sequence seems out of sync with the rest of the movie. For me, it's a natural tape rewinder.
Part of the problem (for those of us art-house snobs anyway) is the genuine awe we feel for `Nights of Cabiria,' Fellini's foreign masterpiece from whence this musical came. After seeing the tiny, Chaplinesque Giulietta Massina whose sad clown eyes spoke volumes as the gutsy, pitiable streetwalker determined to find love and a life of respect, much of "Sweet Charity" rings hollow and over-the-top.
There is entertainment value for sure, for anything by Fosse is definitely worth a look. But the heart of this movie is about as fake as the heart tattooed on Charity's shoulder. It becomes much ado about nothing.
Auto Focus (2002)
Above-average bio-drama handles luridness with sharp leads, a sly point of view and wink-wink cleverness.
Those waiting to get a thrill out of the sleazy topic at hand may want to toss aside the raincoat for Paul Schrader's "Auto Focus" does not give in so much to the exploitive element as it does present a smart, clever, elbow-nudging look at the intriguing facade of actor Bob Crane, whose decidedly genial, wholesome image on TV was severely undermined by a pathological addiction toward sex.
It seems inconceivable that hopelessly smarmy material could be presented in ways other than smarmy, but if we look back, it has been done. None more so than Bob Fosse's "Lenny," which was another superbly directed account of an assertive, self-destructive sleaze (comedian Lenny Bruce) that effectively captured all the contrary motives of its protagonist with a bold, clever eye. Although "Auto Focus" is not on par with "Lenny," Greg Kinnear still manages to pretty much do for the "Hogan's Heroes" TV star what Dustin Hoffman did for the late comic.
Kinnear fascinates by not allowing his most complex and interesting character to date try and be all that complex. With almost a flawless superficiality, he manages to slip into the mind and pants of this TV personality with a, well, Bob Crane-like ease, and examine the not-all-that-deep dichotomy of a ladies' man torn and confused by a normal, seemingly healthy preoccupation. Kinnear plays the highly appealing Crane just as he was...with a smirk, a handshake, a joke, and a deceptively leering eye. It's a subtle, captivating package that actually pulls more weight and dimension than may be perceived.
The always interesting Willem Dafoe excels as Crane's creepy partner-in-slime, John Carpenter, who validates his lonely existence by servicing the stars. While setting up a music system for "Hogan's Heroes" co-star and buddy Richard Dawson, Carpenter happens upon an interested Crane and immediately picks up on the man's predilection for video equipment and a beautiful woman's body. In a matter of no time, the predatory Carpenter has leeched onto his biggest catch yet, a TV star, and, with arm around shoulder, willingly leads his pal down whatever mangy sexual road he cares to experience. With Crane first jokingly playing percussion at a strip joint, Carpenter slowly adds some of his own rim shots for extra measure in the form of wanton females, and off they go. Careless along the way, Crane's squeaky-clean Disney image starts to fall by the wasteside.
Director Paul Schrader introduces us into the pre-Hogan life of Crane with a clear, assured, brightly-colored camera focus as it recounts his more promising days as a talented "King of the Airwaves" disc jockey who earlier enjoyed a wholesome stint as Donna Reed's next-door-neighbor on her long-running sitcom. Even the opening credits seems to have a bouncy, upbeat, fanny-slapping "Rat Pack" allure to it. Schrader allows the happy-go-lucky Crane (Kinnear) himself to serve as an almost mirthful, posthumous narrator with tones of cheerful, bemused denial -- a narrative that easily recalls Kevin Spacey's darkly effective chronicle of his own life in "American Beauty." Ever so slowly, Schrader's camera begins to become grainier, muted, darker and shakier as Crane's life spirals out of control. By film's end the camera has served as the film's most potent metaphor...Crane's life has the cheap quality of a porn film.
Lots of jiggling babes with big mammaries to be found here, some pretty, some not, but Schrader's point is not for titillation. After a while, just like anything else, they become a blur. Teasing, but strangely unerotic, they start serving as your standard, every-day dangling carrots.
The movie, and the book on which it is based ("The Murder of Bob Crane") points the obvious finger at Carpenter as Crane's murderer. However, the movie is less efficient in setting up this accusation. To me, Carpenter knew the abject seriousness of Crane's addiction. A major desire to go straight and brief respite would probably not have lasted long. It had happened time and time again and they got back together. The two videophiles would have reconnected soon enough. The breaking-up scene seem half-hearted on Crane's part. What scared Carpenter this time in thinking Crane meant what he said? It wasn't set up as well as it could.
"Auto Focus" could have been just sleaze entertainment, but thankfully it offers much more thanks to director Schrader and actors Kinnear and Dafoe. Definitely worth seeing.
Sweet Home Alabama (2002)
Cute, utterly predictable comedy redeemed by highly attractive casting.
Not a single fresh idea or inspired moment is to be had in "Sweet Home Alabama," the semi-Cinderella tale of an up-and-coming NY fashion queen on the threshold of marrying her absurdly wealthy, not to mention exceedingly handsome, Prince Charming who has to take care of a few loose ends before walking down the aisle. Yet I found myself coasting and smiling all the way through anyway. What a chump I am.
It seems our princess has a past. Her blonde New York coiffe has Southern white trailer trash roots -- and a Li'l Abner of a husband who won't give her a divorce. So off she treks back home to Alabama for the first time in seven years to force the grease monkey to sign on the dotted line and let her go on with the nouveau riche lifestyle she's meant to live. While there, of course, she confronts and owns up to a past she was once ashamed of. Gee, where is this heading?
Broaching on Meg Ryan territory and coming off a winner, Reese Witherspoon is just adorable. What can I say? Our new box office star is taking absolute fluff like this and turning it into box-office gold. She has a very promising future. Her petulant-princess-sees-the-light formula is going to work for her very well I predict. Witherspoon is ably supported by two fetching pieces of eye candy -- Josh Lucas and Patrick Dempsey -- as the laidback first hubby and too-good-to-be-true hubby-to-be respectively. The three of them are just so charming and so darn irresistible, they help me forget the truckload full of contrivances. And that's what makes movie stars movie stars.
Candice Bergen yet again throws out her Murphy Brown-styled barbs every which way, but actually has a couple of good zingers this time as Dempsey's unapproving mayor-mother. Fred Ward and Mary Kay Place relax into their Southern mom and dad roles like a pair of well-worn slippers.
'Taint nothing like a big heap of Southern hospitality and that's what you get here. Relax, take your shoes off, sit a spell, and enjoy.
The Fluffer (2001)
Synthetic "Boogie Nights" wannabe -- stripped of strong story-line and, ultimately, characters.
Considering the good reviews this movie received, I expected quite a bit more. A young, just-off-the-bus L.A. neophyte with "camera experience" tosses a coin to see which direction his career will go -- legit or porn. Expecting to rent "Citizen Kane" one night at the video store, he accidentally winds up with a man-on-man movie entitled "Citizen Cum" and ends up drooling obsessively over its top blue star, Johnny Rebel. Before you know it Sean, our obsessive young protagonist, says the heck with mainstream and is scouting out the Men of Janus Studio (where Johnny Rebel is an exclusive client) praying for "behind"-the-scenes work, or anything else, so he can worship his newest wet dream up close. And so it goes...
What begins promisingly as a mild spoof on the porn business goes off the deep end and into so many tangents that "The Fluffer" more-or-less limps along until the final reel, with no one tangent garnering much interest. As played by Michael Cunio, the role of Sean is a meek, wimpy, sad-sack little patsy who you know is going to pay dearly for his impulsive and unrealistic choices. It's hard to sympathesize (though I certainly can relate) with a man-child who doesn't stand a snowball's chance in hell of finding true love with a straight, completely self-serving "gay-for-pay" hunk. Had he settled for living out the fantasy of the title role, he could have packed it up, called it a day, and carved a big notch on his bedpost. But then we wouldn't have had much of a story, would we? Suffice it to say, Cunio doesn't have the requisite charm or charisma to shoulder the weight the film begins to take on.
Now Scott Gurney is another story. An incredible speciman to watch and watch again, Gurney is the appetizer, main course and dessert of this movie meal. The embodiment of every superficial male fantasy in his various outfits, he alone is worth the price of admission. My favorite is his Indian gear which fronts the movie title "Poke-a-Hot-Ass." He's absolutely hot. He knows it. We know it. And he plays it as such. Gurney's laconic, superficial Johnny has a laidback, mesmerizing charm and streetwise surliness that keeps us from drifting too far off. He IS the movie.
Roxanne Day as "Babylon" the stripper-girlfriend of Johnny gets the most dramatic mileage out of the movie, having a number of taut, tense scenes. But the rest of the characters are cardboard in presentation. A few familiar names add little value to the movie. Comedian Taylor Negron, singer Deborah Harry, and character actors Tim Bagley, Richard Riehle and Robert Walden are completely wasted in tacky, thankless roles.
The movie strives to be a gay version of "Boogie Nights" but is undone by indifferent, poorly motivated characters and an uninventive, often turgid script. It has neither the grit nor the daring. Mark Wahlberg's Dirk Diggler may not have quite the initial impact or animal magnetism of Gurney's Johnny Rebel, but it's a much more fleshed-out, tormented character, in pants and out, with lots of colors and shadings. Though both are afforded the familiar dramatic seductions of succumbing to the hand-in-hand pressures of porn fame and heavy drugs, the ego-driven complications of Dirk Diggler are infinitely more fascinating. Walden has the Burt Reynolds overseer role. But, again, it's predictable, flat and, though it's written to shock, comes off embarrassing.
As the title indicates, "The Fluffer" is a movie tease for gay men that shoots for more than it should. But Johnny Rebel WILL definitely keep your interest. And if Scott's legit career ever comes up a cropper...well, let's just say his BVDs could still sell DVDs.
Exceedingly handsome but emotionally distant flash-back romancer not at all up to Merchant-Ivory standards.
This handsomely mounted costume drama uses that well-oiled gimmick of mirroring present and past love connections to whet the viewer's appetite. Strange then that one is left curiously undernourished by film's end.
One could point out the choppy, unflavorful script and erratic back-and-forth shifts between present and past. This technique worked more efficiently in "The French Lieutenant's Woman" and "The Bridges of Madison County," but, then again, both of these films had Meryl Streep at its emotional core. Sadly, she is not here to lift this one. Contemporary director Neil LaBute, who initially turned heads with his bold, unrelentingly caustic views on love ("In the Company of Men," "Your Friends & Neighbors"), takes on a decidedly different approach, shooting straight for the heart instead of the gut...with mixed results.
The contemporary story pairs up Gwyneth Paltrow and LaBute regular Aaron Eckhart as two literary historians who get caught up with one another as they uncover surprising new information, via a chain of age-old love letters, of a torrid, highly discreet affair between two unlikely Victorian poets, played in flash-back by the charismatic Jeremy Northam and Jennifer Ehle.
With all this potential talent aboard, someone forgot to add the requisite fire and passion to this supposedly fiery, passionate drama. The chemistry between Paltrow and Eckhart is strangely lacking. While Eckhart has a certain scruffy charm, his offbeat, rather jokey approach to this wise-guy character doesn't jell at all with the mood and tone of the piece. Paltrow, brushing up on her "Shakespeare in Love" accent, is slightly better (as well she should -- having proven herself earlier in "Emma"), but, again, her character is given a dull edge and she remains much too placid to ignite the contemporary love story.
Though the classically handsome Northam is the epitome of what a dashing costumed lover should be, and, ditto Ehle, who is reminiscent of Streep here with her serene, delicate, pinched features, their more interesting love story never gets to soar either. Problematic for them is the pace, which is too languid, and the emotional payoffs, which are either diffused or snuffed out. Worse yet, the impact of their story is diluted by the incessant narration (via the reading of the love letters) of the contemporary leads.
A gallant try I should say, and it is visually beautiful, but I think I'll stick to Merchant/Ivory at this time, thank you.
Stage on Screen: The Women (2002)
Sharp, tangy update of Claire Booth Luce's catty classic stands on its own claws.
What a delightful surprise dusting off this furry warhorse after so long. This taped version of the Roundabout Theatre's 2001 stage production works remarkably well under the obvious constrictions. The camera work is clean and expedient, the outré costumes glorious, the hairstyles period-perfect, the sets fun and functional, and the performances frisky and stylish.
Claire Boothe Luce's stinging all-female play `The Women' was first filmed in 1939 and starred MGM's crème de la femme at the time: Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, Rosalind Russell, Paulette Goddard, Mary Boland, Virginia Weidler, etc. It's a wickedly cherished film that deftly chaffs at the idle rich (well, the idle FEMALE rich anyway) for all it's worth. A stage version is rarely seen these days due to the Luce estate, which is very protective of this property, and because of its enormous (ergo, expensive) cast, which has 24 women performing 36 roles.
Off-putting to some in that it continually punches home the fact that a woman's station in life at that time was to marry money and breed, Luce portrays her gadflies as little more than brainless, vindictive, status-seeking gossips who have absolutely no purpose in life outside marriage. Lying, cheating husbands were better than no husbands at all. Luce's contempt for the 30s woman is quite obvious. In fact, she was even accused of misogyny after writing this satire! The focus instead should be directed squarely on the delightfully sharp, acerbic dialogue, the incendiary characters, and the terrific interplaying of its distaff cast. It's amazing how well everything holds up after all these decades.
Though the performances are a mixed bag, nothing detracts from the overall fun to be had. Cynthia (`Sex and the City') Nixon heads the cast as that noble sufferer Mary Haines whose husband has been led astray after a solid decade of marital bliss. Highly appealing, Nixon effectively overrides the more treacly scenes (and she is given a few), while her quivery voice has an interesting Billie Burke ring to it. She gives the piece a strong center of gravity while justifying the more melodramatic intrusions in the play.
But it's the bitchiness, the cattiness, and the empty attitudes and platitudes that everyone wants served up. And, boy, do they ever get it! Kristen (`Third Rock from the Sun') Johnston as Nixon's `best friend' goes for broke in the hilariously gabby, astringent Roz Russell role. With her pearl-handled guns drawn, she draws instant blood while imposing a panther-like frenzy on the proceedings. Her antics are as wonderfully over-the-top as the Hedda Hopper-like headgear she gets to flaunt. She succeeds in putting her own indelible stamp on this wacky blueblood.
Jennifer Tilly, in the Joan Crawford role, has her scathing moments too as homewrecker Crystal Allen, especially while trading delicious barbs with her competition (Nixon), but she is far, far too obvious as the counter girl out to sleep her way into nouveau riche society. In a one-note performance, Tilly's screechy voice is so unappetizing, her nastiness so brash and her intentions so transparent, it's hard to believe any man would be foolish enough to tangle with her. Nothing subtle, nothing enticing, nothing clever...nothing special.
Give it up, however, for the incredible Jennifer (`Best in Show') Coolidge who induces laughter with every groan and grimace. Looking like she just ate a barrelful of persimmons, her grumpy, feather-brained socialite steals the limelight whenever she's on. An excellent comedy farceur, Coolidge has a series of uproarious moments, the best being her postpartum hospital scene following the birth of her fourth child. It's priceless.
In somewhat lesser roles, Rue McClanahan is quite marvelous as the flighty, French-spewing, love-hungry, often-divorced countess, while Mary Louise Wilson offers the perfect cutting edge as Nixon's all-knowing mother. But Hallie Kate Eisenberg (from the Pepsi commercials) is woefully wrong period-wise as Nixon's precocious daughter. It's an annoying, thankless part to begin with but she doesn't help things with her joltingly contemporary performance. As for the rest of the large cast, including the downstairs help (Heather Matarazzo and Mary Bond Davis), all are given the chance to shine.
The show moves at a fast clip and the jokes are rippingly fun. Most surprising is how coarse and risque the original play was. The 1939 version was obviously softened quite a bit to get past the censors. Here, they get to go for the throat. By the way, in 1956 there was a filmed MUSICAL remake called `The Opposite Sex' starring June Allyson, Joan Collins, Ann Sheridan, Dolores Gray, Agnes Moorehead, Ann Miller, and the wonderful, wonderful Alice Pearce as the loose-tongued manicurist. This interesting but misguided feature chose to give life to the husbands (Leslie Nielsen, Jim Backus, Dick Shawn, among them), which diminished its impact. Still, you might want to give it a once-over just for comparison's sake.
The Big Lebowski (1998)
A total Coen Brothers misfire. I was bowled over by how bad it was.
Agreed, the enormously popular Coen Brothers are an acquired taste. And the David Lynches of quirky slapstick must be considered a hit-and-miss affair, but diehard fans are almost always left hungry for more.
In the indigestible "The Big Lebowski", however, somebody REALLY forgot to tell the boys that off-the-wall just for the sake of off-the-wall can REALLY be bad. Like the equally indulgent and incomprehensible "Mulholland Drive," this so-called entertainment misses at every step -- as spoof, satire, revenge comedy, whatever.
Check out "Raising Arizona" and "Fargo" to see real genius at work. Unfortunately, the Bros took a total sabbatical from creative filmmaking when they locked horns on this one. I guess the success of "Fargo" went SO to their heads that they decided to test their core fans. Are we now SO cool and SO popular that we can pass anything off as long as its weird?
Obviously, from the looks of things, they can. Oh, please, IMDB people -- this "film" is BOTTOM "250", not TOP "250" material. It reminds me of the time back in the 1970s when Paul McCartney wagered that he too could throw out anything musically and have the gullible public eating it up. And so he did. He composed a new pop tune using the lyrics of "Mary Had a Little Lamb", of all things, and earned his next solid hit. Ugh! I fear for the future of mankind when stuff like this happens.
A thuddingly dull, incoherent mess that purports to be a quirky comedy, Jeff Bridges and John Goodman, who play bowling teammates, are the primary victims of this highway robbery. Sad too, because this could have been Goodman's night to shine (as he did in "Raising Arizona") and, God bless 'em, he does give it both barrels, but what can you do when you're given blanks? Always the professional, Goodman tries to act cool...like he's in on the insanity. A sleazy Bridges too rolls with the punches as a pothead slacker named Dude who through a series of mistaken identities finds a way of making make some quick dough involving a porno king and mobsters.
How can such a dazzling, eclectic cast, who are perfect for this peculiar type of movie fodder, be so abominably misused? Julianne Moore, Steve Buscemi, Peter ("Fargo") Stormare, Ben Gazzara, and David Huddleston in the title role are such pros and come off looking like rank amateurs. The last vignette with narrator Sam Elliott on a barstool is the capper. Terrible...just terrible.
There are two reasons only why I gave this "BOMB" a "2" out of "10" instead of "1". John Turturro as a creepy bowler named Jesus literally comes out of nowhere and demonstrates the Coen Brothers at full potential. His freakishly hilarious scene (which, of course, makes no sense whatsover) shows exactly what can happen when the Bros assert themselves.
The other reason is sentimental. Much of the action takes place at the Hollywood Lanes on Santa Monica Boulevard in Hollywood, California, where I use to bowl every Monday night. I loved that place as it holds many fond memories. Out of nowhere the district decided to tear the place down in the summer of 2002 to make room for a school. Opposers, like myself, felt it was a landmark and deserved to be protected. Anyway, it's gone now.
The good news: Any time I get nostalgic for the old bowling center, I can always rent out "The Big Lebowski." The bad news: I have to rent out "The Big Lebowski."
John Q (2002)
Not even Denzel can save this misguided, at-the-end-of-one's-rope drama that gets progressively sillier and sillier.
From the introductory scene of a pretty young female motorist weaving capriciously in and about menacing semis accompanied by a strange, lush score, one smells trouble early on. But, you say, a movie with Denzel Washington at the acting helm will automatically right itself and avoid the obvious curves and potholes that could lead to disaster, right? Nope. Both the lady and the film are D.O.A.
Direction, writing and performances are so wretched, I found myself unintentionally laughing at its most serious of intentions.
Washington plays a struggling, low-to-middle class income factory worker with a working wife (supermarket checker) and son. At the beginning of the movie we see one of the family cars getting repossessed and dad scouting out a second job due to cut-backs at work. Things get so bad the cute youngster even offers dad his $46 dollar allowance savings. I guess the family that pays together, stays together.
Anyway, all seens endurable until the young Little League whippersnapper suffers thumper problems while running from first to second base (or was it second to third?) after hitting a line drive. Rushed to the hospital, the parents find out their son has an enlarged heart and needs a transplant very soon in order to survive. Trouble is, Denzel's insurance (remember, he's part time now) won't cover the $200,000 plus, and he and the Mrs. are destitute.
And the treacly dramatics that were tolerable up to this point now go haywire. What we really end up with is a movie that pushes for health insurance reform. To HMO or not to HMO: that is the question. Well, gosh, if that's all, why not just a "20/20" featurette?
After the big bad hospital tells Denzel his son has to to be released due to it's strict "no-money, no-heart" policy, our hero goes ballistic and holds the entire emergency room at gunpoint until his son is put on a donor's list. In a series of bad moves, the movie dissolves into a massive, gooey mess that strains reality with every heart beat. Hostages rooting for Denzel, the swarming public rooting for Denzel, the wife rooting for Denzel, the bad, bad administration now rooting for Denzel. Everyone's rooting for Denzel...except the script.
The always charismatic Washington looks so focused here, he doesn't realize he's in such a stinker. But Robert Duvall, as a hostage negotiator, sure does, and he looks mighty uncomfortable. And for good reason. His at-odds scenes with an over-the-top Ray Liotta, as a press-hungry Chief of Police, are ridiculous and superficial. Kimberly Elise as Denzel's wife may have a couple of true moments as Denzel's emotive wife but hardly enough. Anne Heche too is given short shrift as a "heartless" hospital administrator. Amazingly, this is a top-notch roster of stars and each and everyone comes off like a rank amateur.
The most laughable moments are saved for the hospital emergency room where Denzel holds hostage a motley crew of staff, security, patients, and (apparently) bad actors, including the usually terrific James Woods -- not-so-terrific as the hospital cardiologist. These are among the worst group crisis scenes I have encountered since "The Poseidon Adventure" thirty years ago.
A major crash and burn for the usually reliable Denzel. He offers his heart (literally!) to this picture and the tears seem real enough, but the deck is stacked. A poor choice of roles right after his award-winning "Training Day." And director Nick Cassavetes shows none of the genius expected as the son of legendary director John.
"John Q" should not be foisted on the public.