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Strangers with Candy (1999)
"Hobo camp," a term 46-year-old Jerri Blank uses after spelling V-I-C-T-O-R-Y during a cheerleader try-out, revealing her lifelong illiteracy and causing Coach Wolf to postpone the rest of the try-outs until "we can all recover
from Jerri's shame."
It took me about three months to actually muster the energy to watch Strangers With Candy in late 1999, and I did it only because it was advertised so heavily on Comedy Central, right alongside the Upright Citizens' Brigade. Once I saw it, though, I was hooked. It took only one episode.
I got friends into the show, and we'd throw out the oddest of lines to each other just on the off-chance that we'd all "get it." We'd say things with no relevance like "massage each other's ... clitorises" or "but I want to be a cheerleader" or "Greeks are just Jews without the money." It was hard not to find a line we didn't like or want to repeat after seeing this show.
That's not to mention all the minorities who were skewered by obviously unfeeling and unthinking characters. No one was spared the branding iron here.
From David Sedaris' sometimes crazy little sister Amy and a cast of Second City alums emerged a truly unique and gut-busting but, at the same time, subtly humorous opus to the After-School Special. From racism and classicism to bisexuality and class bullying, Strangers With Candy made the case for smart writing in an irreverent setting. Every line could make you think or laugh, but the timing was so quick that all one could do was chuckle and move on. It was hard not to pay attention to every minute of this show.
Of course it's a shame that Comedy Central canceled the show after only two seasons, but at least the show went out with a bang (literally Flatpoint High was blown up).
What made the show most memorable for me was that, no matter how well-written and acted each of the offbeat characters was, none could add up to the unbelievably insane Jerri Blank. Everyone made a point to chastise, take advantage of, and downright abuse Jerri, but somehow she could pick herself up and move on and still come out with the best lines in the entire show. Sometimes, when a show takes off, although an ensemble is most important, you find that incidental and auxiliary characters become the mainstay of the show's success (like Kramer and Costanza surrounding Jerry on Seinfeld). In this case, Sedaris held her own with a kind of aplomb that only a seasoned professional can do.
Whether she was being threatened by her brother Derick ("dick lick"), overlooked by her step-mother (the brilliant Deborah Rush), pleaded with for restraint by her hapless pal Orlando, happily ignored by her art teacher Mr. Jellineck (longtime co-conspirator Paul Dinello), forced into community service by the Hitlerish Principal Onyx Blackman, or harassed unnecessarily by the ultimately selfish and tight-fisted Mr. Noblet (writing the word "me" on the board when instructing his students to "tell me..."), Jerri somehow survived countless challenges and came out learning the absolute wrong thing.
My favorite lesson: "The poor are a filthy, thieving people." You have to see the episode to understand it.
Angels in America (2003)
Poetry ... perhaps too much
Tony Kushner's Angels in America may have worked well on the stage, and, at its most basic, it works well on television in this six-hour HBO presentation. It is most important to consider this a symbolic piece of art rather than the kind of story it portends to be as it begins. Otherwise, it can come across as too preachy and pretentious for its own good.
It's not a simple matter of interpreting the actions and reactions told in this story. Throughout the story, people do and say despicable things to each other, and those who are hurt reply with literary, political and artistic allusions that, at least to me, display an almost contemptuous attitude between the writer and the intended audience. I can't react very easily to Louis and Joe's failure to address their responsibilities or to Pryor's melodramatic breakdown in the face of his debilitating disease or to Belize's cryptic description of heaven. How can one respond? What's the point?
While I appreciate the series of events and what I interpret to be the symbolism throughout the story, I cannot give a thumbs up to overacting (especially Pacino), inflated language, and overbearing monologues. The only true high points here are the acting of the women, Meryl Streep, Emma Thompson and especially Mary Louise Parker. At least Kushner had the decency to connect Harper Pitt's bloated language to emotional distress and lack of mental balance. What's everyone else's excuse here?
Without You I'm Nothing (1990)
"...how truly beautiful I am..."
Sandra Bernhard's Without You I'm Nothing, the movie released in 1990, followed on the heels of her 1988 off-Broadway stage production ... what she and others refer to in the movie as her "smash-hit one-woman show."
There were several changes in monologues and one-liners, and the movie version visually re-vamps the story, taking Sandra from a fabulous existence as a successful stage performer in New York, during what she calls her "superstar summer," to an illusory, almost desperate existence back in her home in Los Angeles - her fictional manager in the film refers to it as getting Sandra back "to her roots, to ... upscale supper clubs like the Parisian Room."
There's a point to be made here. Sandra tries to appeal her liberal worldview and her sometimes harsh critique of American pop culture to an audience that doesn't completely see it. In L.A. she's playing to a predominantly black audience, trying to relate her ideas when all these people seem to want is "Shashonna," a Madonna-look-alike stripper. And even then, with Shashonna dancing to drum beats that resemble those from "Like a Virgin," there's not much to be said for the audience's enjoyment of the show. The scene in the club throughout the movie is dryer than a bone. A funny scene to catch is of a rotund man from the audience helping Shashonna out of her pants.
But, if she's going down, Sandra's doing so with style and force, conveying everything from foul confidence to punctured vulnerability ... right to the point at which she's naked (literally), pleading for acceptance and yet somehow still swimming in the pool of her own transparent stardom. Her depictions of interactions with the likes of Calvin Klein, Jerry Lewis, Bianca Jagger, Ralph Lauren and (what we're lead to believe is) Warren Beatty are fictional and hilarious.
Sandra begins her show in her most awkward moment, performing a quiet but mystifying rendition of Nina Simone's song "Four Women" while dressed in a mufti and other African garb, singing lines such as "my skin is black," "my hair is wooly," and "they call me Sweet Thing."
She resurrects and celebrates the ghosts of underworld art in a tremendously funny description of the frenzied estate auction for Andy Warhol: "Leave it to Andy to have the wisdom and sensitivity into the hours and hours of toil and labor that went into the Indian product ... that they've been so lucky to cash in on this whole Santa Fe thing happening."
She expounds on the excessiveness of Hollywood, consoling a distraught friend then admonishing him, saying "Mister, if this is about Ishtar, I'm getting up right now and walking out of your life forever because that's too self-indulgent even for me!"
Sandra illustrates the expectations of women in the age of feminism. Dressed as a Cosmo girl, Sandra retells her young-girl fantasy to become an executive secretary and marry her boss. She eventually concludes in relief, "I'll never be a statistic, not me. I'm under 35, and I'm going to be married!"
Sandra extols the opening of sexuality in society: "When he touches you in the night, does it feel all right, or does it feel real? I say it feels real... MIGHTY real."
Finally, she cries for change in progressive American society by channeling disco greats Patrick Cowley and Sylvester and proclaiming, "Eventually everyone will funk!"
All this comes in the form of glitzy, schmaltzy but wonderful cabaret performances of songs written and originated by Billy Paul, Burt Bacharach, Hank Williams and Laura Nyro, to name a few. At the same time, the idealized, fictional incarnation of Sandra -- her self-generated mirror image -- floats around town, a beautiful black model with flowing gowns and tight bustiers reading the Kabala, studying chemistry and listening to NWA rap music.
In Without You I'm Nothing, Sandra Bernhard explores emotions and existences that, up until then, she'd only toyed with as a regular guest on Late Night With David Letterman. Her almost child-like enthusiasm for shock, exhibited throughout the '80s, is thrown aside in the face of a subtler allure, and her confidence in the face of materialism and American celebrity proves refreshing. This approach to comedy would change Sandra's direction forever and mark the more mature, more personable entertainer to come.
If you like subtle humor to the point of engaging in inside jokes about glamour, celebrity, sex, loneliness, despair and shallow expressions of love and kinship, this movie will keep you in stitches. It may not be meant to be funny across the board. Perhaps it's a bit unsettling or even maudlin for some. But consider the emptiness of the world Sandra paints for you, and you'll understand just how funny and brilliant she really is.
But see Without You I'm Nothing with a friend "in the know" because it's definitely funnier that way. Before you know it, the two of you will be trading Sandra barbs and confusing the hell out of everyone else.
Mulholland Dr. (2001)
Not just images, landscape and logic buggery here
It begins with a jitterbug, ends with a suicide, and seems to spike through everything both hopeful and hopeless about L.A.'s film industry in between. David Lynch's Mulholland Dr. may very well be his single best achievement in noiresque narrative mixed with his trademark skips and jumps in logic. Brilliantly acted, shot, edited, mixed and scored, Mulholland Dr. may or may not make sense to what no doubt will be a bewildered viewer, but the images conveyed in the interim prove unforgettable.
Read about the plot in the "Plot Outline" link or in the external reviews by Roger Ebert, David Edelstein or Kenneth Turan. I want to present something else here: the notion that what you're seeing does, in fact, exhibit a logic and brilliantly plays on so many emotional levels that, taken as a whole, Mulholland Dr. can unsettle not just those who don't get it but, worse still, those who do.
So many reviewers use the term "dream" to describe this film, and Lynch himself cleverly quips the tagline "A love story in the city of dreams." I won't go into every detail in order to completely spoil someone else's first-time enjoyment of the film, but let me go far enough to ask that you consider that what's shown is a dream through most of the movie and that the rest is a mix of imagination, delusion, memory, guilt, and sheer disgust, all made to counter the illusions just shown to you.
Consider that much of what you're seeing isn't just coming from the mind of Lynch as filmmaker but from the dreamer as the one sometimes incorrectly interpreting L.A.'s lifestyle. Even Betty, the movie's heroine, refers to where she is as a "dream place."
Consider that the Club Silencio is where the dreamer reaches the closest point to realizing the truth without being told it, where the environment of the dream is revealed, where the song elucidates more than just a point about the dimensions of sight and sound when they're not real: it uncovers a true feeling underscoring the entire dream. The song is sung in Spanish, one more way to show that it's not completely real or understandable while, at the same time, it teems with a very real, underlying feeling that brought the dreamer to her dream and, later, to her unflinching, gruesome reality. It's as if the Spanish singer is speaking the emotion but in a way that keeps the dreamer from fully realizing it.
Consider that Betty and Rita, as the critics put it, are archetypes of the dream but that Laura Elena Harring's and Naomi Watts' characters in the end, after a jarring switch in identities, are also archetypes but, unfortunately, pale-faced reflections of what we know and what is true not just about Hollywood but about life in general. The movie isn't just about image or illusion. It embodies the always contradictory but yet congregational experiences of lust, greed, hatred, ambition, luck, vengeance, guilt, manipulation, storytelling, love, and silence. It shows us how one person's fortune can become another person's aching, how one person's jealousy can be another's nourishment. It also forces us to consider how you can be jealous of the one you love.
And, just as important, Mulholland Dr. should not merely be looked at as a puzzle whose pieces one can connect if one reads David Lynch's primer on the rear of the insert in the DVD package. Voluptuous images should be taken in and felt without deconstruction. The emotions being played out are very real whether or not the viewer truly understands the plot.
In all, David Lynch has created not just a memorable motion picture but a truly emotional experience.
You're darned tootin'!
"What'd this guy look like anyway?" "Oh, he was a little guy, kinda funny lookin'." "Uh-huh. In what way?" "Just a general way." In that interplay between a Brainerd, MN., police officer and a witness discussing a criminal investigation, you have one of your principal pieces of dialogue from what is considered by many to be Joel and Ethan Coen's finest film. Of course you can draw comparisons to others they've made, such as Blood Simple, Raising Arizona, even Barton Fink and The Big Lebowski. But Fargo illustrates the Coen Brothers' takes on plot, art and drama more succinctly and emotionally than any of those others. Here you have a set of memorable, if not always likable, characters in a plot that goes from clunky to chaotic in the most unspoiled manner, from Jerry Lundegaard's stilted conversation with Gaear and Carl in a bar in Fargo at the beginning of the movie - the only occasion in which the movie specifically shows you Fargo, N.D. - to Marge Gunderson's confrontation with Gaear and the wood-chipper. Frances McDormand deservedly won an Oscar for playing a well-balanced, intelligent, pregnant police officer placing her own straightforward methodology on to an investigation of bizarre goings-on. And William H. Macy gives a true one-two punch playing a frenetically-charged, fearful and, in the end, inept used car salesman trying in the most remarkable manner to make money. The two best scenes in the movie are the two occasions in which Marge questions Jerry about the Brainerd murders and a car from his lot being involved -- I couldn't imagine an actress doing a better job of seriously but comically exclaiming, "He's fleeing the interview!" Notable among the actors as well are Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare playing Carl and Gaear, the two hit men hired by Jerry to help him con his father-in-law out of money. There's comic brilliance watching Stormare silently grimace at Buscemi's violent but gregarious behavior, and Buscemi shines being able to play the most out-of-control of all the characters in the movie. Kristin Rudrüd also stands out playing Jean Lundegaard, Jerry's haplessly kidnapped wife. If you can appreciate an intelligent look at not-always-so-intelligent life on this planet, you'll enjoy the little more than the hour and a half this movie has to show you.
Heavy Metal (1981)
Comic fantasy ... and nothing more
Trying to con Harry Canyon in futuristic New York City ("big deal"), striking a deal with Den, having sex with a robot (or, as he puts it, using "mechanical assistance"), bribing Hanover Fiste to testify on your behalf in court, praying for Taarna to save you. None of these things have anything in common except for the Loch-nar, a green ball supposedly containing the essence and entirety of evil.
It doesn't matter if none of this makes complete sense or if it's even that good in terms of plot construction. This is Heavy Metal!
The concept of this 1981 animated experiment is two-fold: show good and evil in a constant state of flux, and bring to life the richness and erotic energy of the popular animated magazine. Add to that some science fiction, a slight reverence for history (in the beautiful ghoul scene in the WWII B-17) and a juvenile insight into drugs and sex, and you have the definition of my '80s youth culture.
I was one of those kids who'd sneak an issue of Heavy Metal, found on the magazine stands in the local drug store next to the grocery store where my father did his weekly shopping, inside another magazine and stare at the drawings, looking for some violence and humor ... and naked women with bi g breasts. I did the same thing whenever I got my hands on a National Lampoon and, if I was lucky, Hustler.
It's pre-pubescence at its hormonal best! And seeing it again as an adult brings all that excitement back to me. Every story, every piece of music ... God, every shot for that matter -- they all bring me back to being 10 years old and wrestling with my older cousin as she tried to block my eyes when the chick Harry Canyon picks up off the street strips and slides into bed with him to the tune of Journey's "Open Arms."
This movie wasn't meant to be cinematic greatness. It was meant to be a boy's fantasy and his coming of age. Sometimes we take these things too seriously. A good movie is a good movie, and a good memory is a good memory. Let's leave it at that ... and let me get a whiff of that stuff the spaceship pilots have lined along the floor...
The Exorcist (1973)
Horrific and Cinematic Mastery
The surfeit of horror and horror-themed movies topping the box office in the recent weeks as the summer of 1999 ends is evidence of the power that fright holds over moviegoers. We've been glued to our chairs or heckling callously at The Blair Witch Project, The Sixth Sense, Stigmata and others. As a prominent horror movie-maker once said, you never forget the guy who frightens you the first time. That guy can be Leatherface, Jason Vorhees, Freddy Kruger, Norman Bates, an exceptionally large flock of birds in the air, a coven of next-door neighbors in cahoots with a devil-worshiping obstetrician, Guy Woodhouse, Jack Torrance, Henry the Serial Killer ... or Regan MacNeil.
It's odd to think that, with all the suspense and horror movies we've experienced in the past 30 years -- all the serial murderers, the abusing husbands, the ghosts, the obsessive "other" women, the evil nannies and dentists and that Chucky doll that never seems to be properly destroyed -- the experience that tends to put America on edge the most is that of traditional good versus evil. Sure, you can surmise that running from a bunch of crazed slaughterhouse-types wanting to eat you and use your bones as chair legs and your skin as furniture upholstery is something like battling evil. But let's be honest. How does it compare to the look of despair on a mother's face as she sees the one thing she couldn't have realistically imagined: an exorcist coming to drive a demon out of her daughter?
OK, it's a dramatic description ... and far-fetched at that. But watching William Peter Blatty's The Exorcist -- or reading the novel, for that matter -- slowly but mercilessly brings you to that strange sense of dread and hope when that exorcist finally approaches the door and ignores the screaming of the demon upstairs. By then, you're as cold as the scene appears. Somewhere deep inside, your breath is as white as the breath in Regan's bedroom.
The Exorcist marries crafty editing, intelligent storytelling and gripping detail into a single, beautifully told tale of demonic possession and the slow, eventual path toward understanding the need to drive the demon away. With superb acting, notably from Ellen Burstyn, Jason Miller and Linda Blair, all Oscar nominees for this movie, and a still-exceptional series of special, realistic effects, The Exorcist doesn't make promises to scare you. It makes no pretense at all. It just lets the macabre story unfold in front of you. Sure, a lot of people with today's multi-million-dollar special effects sensibilities will laugh off specific details. But what movie today is going to require you to sit through such hellish situations as stabbing-like female masturbation with a crucifix or through such profanity? We don't stomach things like we used to. Perhaps The Exorcist was before its time, but where would we be today without it?
Before you judge a movie, remember its conventions and understand its message. And keep in mind that this movie isn't trying to make you like it or continue watching it. Its seamlessness is based on one simple notion: the story goes on, whether you accept it or not. And the power of Christ compels you.