Posted in Movie Reviews

Smile

"Tell us about that, dear...in your own words"
“Tell us about that, dear…in your own words”

Somewhere during the last three or four decades American film lost its talent to produce good-natured satire. Now everything is played for keeps, mirroring the scorched earth politics that have been the norm in recent memory. Just as an example, I doubt a movie like “His Girl Friday,” released in 1940, could be made today. The left would picket over the gender, ethnic and racial jokes, though the film is most definitely an equal opportunity offender (and funny as hell); the right would complain that the anarchist Earl Williams should have been hanged, and that the poor sheriff was done dirt by the lefty newspaper reporters (that era’s version of the “lamestream media”).

1975’s “Smile,” directed by Michael Ritchie, is the type of gentle satire that’s somehow lost its place in today’s humor. Despite its potshots at those eternal targets, beauty pageants and small town life, there’s a sweetness here. Ritchie leaves you with more winners than losers. He deliberately refrains from inviting the audience to feel superior to the characters; instead, he brings you into their world. Christopher Guest is the only filmmaker working today whose tone approaches that of “Smile,” though he’s definitely more pointed at times.

“Smile” covers the week in which small town Santa Rosa hosts the California state finals for the teen-age Young American Miss pageant. As expected, the event sponsor is the local Chamber of Commerce, among whose leading lights is Big Bob Friedlander (Bruce Dern), car dealer extraordinaire and the pageant’s Chief Judge. Relentlessly optimistic, he’s congenitally unable to open his mouth without a cliché, a catchphrase or a meme tumbling out. As can be imagined, Big Bob’s Number 1 pet peeve is anyone who “wallows in self-pity.” Nevertheless, there’s not one mean bone in his body, so it’s quite painful when events force him to question his values.

His polar opposite is Tommy French (Michael Kidd), a somewhat down on his luck director-choreographer, who’s been reduced to staging local beauty pageants. Despite all this he remains a total pro, and his frequent clashes with the squarely upright Jaycee in charge, Wilson Shears (Geoffrey Lewis), usually find him on the winning side, even if victory comes at a cost. Above all, though, Tommy’s a realist. When a stagehand congratulates him on the fine job he’s done, French wryly replies: “Yeah. I took a nice bunch of high school kids and turned them into Vegas showgirls.”

Watching the newly-minted "Vegas showgirls"
Watching the newly-minted “Vegas showgirls”

Ritchie has a keen eye and a good sense of balance. While he does go after some obvious targets like the smarmy pageant emcee, the above-mentioned Wilson Shears and Brenda DiCarlo (Barbara Feldon), former Young American Miss and now professional martyr married to Andy, the town drunk (Nicholas Pryor), he shows us a fond yet rueful view of small town life. There’s the Elks Bears breakfast honoring the pageant contestants, presided over by the local funeral director (Paul Benedict, who should have been used more), and the Jaycees blowing off steam at their Exhausted Rooster Ceremony (though their rooster garb uneasily resembles the KKK’s white sheets). Yet Ritchie also shows us that Santa Rosa is like every other small town that people need to leave in order to grow up. Not because it’s a bad place—only a stifling one. When Big Bob urges Andy to stay in Santa Rosa to solve his problems, the latter, with a defiant gleam in his eye, replies “Who wants to?”

Ritchie takes a sympathetic view of the pageant contestants. We’re spared the horror of stage mothers and professional coaches; Ritchie is too smart to waste our time with that. Instead, we experience the pageant through the eyes of a contestant, Robin (Joan Prather), a sweet, naive kid who to her surprise catches the fever to win. Then there’s her roommate, Doria (Annette O’Toole, giving the type of performance you remember for years), a pageant veteran who’s used to dealing with horny dermatologists and Vaseline on her teeth to help her maintain that smile, among other travails. Her talent spot in the pageant is perhaps the high point of “Smile”—a striptease scrubbed clean by an accompanying poetry recitation, capped off by an unforgetable ending. This bit alone is worth the cost of the DVD. Trust me.

As Tommy French says, the girls are basically your average high school kids. They’re not goody-goody, they’re certainly not Ginger Rogers—they’re simply playing the game, one whose values Robin questions. We catch her in the middle of a conversation with Doria, who points out: “Boys get paid for making touchdowns. Why shouldn’t a girl get paid for being pretty?” Robin’s reply always gladdens this former band nerd’s heart: “Well, maybe boys shouldn’t get paid for making touchdowns.”

Ultimately Ritchie’s view is somewhat ambivalent. While he shows us the silliness of the pageant and the clichés that prevail (not to mention the loot the winner collects), we also see the camaraderie of the contestants, their refreshing ability to see through a ton of adult b.s. and their resilience. A pity we lose this as we grow older.

“Smile”—a lovely reminder that once upon a time films were actually made for grown-ups.

Advertisements
Posted in Books, Television

Sci-Fi Summer

extant

This summer is pig heaven if you’re a science fiction fan. “Under the Dome” has returned for Round Two of life with Big Jim. “The Leftovers” is ensconced in HBO’s Sunday night lineup. But Wednesday night saw the premiere of a show that may turn out to be the best of the lot, CBS’ “Extant,” with Halle Berry as the “how can she be pregnant?” astronaut.

Watching the pilot episode reminded me of the best of classic sci-fi, the stuff I gobbled up in seventh grade when I first started reading Ray Bradbury, Alfred Bester, Kate Wilhelm and a host of other authors. Despite the futuristic production design (I loved the presentation to the Yasumoto board), the show hit every classic note on the genre scale. You’ve got outer space, robots passing for human (thus the “humanics” designation), possible alien life forms and suspended animation, spiced up with nefarious corporations, conspiracy and just plain old paranoia.

How can you go wrong?

I loved Goran Visnjic (hello Dr. Kovac!) as Halle’s robotics maven husband who pooh-poohs the possibility of any form of robot uprising. That’s one big fat Acme anvil right there. I suspect it won’t be long before he’s disabused of that notion if only by his “son,” the humanic Ethan who, to put it mildly, has something of an aggression problem. The creep factor is enormous: Goran’s workshop with spare humanic parts, Ethan’s abrupt switch from the dead bird to complimenting his mother’s hairstyle, only to be topped by the sudden appearance of a stranger on the space station, tracing “Help Me” on a foggy window. Shudder.

The show runners certainly packed a great deal into one hour, leaving us with a laundry list of questions:

Why was Halle alone on a space station the size of a small city? And for 13 months?

Honey, if your dead first husband shows up and the only words out of his mouth are a monotone repeat of yours, you didn’t get that maybe there’s a problem here?

Why did she erase the tape? Out of fear of a bad performance review? Because good astronauts can’t be caught hallucinating?

I can’t wait until the next episode.

___________________________________________

The Guilty Remnant's Words to Live By
The Guilty Remnant’s Words to Live By

I read Tom Perrotta’s novel, “The Leftovers,” prior to the start of the HBO series, and now I almost wish I hadn’t. While it’s no surprise that the book and TV series are very different in tone, what’s bothersome is that the show suffers for it.

The novel, published in 2011, defies categorization. It’s a stark examination of people coping with unexpected, catastrophic loss (In positing the inexplicable disappearance of 2% of the world’s population, Perrotta obviously drew on 9/11 and the 2004 tsunami). The author provides no explanation for this, though many characters think it’s the Rapture. But contrary to initial expectations, Perrotta’s people for the most part respond in understandable if not always reasonable ways. The novel’s universe doesn’t feel upended. True, there’s a cult-like movement called the Guilty Remnant (see above), which in its discipline bears more than a passing resemblance to Jim Jones’ People’s Temple, and various nuts come out of the woodwork, but life does go on.

However, HBO’s version, co-created by Tom Perrotta, is far darker and dystopian. In no particular order, I don’t remember anyone shooting dogs in the book, though it’s done here, the Kevin Garvey character isn’t the chief of police but the somewhat wealthy mayor of the town, and his son is no killer. For that matter, the Wayne Gilchrist character is a nondescript middle aged man; he and his followers more closely resemble Warren Jeffs and his faction than the crew manning the armed encampment you see in the show. Perhaps the TV version’s biggest failing is the casting of Justin Theroux as Kevin Garvey. He’s a fine actor to be sure, but he’s a walking nerve end, a far cry from the more even-tempered Kevin Garvey we meet on the page.

But dystopia sells, which no doubt is the reason why “The Leftovers” is no longer a meditation on dealing with loss but a sci-fi thriller. I don’t mean this pejoratively; I just think it would have been more interesting to retain the book’s slant for TV, though it would have been difficult to sustain for 13 episodes. But the show is doing an excellent job with the Guilty Remnant, and Jill Garvey’s struggles remain true to Perrotta’s original vision. I intend to keep watching.

Far more fun is the return of “Under the Dome,” as the residents of Chester’s Mill continue their puzzlement over the whys and wherefores. Yes, Junior in essence saved Barbie’s life, and that was indeed Stephen King himself in the diner, asking Angie for a coffee refill. Due to my commuting schedule I’m a week behind, so I can’t wait to see how the McAlisters, Norrie and Carolyn fare under Big Jim’s roof. Just one big happy family? I think not.

 

Posted in Television

Champion Manipulators

One Toxic “Mother-Daughter” Combo

“Orange is the New Black” has come roaring back for its second season on Netflix. It’s always difficult for a smash hit series to maintain that level of excellence, but on balance I think this one has.

We’ve now gotten some pre-prison background on Suzanne (Crazy Eyes), Poussey, Black Cindy, Miss Rosa, Sister Jane and Morello, though we’re still in the dark as to why some of these inmates ended up in Litchfield. But Morello’s story remains a stand-out. We learn she conflated an entire romance with her “fiancé” out of one coffee date, during which he evidently spotted the crazy and dropped her. Whereupon she began to stalk him and his girlfriend, going so far to plant a bomb under the latter’s car. Inasmuch as the luckless object of Morello’s affection is a postal worker, she ended up in a federal pen, creepily smiling her way through her trial. And it even goes downhill from there.

But it’s through Taystee that we meet the sociopath who drives OITNB’s Season Two: Vee, a drug dealer, who ensnares children and teens mired in the foster system into her network of runners and street dealers. She offers them something they’ve never had before—attention, support and family life, of a sort (Dickens’ Fagin comes to mind). She makes it all seem real because she always has her eyes on the prize, as a true sociopath does. In Litchfield she continues to prey upon anyone whom she can use, most pathetically the needy Suzanne, whom she turns into a sadistic henchman always eager for Momma Vee’s love.

The ever-skeptical Red, who knew Vee well during the latter’s earlier period of incarceration, is instantly wary upon their initial encounter in Round Two.  Paybacks abound in terms of territory taken and who runs which racket, until Red, incensed that Vee is dealing drugs inside the prison, tries but fails to strangle her. Vee’s heartfelt call for a truce results in Red’s letting her guard down, to her extreme detriment. But the way the story ultimately plays out is satisfying indeed.

The Academy of Television Arts and Sciences better start inscribing that Emmy now, because it belongs to Lorraine Toussaint for her portrayal of Vee. Whether warm, shrewd or coldly manipulative, there’s not one wrong note in her performance. She strikes exactly the right pitch between realism and larger than life; when she’s on-screen you want even more Vee though you’re totally appalled at what she does. Until this point Lorraine Toussaint has been best known for her appearances on multiple TV shows, including her recurring role as a defense attorney on “Law & Order” and more recently as Sheri Saum’s mother on “The Fosters” (great “Fosters” tweet the other night about grandma being in the pen). But what a break-out role Vee is turning out to be.

There are other things to savor in OITNB: that weird friendship between Pennsatuckey and Healey; Sophia instructing the other inmates re: the design and function of their ladyparts; more Piper and Alex, past and present. But watching Nicky struggle with Vee’s bribe of drugs (was I the only one yelling “Don’t do it!” at the screen?), only to turn the stuff over to Red was perhaps the most heartfelt moment of the season. The funniest by far? Pornstache’s perp walk as he shouts pregnancy advice to Daya (“Don’t eat tuna fish!”). When I read that Mary Steenburgen would be playing his Mom next season, all I could think was “Pornstache has a mother?!?” Good times are definitely ahead.

_____________________________________________________________________________

She’s Finally Got Your Number, Jackie

I’ve been a fan of “Nurse Jackie” since the beginning, and I’m amazed that after six seasons this show still has the ability to surprise, though not necessarily in a good way. Edie Falco continues to play that most anti- of anti-heroines who seems to sink lower with each episode. Yes, she’s a pill gobbling addict and the hallmark of addiction is that the junk comes before everything—husband/boyfriend, children, friends and conscience—but in the long run can this really be entertainment?

The end of last season saw Jackie relapse on the one-year anniversary of her sobriety, and this year she’s so overboard with the meds she’s managed to (a) steal a doctor’s DEA number to facilitate her trips to the pharmacy (b) entice a dying nun to take the rap for it (c) dump her terrific, supportive cop boyfriend at least twice in super-nasty fashion (d) lure her sponsor into relapse and then trick her into signing herself into rehab on the false promise that she (Jackie) would enter the program with her (e) destroy her rebuilt relationship with her ex-husband by bringing her dealer to the ex’s wedding, and worst of all (f) alienate her supervisor and co-workers by refusing to enter a diversionary program after nearly killing a patient while being high as a kite at work. There’s even more, and it’s all told in twelve increasingly depressing episodes.

It’s tough to watch. Jackie seemed to exhibit no remorse whatsoever, except in the last episode when it finally dawned on her that even her younger daughter has had enough. And yet she still has good old Eddie (Paul Schulze), her pharmacist sidekick, as her enabler. Now there’s a dysfunctional relationship for you—no matter how badly she behaves, she can always cast that line to reel him back in, and he seemingly has no other significant person in his life. At various points I thought he might be breaking away, first when he gave O’Hara a ride on his motorcycle (Eve Best, please come back!), and this season, when he hung out with Antoinette, Jackie’s sponsor (Julie White, who’s been a breath of fresh air). But once again he paved the way for Jackie’s escape from responsibility, soon thwarted by a car accident and her subsequent DUI arrest.

Despite my misgivings about the direction the show has taken, there’s some very fine acting on display here. In addition to Ms. Falco, Anna Deavere Smith is tremendous as Gloria Akalitus, Jackie’s supervisor, and Merritt Wever rightly deserved that Emmy she won as Zoe Barkow, no longer Jackie’s protegé but a true peer who finally sees through all her lies. Dr. Fitch Cooper has even become fun to watch, thanks to Peter Facinelli’s charm; I only wish the show runners had brought back his two moms, but I suppose Blythe Danner/Judith Light and/or Swoosie Kurtz was/were unavailable.

“Nurse Jackie” will be back for a seventh season, and at this point it’s hard to see how she’ll be able to put her life back together. It will literally be kill or cure time.