Saturday, February 28, 2009

Hello, Gorgeous

The pantheon of movie stars is a vast an ever-expanding collection, and some of them fade or burn out, there are always new ones to replace them. The criteria upon which one earns stardom is only slightly mutable as the decades progress. Stars can explode onto the scene with a fiery burst of paparazzi interest and flashes of E! squibs and one promising, shining performance on screen. But unless they marry well and interestingly and create a plethora of curiosity about their private lives, they must continue to haul their weight at the box office or at least turn in performances that create a buzz or else face the eventual dimming of their appeal. That's why you'll generally find a catalogue of over fifty movies for an actor/actress -- the glittering and immortal stardust left behind. And the truly brightest stars leave in their wake, if they're lucky, one, or maybe two crown jewel masterpiece performances which will ensure the enduring luster of their legacy.

This yet another example of what makes Barbra Streisand different. Her film career spans five decades, and she's only starred in seventeen films. Seventeen! But talk about beating the averages -- of those seventeen, at least three of them are what I'd consider bona-fide masterpiece performances. Some would argue a much higher number of them are. And, of course, her film output was certainly smaller than most actresses because she was also a director and producer, and, of course, a singer.

What's the appeal of Barbra Streisand? Simple, and two-fold. First, she was different. There's no denying it -- she did not have the expected face of a leading lady movie star. And, given some of her choices as a director, I think it's safe to say that she was always aware of this, and that it was quite possibly a point of insecurity for her. That said, I will say that I do find her absolutely gorgeous. And I don't mean that in the Sarah-Jessica Parker way where it's nice to see a "different" looking girl get the sexy lead. I mean I really do think Barbra was different, but gorgeous. Second, the bitch had the shit. Riveting onscreen with impeccable comic timing and a voice that could leave you in slack-jawed amazement. Now, that said, about her voice, which was magnificent, I wasn't a particularly big fan of what she chose to sing. Nevertheless.

I am, however, a big fan of the roles she chose over the years. In her debut, Oscar-winning role as Fanny Brice in Funny Girl she established herself with an almost unnerving confidence that demanded applause. She then followed that up under Gene Kelly's direction in another musical Hello, Dolly. But in 1972, she teamed with Ryan O'Neal for the first time in Peter bogdanovich's What's Up, Doc? This was a true '30's throwback -- screwball and slapstick comedy -- where Streisand truly asserted her unassailable comic chops. The film is zany and joyful, and Streisand is luminously loony at the center and successfully proves that she is the reigning funny girl of film.

Just one year later, Sydney Pollack teamed her with Robert Redford in what should've been a melodramatic piece of tear-jerking tripe -- The Way We Were. It's the story of star-crossed lovers, Katy and Hubbell, who try and try but just can't get their stars to align. The dialogue is overwrought and obvious at times, and the theme of the golden-boy taking on a girl who's not of his class is well-worn. It's the kind of movie that, in anyone else's hands, would make me want to slap all the main characters and leave the theater. But under Pollack's direction, Babs and Redford absolutely sizzle, simmer, and then fizzle in heartbreaking fashion as Barbra brushes his hair away and sings how memories light the corners of her mind. And instead of frustrating me, it turns me into a sobbing little girl. Because although it's obvious, and awkward, there's also a squirmyness to it when Katy asks Hubbell if she's not pretty enough for him. That's how she sees herself -- different, and because of that, not gorgeous. But the sad truth is that she was plenty pretty -- too pretty, in fact. She had that extra brightness which made her gorgeous, and poor Hubbell just couldn't handle it, because all he wanted was simply pretty. It's a film that leaves memories alright, and they're the kind of memories that will forever light up Bab's legacy and keep her star burning bright.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Top Douche

Oh what a painful finale for Top Chef tonight with fuckwit Hosea taking the title because Colicchio is an asshole who hates ice cream.

On the plus, we did get to see darling Fabio and his impossibly cute mohawk again. On the downside, Carla cried! It even made Stefan sad to see her so upset, and I really do feel bad for her. To go out because she's a nice person who takes suggestion is just awful. She had said she was going to cook her food, though, and that's what broke her up, was knowing that it was Casey's suggestions that cost her dearly.

And it's particularly polarizing, because Carla really highlights dipshit Colicchio's meandering 'tude. He made fun of her and was very dismissive several episodes back when she claimed to be putting love and soul into her food. And yet tonight, he refused the title to Stefan with the reasoning that he didn't put enough soul into his food. (which seems like bullshit) I just really can't stand this guy much longer. He clearly speaks for the producers and contorts his view of dishes to push the agenda.

The weird thing about this season is that they had clearly set up Stefan as the "villain" and Hosea as the good guy and they played them as adversaries in many episodes. Problem is, if that's the best edit they could give Hosea to make him come off like a good guy and a capable chef, he must be a super-douche, because he came off like a whiny twit who couldn't skin an eel. More, Stefan's cocky 'tude was a true highlight of the season. Certainly, I'm sure he turned off plenty of people, but he had such humor about it all and was never mean, he was just great TV with his lesbian love-crush and overconfidence and super-Euro cuisine.

Maybe Hosea got the big prize, but I'd still rather go sit in Stefan's (or Carla's, or Fabio's) restaurant to see what they'd serve up. Now if only Bravo would serve Colicchio walking papers -- he's the villain of this show.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Book Auction

My pal Critical Mick is going to be holding a collectible book auction in support of the Alzheimer Society of Ireland. Being a book reviewer who specializes in Irish crime fiction, he's got six autographed books he's putting up. They are:
Cracking Crime: Jim Donovan - Forensic Detective by Niamh O'Connor
The Mercury Man by John Galvin
Christine Falls by Benjamin Black (John Banville)
Have Ye No Homes To Go To? by Neville Thompson
The Secret World of the Irish Male by Joseph O'Connor
All Summer by Claire Kilroy

To get all the details, see here.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Dildo In, Fabio Out, Dildo Back Out!

So I guess Idol has officially started now, and I have to say that I'm already disappointed in voters. Anoop out? Really? Tatianna out? What the fuck? We finally voted correctly in the BIG one, people, we were allowed to vote to keep the dramatic crazy in the running on Idol. But no. Instead we let the "nice guys" slide through because they're nice guys. I'm all for nice people having a nice life, but I'm also for my entertainment being entertaining. Shiiit.

In even bigger news, Top Chef brought back the Dildo Beach Club chef, Jeff and his too-perfect hair and his laconic talk of how much more prep he does than anyone else. I was glad to see him back in, cause I thought he got sort of screwed. But he had to win to stay, and he just couldn't handle the task of capsizing Carla's creole cuisine. Carla! Oh my god do I love Carla and the love she puts in her food and the crazy fun she's put in this season. Did you see how she openly fawned of Gail returning? You have to be a love to get so excited over freaking Gail. Sadly, it all cost dear sweet, shoe-in for fan-favorite Fabio hees place een thee finahl tree as somehow Hosea ended up there instead of him after Tom and others were able to change Padma's mind about how good Fabio's pasta was. But I'm sure he'll come back and cook for Stefan in the final. And Stefan is the gift that keeps on giving with his cocky 'tude, isn't he? That's entertainment.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Wise Men Say Only Fools Rush In

Did you ever enjoy something, but not enjoy it as much as you thought you should, and you can't figure out why, so you start to assume the problem is with you, not with what you were supposed to enjoy? I'm thinking that's where I am with the newest book from one of my all-time favorite writers, Christopher Moore. The book, Fool, is everything that should make me curl my toes in glee. It's a Moorish take on Shakespeare's King Lear, told from the point of view of Lear's fool.

Now, I just spent all last summer and fall writing my own comic version of Hamlet. Oh, I'm not fucking around here, I really did it, despite advice to the contrary. I figure, if you're a writer, sooner or later you're going to start making allusions or references or borrowing and so why not just dive in and see what you can do? The original material really is that good that it can stand idiots like me mucking around with it. Of course, as someone wise advised me as I began meddling about, just because it can withstand such attacks doesn't mean it should have to tolerate them, and it could be a really foolish undertaking to even attempt. But, fuck it, I did it anyhow! And it was really fun.

But then, when I saw what Moore's latest release would be, I felt a twinge of jealousy. This wasn't just because he had the career to get his published and be a bestseller, but also because I knew his dance in Bardland would be insanely superior to my attempted tango with Bill. And it is, for sure. (Of course, forget I said that when I start pimping my book!)

And yet, I can't help but be a wee bit bugged by all the reviews who proclaim the concept so freaking unique. It just makes me think that apparently, it's not just that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, but that the whole fuckin' world has forgotten about Tom Stoppard.

Nevertheless, the device that Moore uses of taking an off-center minor character and making him the protagonist often is a great way to breathe new life into a well-worn story. (My beloved Rome did exactly this by showing the ascension of the Caesars through the lives of Pullo and Vorenus. (Damn, I miss that show!)) And Moore does breathe a lot of comic life into the tragic tale of Lear through his brazen fool, Pocket.

As usual, Moore creates not just one wacky character, but a whole cast of fabulous freaks. There is wit, there is treachery, and plenty of borrowed, British buzzwords from Extras and Bridget Jones. (Yes, Moore IS having a laugh on Lear!) Also a plus, not that he's ever been afraid to toss about the f-word or inject a little sex, this is, as advertised, his most "bawdy" work to date -- just as Shakespeare would want it, I'd assume.

There is also no doubt that fans of Moore will find plenty to love here, as did I. And, yet...

Is it just me? Or is this particular book probably not going to rank on anyone's list of all-time favorites? It's a similar conceit to the one that Moore used in his masterpiece Lamb, and maybe it's because of that similarity that I mentally compared the two before even reading Fool. And I just can't imagine many books would manage to stand toe-to-toe with Lamb. But I can also easily crank off five other Moore titles that I preferred, too. But is that just my jealousy talking?

I'm not so sure. Moore is at his wacky best when he's playing in his own pools. Fluke was the only book I'd been disappointed in, and it was based on real people. Perhaps Moore tackled a lot by tethering himself to Shakespeare's characters. But, mostly, I got the distinct impression while reading the book that Moore sort of hated King Lear (the character), and that was damn near admitted in his end-of-book acknowledgments. He did an absolutely great job weaving in his own "mistaken identity" surprise twists, but one of them ended up being a little too close for my comfort.

Moore's fool has all the rascally, quirky, and lovable qualities one would expect from one of Moore's leading men, with one major difference. Frankly, most of his leading men are, in some fashion, bumbling. They're put-upon or slightly inferior beta dogs. But Pocket really isn't. He's obviously smarter than everyone else and it's his job to prove that in witty fashion at every opportunity. Whereas his normally beleaguered men pop off in frustration, Pocket jests from a vantage point of superiority. Maybe that's why I didn't exactly warm to him as much as some others.

I don't know what it is. But I do know that objectively, it's a hell of a great book with a lot of laughs and plenty of innovative twists on a beloved, tragic old tale. And, I'm pretty sure, if you're not even acquainted with Lear, you'll still enjoy it. But since he borrows heavily from Shakespeare's whole portfolio, some familiarity might get you a few more chuckles.

So even though it's not replacing Lamb as my all-time favorite, or even knocking Lust Lizard out of second, I still think it blows most of the other stuff on bookstore shelves out of the water. Moore, he could do this kind of book, and he's exactly the guy who should do it, and he did it bloody well. It was, most certainly, not a foolish undertaking.

Monday, February 09, 2009

Spanish Enchantress

I have a friend who claims that she thinks that Penelope Cruz is not attractive. Quite ugly, this friend of mine says, if you really examine her. I have no fucking idea what she's looking at. Cruz is, to me, unquestionably one of the most beautiful women in the world. And part of her appeal is the fluidity of her looks. She can have an innocent, almost sprightly appeal at times with her doe eyes and thin frame. Just as easily, she can put a glint in her eye and pout in her lips and project formidable strength. And, of course, probably most popular with the fellows is effortless way she can use her curves and become a total bombshell.

The problem with Penelope, as I see it, at least, is that American filmmakers just haven't yet found a way to exploit her talents the way that European ones have. She is currently Oscar nominated for her role in Vicky Christina Barcelona, but, sadly, I don't think this film is an exception to the American/European Penelope rule, though I do wish her well with the award.

Now, you know me. You know I'm not some sort of foreign film snob. I just love movies. So when I tell you that Volver and Non Ti Muovere and Sin Noticias de Dios and Todo Sobre Mi Madre are flicks worth seeing, I'm not shoveling some esoteric ennui upon you. Okay, some of them may have a touch of that, but not too much.

Cruz was already becoming the first lady of Spanish cinema by the time she filmed 1997's Abre Los Ojos, which was later re-made as the muddled, American Vanilla Sky. But she rose to international fame with her role in Pedro Almodovar's Todo Sobre Mi Madre just a couple years later, and then, the US came calling with Woman on Top, a quirky little comedy about a woman whose severe motion sickness has ill effects on her marriage, and then Billy Bob's All the Pretty Horses. Luckily for movie lovers, she works a lot, and she went back to Spanish cinema for 2001's Sin Noticias de Dios, known here in the States as Don't Tempt Me. In this flick, Heaven and Hell enter a tug of war over the soul of a boxer, so each sends a representative to vie for his fate. Penelope was Hell's ambassador, and to say much more about her role would give away some of delightful twists. But it really is a great vehicle to showcase the sexy-yet-stunningly tough Cruz in action in a fast and fun film that has enough offhanded charm to please an angel or demon.

In 2004, she learned Italian and professed her love for Italian life and won the role of Italia, a dark and depressing role about a damaged woman in Non Ti Muovere (Don't Move or, sometimes, Don't Look Now in English.) In other words, she got to show her dramatic chops to critics and audiences who aren't as wowed with the lighter touch. It is a difficult role in a different movie, but it also probably falls over that line of "esoteric foreign" if you're inclined to have those prejudices.

Unlike so many actresses --particularly those of great beauty-- who make an early, substantial mark and then spend the rest of their career never really capturing those same heights, Cruz has, so far, only managed to get better. I refer, of course, to 2006 and her reunion with the celebrated Almodovar for the popular Volver. Though generally not considered his best film, it still bears all his signature touches in this strange, sad, and funny movie. This is a movie ruled by women, and Penelope is its center -- at once controlled and yet wildly vibrant; full of life and strength and subtle surprises. She's known as the Spanish Enchantress, and in Volver, she's absolutely that and more. Maybe, like my weirdo friend, you don't find her physically attractive, but you'd still fall absolutely in love with her in this movie.

Monday, February 02, 2009

The First Lady of Cinema

Since I don't have much else to talk about (yay Steelers, though!) I figured it was time to give equal due to the great dames of films. And I know it's a common and tempting thing to say "they don't make 'em like that anymore" when speaking about stars of a previous generation. But, when it comes to Katharine Hepburn, it's completely fair to say that they also didn't make 'em like that back then, either.

Her looks were definitely aristocratic, and her attitude balanced on a fine line between the privileged haughty and raging lefty. Her obvious intelligence and cultured education oozed out of her, but it was paired with a winning comedic timing and willingness to be knocked down a peg onscreen even while standing toe-to-toe with her male co-stars. She was a maverick of her day. She wore pants and often refused makeup, quarreled with the studios and blew off press engagements, and yet she also embraced her own stardom. How did this dame get away with her then-outrageous behavior? Well, two things.

One: She didn't get away with it. When the general public caught a whiff of her shenanigans in the mid-30's, she had a string of flops and came to be labeled "box-office poison." This drove her back to Broadway where she had to rebuild her career.

And, Two: As she said, she never realized that women were supposed to be inferior to men. So she took her knocks and flops and then very smartly picked The Philadelphia Story to star in on Broadway. It was a smash hit, and then the film version, in 1940, brought her right back to prime in Hollywood.

How could The Philadelphia Story miss? It's classic screwball comedy -- still incredibly successful in the winning remake High Society, sixteen years later. It reunited Hepburn and Cary Grant, along with mega-director George Cukor, even though their previous effort, Holiday didn't strike box-office gold, and the Hepburn-Grant pairing in Bringing Up Baby was one of her poisoned efforts. (Bringing Up Baby is, however, now considered a classic, and rightly so, as both stars shine in it.) But The Philadelphia Story also threw Jimmy Stewart into the mix. In a role requiring us to believe that our leading lady might actually choose someone other than Carry Grant in the end, Stewart's starry-eyed admiration and affable personality -- along with his milk-raised good looks -- did exactly the trick, and he ended up with his Oscar for it. As for Cary Grant, well, what can I say? He was Cary Grant in it, and that's always more than enough for his dashing highness to be supreme.

But the whole flick hinges on the Hepburn role in this film. As Tracy Lord, Hepburn has to walk a familiar tightrope -- taking abuse and condemnation for being a statue goddess, too uppity and demanding and perfectionist to ever have real love, and then falling from her high grace to become a human and -- again -- being scorned for that. It's really a rather classic feminist role -- she's either a prude or a slut here is the bottom line, and Hepburn pulls it all together and proves that she doesn't have to be one or the other, and, mostly, the hell with anyone who's judging her. Of course, it's all much more mannered than that with questions of class rippling through the growing chaos. And Hepburn is by turns cold and then warmly lovable, smart and silly. And she's never been better. To mention that she was Oscar nominated for this performance is a bit useless, as she was nominated for Oscars every time Jack Warner flushed a toilet.

In the '50s, Kate managed to make hay with "spinster" roles, such as in one of my inexplicable faves The African Queen and Summertime, where she wore the badges of "strength" and "independence" just as prominently and proudly as one would expect and yet still managed to find a mate by the end credits. But The Philadelphia Story was a harbinger of these trademarks to come and remains among the most irresistible, with Kate at her most stunningly strong and sexy.