Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Nitpicking Tim Burton's Sweeney Todd, 2007

**Lots of bitching and minor spoilers to follow. You done been warned!**

I don't think you could call me a musical geek. Save for my delight in Busby Berkeley spectacles and Gene Kelly-era shenanigans, along with a middle school obsession with Phantom of the Opera (it was, like, so deep!), a lot of modern Broadway stuff leaves me cold and uncomfortable. Especially these days, when they try to cover up the cheese with laughable self-seriousness. Basically, once the 1960s got fully under way, the genre lost a lot of its zing.

Sweeney Todd is an exception, though. True, when handled incorrectly it can be just as ridiculously self-serious as any musical out today (a point I'm about to explore with the movie), but when it's done right, you really see what Stephen Sondheim was going for.

When I was young I took singing lessons, and I remember that when I first sang "Green Finch and Linnet Bird," I thought, hm. Pretty song. What's it from? Oh, Sweeney Todd. That musical about cannibals. Wait, whaaaa?

So, I looked it up and kind of fell in love with it.

Macabre comedy (Macabredy?) is key to this Grand Guignol piece of ridiculousness, otherwise you lose the whole spirit of it. For all that I've read a great deal of criticism about it, perhaps my favorite performance I've seen of Sweeney is the DVD of the 1982 tour starring George Hearn and Angela Lansbury as Todd and Mrs. Lovett. The cast in general is loopy and overblown, which is exactly how you can get away with singing such melodramatic material. So much of the dialogue is tongue-in-cheek, mocking yet at the same time celebrating the Penny Dreadfuls Sondheim and playwright Christopher Bond took inspiration from.

The most deplorable part of Burton's film treatment is the lack of dark humor, which you think would be a natural for him.

Let's break down my issues with this movie:

1. The casting. What breaks my heart about movie musicals these days is that seasoned Broadway actors are so seldom given the chance to show off on the big screen anymore. Because musicals are considered a kiss of death to Hollywood producers nowadays, apparently the only way a director can get their film off the ground is to cast big names. This. Sucks. Sorry, everyone, but Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter? They cannot sing. Depp can do a passable "David Bowie With Slight Laryngitis" imitation, but that's it. I mean, I know Lansbury doesn't have the most conventionally gorgeous pipes herself, but at least her voice has character and power. Bonham Carter's does not.

Which leads to my biggest problem: Bonham Carter. Or more correctly....

 2. Bonham Carter's characterization, and the characterizations in general. Hers is lacking in power and humor. Most people love Bonham Carter, but I must admit she's not one of my favorites, usually. In my mind she tries too hard in most of her roles to play the moody, cryptic type, and she just ends up coming across stiff and lackluster. She was pretty badass in Fight Club, I will admit, mostly because I think her Marla is almost a parody of that type of role, and she reveals a little more vulnerability by the end, along with Ed Norton. Basically, Fight Club finally gives her a chance to breathe in one of her roles. She was all right as Queen Elizabeth in The King's Speech, but quite frankly, that part didn't require any heavy lifting on her part, outside of being King Charles' loving support system.

But her Mrs. Lovett is just pitiful in my opinion. Yet I can't really blame her. I was all ready to when I first saw the movie, but after doing my research, apparently Burton himself told her to scale down the spunky comedy in her interpretation. @#:AHDFDDWew?!??! Look, I know one of the chief concerns a director has when transferring a musical to the screen is cutting down the broadness of the piece, since on the big screen, that can be overwhelming and corny. But at the same time, I think anyone going into a movie musical has the ability to adjust expectations from "This is a slice of life piece of realism" to "Oh, hey, the characters are going to sing. Probably not going to be the most realistic thing I've ever seen, but what the heck, probably worth a chuckle."

And if Burton was truly concerned about cutting down the wackiness (though at his best that was Burton's chief charm!), he could have at least let Bonham Carter break loose, because heaven knows Depp is dreary enough. Not a hint of melodramatic humor at all in his Sweeney, just puh-puh-poker faced and grim, with an inappropriate level of serious intensity. You know what? That's fine, so long as Mrs. Lovett makes up for it with her zaniness. Someone way back on my beloved IMDb boards put it well, that Mrs. Lovett should be the Kurt Weill-bawdy-bar singer to Todd's morose Wagnerian anti-hero. This contrast works not only in lifting the movie's tone, but also demonstrates what's great about their dynamic: for all Lovett's misplaced infatuation, she just doesn't get Todd. They both have the creepy bloodlust, true, and they unite beautifully for A Little Priest, but that's all they share. Not the basis for a good relationship, and why Mrs. Lovett is so hilarious is because she totally thinks it is.

So of course for the gloomy fangirls who want to be Helena Bonham Carter, Burton and screenwriter John Logan take her "love" seriously. Pleugh. Not only is Bonham Carter far too conventionally attractive for the role, but her sad eyes watching Depp's Todd with sincere yearning, untouched by madness, kills any dark comedy of the situation right there. It's not even tragicomic. Not even tragic. Just annoying and unnecessary, since we already have a serious love story in Todd's feelings for his lost Lucy. In the original musical, Sondheim makes it clear that not even Johanna and Anthony, the two ingenues, are to be taken so seriously.

 And here we are at another example of Burton missing the mark: Johanna and Anthony. Okay, okay, if you want to make Todd and Lovett parched and steeped in darkness, at least give us some light comedy in the form of those two adolescent space cadets, Todd's blonde daughter and that Dudley Do-Right of a sailor. True, Betsy Joslyn in the 1982 DVD definitely went too far making Johanna a caricature, since every musical needs a balance between parody and sincerity (even though often that's a pretty pukey combination). Cris Groenendaal was just about perfect.

So what does Burton do? Makes them even flatter than his Todd and Lovett, since, hey, Jayne Wisener (Johanna) and Jamie Campbell Bower (Anthony) aren't Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter, so get the f$&k out of the shot, will you? This is his biggest disservice, the way he pushes aside these two young and obviously talented newcomers in order to squeeze in more scenes of Depp and Bonham Carter brooding. And the youngsters are not very well directed when they are onscreen. I admit that Wisener, though in possession of a well trained voice, just might not be much of an actress. However, you think Burton could have gotten a better expression out of her face than the total blank slate she wears when she thinks she's about to be murdered in one of the last scenes.

Johanna gets the biggest shaft of all. Even her triumphant moment in Fogg's Asylum, when she unknowingly does her papa proud by shooting Fogg when Anthony wimps out, is taken away from her in the film.

3. And let's talk about the songs that are cut. The bulk of them are Johanna and Anthony's. "Green Finch" loses most of its verses, "Ah, Miss" is taken out, and the worst crime of all is the loss of the "Kiss Me" duets. Those encapsulate the dumb teenager aspect of their dynamic that's very sweet at the same time. A lot of supporters of the film will go, "Well, no one really cares about Johanna and Anthony anyways, so big loss!" Yeah, their characters are ridiculous and queasy, but they're supposed to be. They provide a happy ending to the musical, and Johanna is a driving motivation to a lot of the characters. It's important the two are done right, and they most emphatically are not done right here. They're sapped of any energy or interest.

Theirs aren't the only songs to be butchered. First of all, we're missing The Ballads, because God Forbid a musical movie have some of the framing device of an actual musical. People have talked to death about the folly in cutting them, so what I'll focus on is how strange it is Burton takes out the songs but keeps in the theme. You can't have your cake and eat it too, Burton! Makes no sense! "Ladies in their Sensitivities" likewise makes no sense, because the whole part where the Beadle actually sings those words is taken out, seeing as Timothy Spall (though his oily creepiness is great) probably couldn't sing the notes needed. Man, think how rad someone like Nathan Lane would have been in the role. Oh, well! Nathan Lane wasn't in Sleepy Hollow, now was he?

"God, That's Good!" suffers a similar fate. Why? Because the lyrics "God, That's Good" are sung by the chorus of customers, and, well, Burton didn't want to film a chorus of singers. Well. Okie-doke, then. Why bother, really? All this musical nonsense is so tiring, after awhile. Hey, let's get a shot of Depp glowering into the camera! More! More!

"By the way, I was being sarcastic!"
"Well, duh."

And despite all these cuts, Mrs. Lovett's filler song "Wait" is left in untouched. Hm.

So, I've harped on and on about what I didn't like in the movie, so was there anything I did? Sure.

1. The flashback sequences. We're actually given a color palette that isn't grayish blue! There's a nice, eerie nightmare feeling to them, where everything's a bit off in the bright color scheme, that better captures the original musical's atmosphere. And I like seeing more of the young Lucy, since her limited presence is one of the disadvantages of the stage.

All the fangirls hate Lucy, none more so than the Burton fangirls who, like I mentioned above, want to be Helena Bonham Carter and want to make out with Johnny Depp. And on top of all that, Lucy's a blonde! Cardinal sin to our Hot Topic youth! The intense detestation of her character is mind-boggling. Yeah, I can get behind pettily hating the pretty blonde meself, since there are few characters I loathe more than Leila Kalomi in the This Side of Paradise episode of Star Trek.  But I tend to be a stinker, and almost unconsciously gravitate toward whoever's the underdog in the public eye. These days, it's the fresh-faced ingenue. The public doesn't have time for the type anymore. They're clingy, useless, blah blah blah. So of course, I've been digging that type more than, say, recent characters like Bonham Carter's interpretation of Lovett. Let's face it, characters like her are honestly just as clingy and pining as the worst ingenue, but they get away with it in this more sassy and cynical day and age because they do it with, well, sass and cynicism.

But damn, Lucy mother-effing suffers. More than anyone else in the musical, in my opinion. She's not some twit who wanders in and steals Todd away from Lovett. She was married to him, had a kid, and then her husband was taken away and she was gang-raped and driven to suicide (well, let's be fair, according to Mrs. Lovett). Look, I love Mrs. Lovett as a hilariously demented sidekick. Not as a serious love interest, heck no. And I've read some seriously appalling comments about how "Lucy is just as bad as Judge Turpin, because she poisons herself instead of looking after Johanna." Ohhh boy, does that make my head spin. First of all, that is not as bad as gang-rape, any way you slice it. And no, I don't condone suicide, but I'd challenge any of us to think straight after going through what she did. My guess is she probably convinced herself in her unhinged mind that Johanna would be better off without her. Probably didn't predict Judge Turpin would swoop down and adopt 'er!

Anyways, I've been sidetracked. Uhhh...the flashback sequences! Yes! Quite good. Laura Michelle Kelly, though perhaps not as classically beautiful as one would have liked in a Lucy, exudes a genuine warmth that makes her likable. We feel the injustice she suffers, and I can't see how anyone wouldn't sympathize with her throughout. In a few short, silent scenes, she's memorable.

 2. The "By the Sea" sequence is well done, if it wasn't for Bonham Carter's weak voice spoiling the boisterous mood. But the outlandishly skewered settings and costumes are brilliant, one of the few scenes that illustrates Mrs. Lovett's funtime insanity.

3. As always, Colleen Atwell does well in the costuming department, though Mrs. Lovett's dresses sometimes veer too much toward the aforementioned Hot Topic demographic.

4. Alan Rickman as Judge Turpin. Man can do very little wrong. The film could have used more of him, though I understand why they cut the second "Johanna" song. After all, so do a lot of the stage productions. Sacha Baron Cohen surprisingly did quite right by his singing, though strangely, I was surprised how restrained his Pirelli was. I like the sinister undertone, but still feel like he could have been even funnier.

5. Changing Toby from a Faulknerian Man-Child (as The Onion would say) into a little boy. Ed Sanders has an angelic voice that, quite frankly, totally outsings Bonham Carter in "Not While I'm Around." Making him a little boy is easier to understand than having him as a grown man, because it's never quite explained if he really is even impaired, though he certainly acts childish. Then again, he's very silver-tongued in "Pirelli's Miracle Elixir." What is his story, anyhow? Actually, the same goes for a child Toby, too: why would Pirelli hire a small boy to sing about losing and growing hair? Toby's just kind of a weird, unrealized character.

Well, look at that! Five things I liked, versus the three above I didn't! Um, that still doesn't mean I like the movie more than I disliked it. No, I still was mostly disappointed.

Look. Let me defend myself, o fanatical Burton worshipers. I like Burton at his best: Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands (can't watch without crying), the brilliant Ed Wood, and my very beloved Nightmare Before Christmas. But as you see, all four of those have an insane comic intensity, which is totally lacking in Sweeney Todd. Sweeney Todd just feels HEAVY. Not as in, "She's so....(guitar solo)....HEAVAAAAAAY!", but as in, "ugh, I'm exhausted by all this dreary-ass, miserable stuff that's happening, kill me now" heaviness.

And I know a film adaptation is of course going to be different from a staged musical. That's good. Why see a filmed play when you can just see a play? There are ways these days. Films open up the action, make it seem more immediate. But really? I don't see any reason to mess with the tone too much. Scale it down from someone standing with jazz hands in a spot light, but keep the comedy and the energy, super please.

And sooooo many people have harped on and on about how Sondheim was totally there during the casting process, and totally gave the thumbs-up for Bonham Carter and Depp. Eh, well, whatever. Who knows what really went on. Maybe he saw Bonham Carter before Burton told her to tone down her Lovett, back when she was trying to make the mad baker likable and kooky. Either way, though, I don't know what makes everyone automatically assume Sondheim's a casting expert.Yeah, he wrote the libretto and the music, but he stepped back and let Harold Prince direct and do the casting for the original London and (unless I'm wrong) Broadway version. I figure Sondheim recognized his limitations. After all, Truman Capote wanted Marilyn Monroe for Holly Golightly, not Audrey Hepburn. I read the book, and I do not see Monroe at all in his descriptions of Holly. Hepburn, yes (actually, more than either of them, I see Tuesday Weld. But I think it's been established by now what a lunatic fan of hers I am). When a director is showing you his girlfriend and his best friend, and it's only a screentest out of context, you might just be unconsciously driven to give them the okay before you really know how they'll do in the long-run. Maybe he was thrilled by their finished performances, who knows. But I wasn't. So there, blogosphere! What's it to ya?

I've tried looking at the movie from fresh eyes, like someone who didn't know the musical. Maybe I'd have been more impressed. But something about Depp's rigidity and Bonham Carter's droopiness, not to mention their lousy singing, just kept the whole thing from being any fun. And as you can tell by now, I like my macabre fun (dude I totally saw 1968's Dracula Has Risen From The Grave last night and it was sooooo good!). A musical, whether it be onstage or on film, should at least be fun.

All this makes me slightly nervous about the upcoming Dark Shadows movie, but I'm cheered by the fact that Seth Grahame-Smith--author of Pride & Prejudice & Zombies and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter--is penning the tale, not John Logan. Now I'm only fretting it will be too tongue-in-cheek. Oh dear, oh dear, sniff! Then I remember Michelle Pfeiffer, Eva Green, Chloe Moretz, and Jackie Earle Haley are in it (with cameos from the original cast and maybe even Christopher Lee!), and I feel better about the world. Burton needs a sturdy screenplay and an equally sturdy cast to come off. He's no Hitchcock who could make a great film even with John Gavin as the steady.

I would like to conclude by saying I've never felt more like the Comic Book Guy than I do having written this...shall I say....snippy?....griping? "Worst. Movie Adaptation of a Victorian Cannibal Musical. Ever."

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Speaking of The Simpsons...PREPARE TO BE TRAUMATIZED

Apropos my Mindy Simmons post a few weeks back, I figured why not pay further tribute to The Simpsons by celebrating with this little bijou? A realistic rendering of Mr. Burns rising out of a nuclear tower from the waist up, like some kind of radioactive centaur!

Shot taken from this guy's blog 


All...all I was looking for was a picture of Will There Ever Be A Rainbow, Mr. Burns's autobiography. Why did this have to happen?

Anyways, sharing the visual torture. The torture that's also secretly delightful. To wash your eyes out so you'll still like me, here's the cover I was talking about:

Taken from this tumblr

"Hello, my name is Mr...Snrub. Yes, that will do."

See? Much better.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Light In The Piazza (1962)--*SPOILERS!*, As Always

I first became acquainted with Light in the Piazza’s story in college, when a professor had us read When Madeline Was Young by Jane Hamilton. Hamilton wrote in her introduction that she was inspired by Elizabeth Spencer’s original story, and both share at their center not so much a disabled woman's struggles, but a family member who must adjust expectations and perceptions to make life adaptable for the brain-damaged girl.

Later I gained a passing knowledge of the musical, though I have as yet to read the book. However, seeing as I’m me and I like moving pictures of the older variety, I was happy enough recently when I was finally the given the chance to watch the 1962 movie starring Olivia de Havilland and Yvette Mimieux as the mother and the girl, respectively.

I’ve already given away the key plot point that we figure out only about ten minutes in, when Meg Johnson (de Havilland) informs her daughter's tutor Miss Hawtree (Isabel Dean in a thankless role that exists only for exposition) that the beautiful Clara (Mimieux) suffered an accident as a child and therefore has the mental age of a child of ten (that’s what de Havilland tells us, anyways, but Clara’s behavior seems younger than ten to me. Then again, I don’t know kids good). 

 Clara and her understandably protective mother are on vacation in Florence, Italy. There they encounter Fabrizio Naccarelli, a young Italian man played by a very young and Warren Beattyish George Hamilton—and keep encountering him, as he has his sights set on the lovely, charmingly childlike Clara. Whether because of the language barrier or cultural differences, neither Fabrizio nor his extended family recognizes Clara’s impairment, seeing only an angelically simple girl.

Meanwhile, Meg’s anxiety and indecisiveness about the proper way to handle this grows and grows.

For such a tense situation, there is surprisingly little pay-off sometimes. Situations are set-up but just sort of peter out without the proper reactions you expect. For example, when she first meets Fabrizio's family, Clara acts a little too excited about the Nacarrellis' dog, then chases after it when it leaves the room. The family somehow doesn't find this odd but instead "delightful," especially since she's then charmingly enchanted by a painting of Baby Jesus. They then laugh off her request for a baby brother from her mother, and apparently ignore the straight face Clara wears when she asks this. If director Guy Green was aiming for the realism of unfulfilled tension—the sort of tension that builds and builds without ever exploding, just always simmering beneath the surface—I think he partly went around it the wrong way. He shifted too much of the focus that should have gone to this bubbling suspense on making almost a travelogue for Italy, including numerous loving shots of Florence's landscape.

A former cinematographer who famously collaborated with David Lean on Great Expectations, Green comes across as perfunctorily devoting too much of the story’s time surveying the Italian sunsets and festivals, not to mention all that nauseatingly glorious technicolor everywhere. He introduces potentially colorful characters who never go anywhere. Fabrizio’s overweight cousin, playboy brother, flashy sister-in-law are explicitly introduced and then just sit there without contributing anything meaningful. At least in the musical, there’s the explosive scene at the wedding rehearsal where Clara goes beserk chastising the sister-in-law for getting too friendly with Fabrizio in order to make her husband jealous. Overall, the movie just seems too long, and that it could have ended several times before it finally does. A lot of this is due to scenes packed in merely to remind us, Hey! We're in Italy! Look at Italy! Glimmering water! Gorgeous statues! Hilarious but romantic side characters! Italy!

 Let it be said, though, that the scenes Green shoots that do capture that tension are pretty great. The one that stands out in my mind is a manic coach ride Meg takes on a whim while sorting out her thoughts. The coachman is far too fast for the genteel Meg, and the horses rattle down crowded, narrow Florence streets, and the camerawork perfectly captures that sickly feeling of a ride that keeps going faster and faster, while you have no control to stop it. This tension is likewise painted on de Havilland’s face: at first, she tries desperately to hold on to some semblance of brave dignity, tight-lipped and stoic. Nevertheless, a pale fear casts over her face, until she sharply demands to be let out.

 For a movie like this, that tends to lose its focus, actors are key to grounding it. I wouldn’t call de Havilland’s performance remarkable or anything, but her subtlety does get at you. She’s no flashy Southern matron straight from the pages of Steel Magnolias—Thank God. At times she borders on coming across too cold, but we as an audience sense the love and anxiety that enforces this stiffness. After all, through most of the movie she’s determined to get rid of Fabrizio, without hopefully having to reveal why. So she gives him the cold shoulder at every opportunity, while never being anything less than polite. Yet the propriety and reservations change drastically when Clara’s father enters the picture.

Played by Barry Sullivan, Noel Johnson, Meg’s husband and Clara’s father, is perhaps the most unfair representation in the movie. In fact, the two older male characters are pretty much given the shaft—Rossano Brazzi’s Signor Naccarelli is a sensual enigma, and while he’s given the most screentime along with de Havilland and Mimieux, we’re never quite sure where he’s coming from.  He talks a lot, but his benign, slightly sleazy expressions seem to negate everything he says, so it’s hard to get a grip on his motives in pushing the relationship between his son and Clara. Meg pretty much bribes him with Clara's dowry, yet she points out to Noel that the Naccarellis are wealthy themselves. What's his deal?

But returning to Noel, if he had been played more sensitively or directed more sensitively, perhaps we’d feel more genuinely conflicted about whose side to take: his or Meg’s. Because really, Noel’s arguments often make sense. What will happen to Clara when her parents die? He says he’s done his research into the establishment she’d go to, and that it’s a good place where they can visit her every day. A combination of independent and assisted living might be more ideal, but was that really a viable option back then? And Meg truly is unrealistic—and vaguely bigoted—when she asserts that Clara will never have anything more to do as a wealthy Italian wife than to sit still and look pretty. “The grandmothers really take care of the children.” All right, so what happens when Clara’s a grandmother?

Like I said, many of Noel’s arguments make sense, but we’re not allowed to sympathize with him. Why? Because it’s very clear that he’s not motivated out of pure concern for Clara, but because the toll raising her has taken on Meg makes it difficult for him to have sex with his wife. How base of him, how uncaring! He’s short with both wife and daughter. He's just plain unlikable. 

Frankly, he’s a stereotype of the small-minded rich American businessman, and that’s disappointing in a movie that tries to bring together so many varying cultures in harmony: American, Italian, disabled. This portion of the film is a let-down. 

Yet there’s no denying that Noel’s decision to place Clara in an institution is the deciding factor in Meg’s life, bringing about a huge shift in her character. After spending the first half of the movie doing everything she can think of to keep them apart, she now decides she’ll stop at nothing to get Clara safely married to Fabrizio.

I argue that this bold move does not indicate Meg growing stronger as a character, but that she’s instead finally snapped, and convinced herself to believe in a delusion. Because even though her love for her daughter is pure and genuine, this is still an incredibly selfish act from the standpoint of the unknowing Naccarellis', and from Clara’s standpoint, too. Meg isn’t going to look after Clara anymore, Fabrizio is. She’s essentially dumped Clara on him and his family, just as Noel wanted to dump her in an institution. Different gilded cage but with the same bars for the hapless Clara, with the addition of domestic responsibility: just how much does Clara know about the birds and the bees? Does she know what to expect on her wedding night? Does she have the wherewithal to stand pregnancy? Especially in a household where English is not the first language--and for her mother-in-law, not one of her languages at all? Such questions require more than a mother’s faith, particularly if that mother is no longer in charge.

The movie doesn’t falter leaving these questions open-ended; it’s good that there’s controversy. It’s a tough subject. We want Clara to be happy, but will she be for long, or Fabrizio? The tone for all this does seem a bit off, though. The cheery bright colors and de Havilland’s Christian Dior outfits, along with the broad comedy from the Naccarellis, aren’t the only parts that jar with the angsty material. In the last scene, as Clara and Fabrizio make their way to the car after the wedding, Clara stoops down and eats one of the flower petals the guests threw at their feet. A quick look of apprehension crosses Meg’s face, but dissipates as Fabrizio leans down to eat one, too. While this is a heartwarming scene in a way, it does feel a little bit like a cheat: see, these two kids get each other! Don’t worry your pretty little early ‘60s noggins about Clara’s future.

However, hokey as that scene may seem, it does lead to the last line, when Meg smiles eerily and says emphatically, “I’ve done the right thing.” De Havilland’s delivery lets the audience know that she’s not done right in a moral sense, but for her peace of mind. Meg just might be losing it; why else does she lackadaisically let Signor Naccarelli kiss her, then act like a sultry coquette who withdraws her favors the next moment? She’s testing the waters of her freedom, but her freedom from what? She’ll always love Clara, so it’s not at all that she wants to get rid of her. No, she wants to get rid of the obligation to play by society’s rules that have been laid out for her daughter, and for herself. She wants that “normal” daughter, but because she can’t, she’ll get that daughter a “normal” life, even if that means turning her back on her own typical role, that of the completely faithful wife and controlling mother. 

Clara’s marriage isn’t so much about securing Clara’s future as it is about Meg letting loose in her own. This is ironic, seeing as Meg's freedom means trapping Clara in that same world of conservative marriage, where this carefree, childlike girl will be expected to eventually fall in line as the wise mother figure. Meg does not maliciously place Clara in this position; this mother's simply so far gone in her delusion of a happy life for Clara she bowls over such details. De Havilland’s cool performance covers a clever and buzzing mind that slowly loses itself in her character's great love for her daughter, and she gracefully gets across the quiet tragedy of this situation when the direction fails to.

Other than de Havilland, the only standout performance I can think of is Mimieux as Clara. Her portrayal probably doesn't rank up there with all the Leonard DiCaprios in What’s Eating Gilbert Grapes, the pantheon of realistic renderings of intellectually disabled characters. However, she does do wonders. As always, I go more for unique spark and style over realism that's dolorous for the sake of "honesty," and Mimieux's giddy charm makes it clear why she’s had so many gentleman callers, and why Fabrizio would be so taken with her. To accomplish that, it really can’t be too obvious she’s disabled. Her best scene is when she and her parents are dining in an outside cafe in Rome, and her parents push her to leave the country without seeing Fabrizio again. She turns hysterical, and for one of the few times in the movie, Noel and Meg work in unison out of mutual concern, getting her to a taxi. Mimieux makes the shift to Clara’s hyperventilating and babbling a realistic transition that feels true to the character. The image of her frantic shaking and yelling at the table stays with you.

It’s one of the few times we see the ugly side of Clara’s impairment, and it’s a good choice to make it so brief; we see throughout that Clara is charming in her innocence, and at times we feel almost a condescension to her character from the filmmakers, that she’s no more than a pretty little doll that can't grow up (Meg says that’s the one consolation she takes from her daughter’s condition). However, this scene reminds us that this bright Florence fairytale will have to end sometime, that Fabrizio’s steady hands on her temples might not always calm Clara. For now, he eats the flower with her, but will he always? That dark edge of hysteria in Clara exists in Meg, too, and also behind the glittering cinematography and fashionable setting.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

If I Could Be One Fictional Character, I'd Be Mindy Simmons

Keep in mind this was The Simpsons at its best, Season Five's The Last Temptation of Homer. Season Five was a solid time for the series, before the creative team stretched themselves too hard trying to match the more random, manic, and less character-driven formulas that might work for such shows as South Park and occasionally Family Guy, but a recipe that often falls flat on The Simpsons. Yet conversely, the show had also been around long enough to produce episodes more confident and sophisticated than some of the very early Season One shows that, despite many golden moments of their own, had yet to really establish that classic Simpsons rhythm. Most fans agree Seasons 3-6 were probably the series at its absolute best.

It is in this perfect era we meet Mindy Simmons. She's some kind of engineer who's been brought in to put the Affirmative in the nuclear power plant's fledgling Action. Homer is immediately drawn to her, and she to him (no, this is not why I idolize her: even with my established quirky taste in men, I draw the line at Homey).

Why The Simpsons remains such a cultural milestone long after its run its course and is now not...very...shall I say...good, is because of the way the writers handle this dilemma. Obviously, Homer can't really err from Marge. That would take things too far. So equally obviously, Mindy can't be a permanent character. She's a one-off. So it would be easy to make her a one-dimensional floozy, good for a couple cheap laughs on account of that flooziness. 

Yet what the writers do instead, which is what helps make Mindy such a fantastic character despite her one-episode appearance, is make her just as conflicted as Homer, and just as ultimately kind-hearted, too. She doesn't want to be a homewrecker. However, as I believe showrunner Al Jean said in this episode's commentary, "these two characters just can't control their libidos around each other." In a hilarious sequence in the plant's tiny elevator, she and Homer are smashed nose-to-nose in the cramped space of the box. Instead of smirking and flirting, Mindy unknowingly imitates Homer, whispering to herself with eyes closed, "Think unsexy thoughts, think unsexy thoughts." Then she smiles the same awkward, loopy grin as Homer.

Now we get to the real, mean and dirty reason I wish I could be just like her: she makes being the female equivalent of Homer attractive and charming. Like Homer, she loves hogging down donuts like a pig ("I dunno. Pigs tend to chew. I'd say he eats more like a duck"--sorry, wrong episode, but still a classic line). She enjoys sneaking in a nap before lunch. She gets excited about the prospect of free shower curtains in a hotel room. She yells "get bent" at someone criticizing their nuclear panel at a convention. She makes that same beloved gargling noise in the back of her throat when she thinks about the words "double glaze". 

She is Homer, as a foxy redhead.

Does that mean she also has his lack of intelligence? Well, that's difficult to gauge. We never really see her working at her job, though Smithers mentions as an afterthought that she has some sort of relevant degree. She's probably more competent than Homer, but we can't know that for certain: after all, Homer works at the plant. Competence is apparently not high on Burns's list of desired qualities for employees (competence might foster independent thinking). 

If Mindy is as stupid as Homer, would that make me want to be her any less? Well... "Short answer 'yes' with an 'if', long answer 'no', with a 'but'." Yeah, I'd like to emulate somebody intelligent, wouldn't we all? Least that's what my ego dictates. However, there is that small, petty, corpulent little gal called my id, who dances around in a devil costume shaking maracas, singing, "I am evil Laura! I am evil Laura!" This primitive imp wouldn't mind getting away with all that Homer gets away with, while possessing little to no intelligence. What man or woman wouldn't, at their evil, primitive core? And what man or woman wouldn't want to get away with all that Homer gets away with while being ridiculously attractive, unlike the real Homer?

So, Mindy is basically a win-win character. She's not only wish-fulfillment for fanboys, but for fangirls, too. And that's the sort of all-encompassing thinking The Simpsons writers at their best were terrific at.

Oh, but have I mentioned the absolute best reason Mindy's amazing? She has the piggish habits of Homer, has a good heart, is a smokin' hot babe, and she has the voice of Michelle Pfeiffer. Yowza.

Let's break this down:


Plus This

Equals This!

Admit it. We all want to be Mindy Simmons.

P.S. If you can get a copy of the DVD for The Last Temptation of Homer, listen to the commentary. Al Jean had it bad for Pfeiffer, and it's adorable to hear. Apparently, according to Jean, she's super, super gorgeous. One disappointing fact, though: that gargling sound? Broccoli and water. She didn't want to eat sweets. The hell? I love you dearly, Michelle, but I'd still rather be Mindy if that's what it takes to look like you and not her.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Obligatory Hot Guy Post, Or How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Embrace My Creepy Taste in Men

Cuz seriously, my taste in men often veers towards the creepy (by which I mean secretly awesome).

Now, I'm fully aware of the buzz circulating the blogosphere: "hey, Laura, what gives? I get the movie thing, the comics thing, the occasional sad attempts at appearing literary, but excuse me? I have no frame of reference here if you don't provide a picture post of the men you find most desirable. Come on."

All right, you've shamed me.

I'll start with my most current obsession, Christopher Lee:

Sadly, this shot is taken from possibly his absolute worst Dracula film, Dracula A.D. 1972

Tall, imperious, and oh my fluttering femininity, that basso profundo voice. For all his outward appearance of being an upright, dignified, typical British gent, there's something always eerily animalistic about him that makes him more dangerously sexy than what "dignified gentleman" sometimes signifies.

And did I mention he has a sexy voice?

Interesting bit of trivia: according to IMDb, my other favorite suave British gent, George Sanders, was slated to play Lee's role of Mycroft in Billy Wilder's 1970 The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. However, he backed out (I think this was only a year before he committed suicide, so he was probably less than stable, which might have contributed to this decision). Therefore, at the last minute Lee dutifully filled in, still sexy despite the bald cap. Oh, when my romantic idols almost collide!

Speaking of Sanders....

George Sanders!

Again with the whole suave and British, subtly dangerous thing. Oh, and the deep voice. Guess that's a thing of mine.

Leonard Nimoy


Spock and Christine Chapel, hottest pairing ever and I don't care what any of you haters say shut up shut up

Nimoy's hottest when he's playing Monsieur Spock, hands down.  But that's not to say I don't find him sexy in anything else. He was very alluring as the evil doctor in that Columbo episode, after all.

Speaking of whom....

Peter Falk

Let's face it, Columbo was a badass. So was Peter Falk. I admittedly feel even a tad creepier than usual including him in my slideshow of hot guys, seeing as he's so recently passed away. But it must be said: for all the bumbling, everyday man stuff Falk went for in his performances, there was an underlying craftiness and confidence there that's impossible to ignore, and which I find incredibly attractive.

Anthony Hopkins

Nuthin' like romanticizing serial killers, huh? He and Falk at least break my tradition of tall dudes with deep voices. At the end of the day I suppose I like men who are intense and distinctive. You don't get no more intense or distinctive than Sir Anthony.
(I had to double check to make sure he was really knighted. I was afraid I might have just assumed it cuz, y'know, it's Anthony Hopkins).

Hugh Laurie

Aaaaaand we're back to the tall guys. Still British, too! However, as dearly as I love Bertie Wooster and find him adorable as can be, I only truly find Laurie irresistible when in the guise of the cantankerous, borderline homicidal American Dr. House. And when he's unshaven.

Al Pacino

I can't say he did much for me in the first Godfather; too earnest and young, I guess, for my corrupted tastes. Once Godfather II came along, though...well. And I swear, this man has only gotten more attractive with age. It's that intensity again, guys. That intensity.

James Cagney

HA! Neither tall nor British! But man, look at that style. And that sizing-up glance. 'Nuff said.

Jon Stewart

...And sometimes? I just like the funny.

So long story short, talent and personality are what really get me. Some of these men you might not call conventionally attractive, but they gots loads of presence. They're all unique, intelligent performers, who bring something different and a little off to the plate. I like that.

I seldom like a pretty face alone; really, pretty faces annoy the hell out of me without some personality twist just festering behind that face. Meanwhile, I'm often attracted to men many would deem maybe even ugly, so long as they have, well, whatever the guys I just listed have. Simple as that.

Here are some honorable mentions:

Clark Gable, Johnny Depp once the first Pirates movie came out, Ricardo Montalban, Michael Fassbender (more George Sanders trivia!: Tarantino told Fassbender to channel Sanders in Inglourious Basterds! And that's why I'm mostly a Tarantino supporter), at one point in my adolescence every single Beatle (but mostly George), Ronald Colman, Colin Firth, Boris Karloff, John Karlen, Jane Eyre-era Orson Welles, Warner Baxter, Marlon Brando post-Waterfront to the mid-60s, Sidney Poitier, Maximillian Schell, Willem Dafoe, Lon Chaney Sr. (mostly out of makeup), and a cavalcade of other talented, intense guys I'm forgetting.

Your picks? Or if you're so inclined, favorite laaaaadies? C'mon, being shallow and creepy is fun! Join the game! Compile your own list on your own blog! Or heck, get the community involved! Post a bulletin at your local supermarket, or your local church! It's fun and easy to do! Hot guys!

P.S. Need further proof of Christopher Lee's deadly sexiness? Here's a creeptastically sexy video compilation of his Dracula set to Queen's Death On Two Legs for you. Creeptastic. Sexy.

Embedding's disabled, but here's the link:

You're welcome, world!

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Liebster Award? For Little Floppy-Headed Me?

'Tis a day for blushing and "aw-shucks!"ing: two incredibly gifted and generous bloggers--Rachel at The Girl with the White Parasol and Meredith at Movie Montage, to be exact--have nominated Yours Humbly for the Liebster Award. Liebster is German for beloved, and the recipients are encouraged to link back to the sites that nominated them originally (done!) and nominate five of their own beloved blogs to showcase (I'm gettin' to it, hold on, crikey!). Now, I'm full aware a fleeting English speaking eye might read "Lobster" award instead of "Liebster." I will concede that. But while I would have been just as pleased to have received a Lobster Award, I consider it overall far more heartwarming winning an award that deems my li'l website beloved instead of buttery and delicious.

Now, picking five other blogs unfortunately precludes the lovely Rachel and Meredith in my case, since they were my nominators. This makes me sad. I'd love to give them awards. Rachel always finds the most fascinating films to write about, offering just as fascinating, wonderfully-written commentary and original, thought-provoking interpretations (not to mention a Citizen Kane blog-name for the win!).  Meredith tackles my favorite topics--screwball comedy, femme fatales, and a mix of awesome old/new movies--with great verve and a helluva lotta wit (her url is voteforgracie! So cool!).

However, I still have a whole treasure trove of other excellent blogs to nominate! Didn't make it too easy, actually, in cutting down my choices to five. But here are some fantastic sites you should all give a looksie:

Krell Laboratories It was love at first read when I saw her name was Vulnavia Morbius. Another example of my penchant for really witty writers, Vulnavia also doesn't shirk in areas of social commentary in her film analyses, particularly on gendered politics. Krell Laboratories is a fascinating, intelligent blog.

Carfax Abbey Continuing my burgeoning love of all things old-school horror/gothic, my next award goes to the brilliant Matthew Conian at Carfax Abbey. He's an incredibly well-read writer who knows his stuff, and writes damn well about it. Not to mention he gives some much-needed love to the criminally underappreciated Hammer Horror franchise, which many writers, both professional and otherwise (including my beloved Pauline Kael), so often choose to ignore. "Hammer Horror, Hammer Horror, won't leave me alone! The first time in my life, I leave the lights on to ease my soul" (honorary nomination if you pick up on that reference!).

Germans Like Heavy Make-Up Ms.Zebra writes enthusiastically and addictively about vintage flicks, and once her posts hook you, you're in for the long-haul. She'll turn you on to so many great films and stars your head, most likely, will explode. But it's the good kind of explosion, the kind that clears the sinuses!

Sales on Film This blog is a recent find of mine, discovered during the great Viv and Larry Blog-a-Thon of '11. Boy, I'm glad I did. Her write-ups are detailed, in-depth, and basically all around extraordinary. Plus, she ain't messing around: she's got a BA in film from University of California, Irvine! Not bad.

Classic Film and TV Cafe Very versatile blog, devoting one post to the greatest classic Star Trek episodes, the next to Disney movies, and the next to the best gangster films of the early '30s. Eclectic, classy, and most importantly, fun.

Congrats, you wacky kids! If this award stuff ain't yo thang, no biggie. No need to nominate anyone or mention the award on your blog or nuthin'. But have fun if you do, and good luck limiting your nominees to five!

Thank you again to Rachel and Meredith, not only for the nominations, but for the kind words and kickass blogs. This is a gala day for me--but "a gal a day is enough for me. I don't think I could handle any more."

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Myrna Loy: Gutsy Dame, On Screen and Off

Beautiful scan compliments of Doctor Macro

Following quotes compliment of IMDb:

[Challenging MGM bosses in the 1930s] "Why does every black person in the movies have to play a servant? How about a black person walking up the steps of a courthouse carrying a briefcase?"

[Speaking in the late 1960s] "I admire some of the people on the screen today, but most of them look like everybody else. In our day we had individuality. Pictures were more sophisticated. All this nudity is too excessive and it is getting very boring. It will be a shame if it upsets people so much that it brings on the need for censorship. I hate censorship. In the cinema there's no mystery. No privacy. And no sex, either. Most of the sex I've seen on the screen looks like an expression of hostility towards sex."

[Referring to her "perfect wife" typecasting] "Some perfect wife I am. I've been married four times, divorced four times, have no children, and can't boil an egg."

And reminder that today would have been Loy's 106th birthday is compliments of Self-Styled Siren's far more thorough tribute here.

It's wonderful when you can admire actors for their talent alone. Frankly, a lot of the time that's all you can admire them for. Usually that should be enough: you watch them for their ability to play people not themselves, after all. But when you can also admire their intellect, compassion, courage, and wit? Well, why not savor that a little?

Myrna Loy is the actress I most admire for both talent and personality. Have a happy, Myrna! Don't let anyone make you boil eggs in whatever heavenly, sophisticated dimension you're inhabiting!