Friday, February 5, 2016

The Cable Guy (1996) - David Cross #3

or, Getting Our Wires Crossed

Director: Ben Stiller 
Runtime: 96 minutes

The Cable Guy has a checkered history.  Depending on who you ask, it's a massively underrated cult classic, or a complete failure.  It was a failure only in the sense that it fell far short of expectations, especially after Carrey's record setting salary (the first time an actor got a $20 million paycheck).  It still made money, but wasn't as big a success as his previous films like Ace Ventura, Dumb & Dumber, or The Mask.  This is probably because Carrey's character here is much darker than in those movies.  He plays the titular Cable Guy, Ernie "Chip" Douglas, who befriends Steven Kovacs (Matthew Broderick).  Steven and his girlfriend, Robin (Leslie Mann), have separated after Steven proposed.  Steven rents an apartment and his best friend, Rick (Jack Black), suggests he bribe the cable guy for free premium channels. Chip agrees and then tries to become Steven's best friend, taking him on a road trip to a broadcasting satellite. Chip is in every way the over-the-top cartoonish Jim Carrey character, but here his powers are used for evil, as he starts to manipulate Steven's friends and family while further insinuating himself into Steven's life.  

This is... funny, I guess?

To be honest, I'm not a huge fan of the Jim Carrey school of comedy.  There are a lot of scenes that are funny in his hyperkinetic way, but I think I agree with Doug Walker's conclusion that it is a dumb comedy, albeit a rather clever dumb comedy.  Carrey is legitimately creepy, but I don't think he really carries the movie by himself.  Broderick is bland, and we never learn anything about any of the other characters.  We know absolutely nothing about Robin, for example.  In one scene, she is on a terrible date with Owen Wilson, who comes off as an arrogant prick.  When he's done talking about himself, he asks her what she does for a living, only to immediately excuse himself to the restroom, promising that he is "really interested."  We never find out what Robin does for a living. We actually know more about Steven's brother (Bob Odenkirk), who is only in one scene and is otherwise completely inessential to the plot.  Odenkirk isn't the only link with The Truth About Cats & Dogs, as Janeane  Garofalo has a cameo as Medieval Times waitress.

Pictured: the most unlikely Hawthorne reference in cinematic history

Cross's role is extremely brief here as well, Credited as Sales Manager, he plays Steven's work friend, who's only line is laughingly repeating a single word from a pitch Steven makes to their boss.

"Oklahoma" - Cross's only line in the movie
The Cable Guy has aged pretty well, and I like it more than other "wacky" Carrey movies, because at least here he's supposed to come across as creepy and awkward.  Don't get me wrong, I loved Carrey's performances in The Truman Show, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Man in the Moon.  I just don't like this style of Carrey comedy because it always comes across as all style no substance, what's the weirdest face he can make or how much can he exaggerate this movement.  This works great in small doses (like an SNL sketch), but it's never been enough to get me through a feature length film on its own.

So, if you like Carrey's early comedy, you'll like The Cable Guy.  Otherwise, it has a bunch of good moments, but I don't think it works as a whole.

Next week, the Christopher Guest mockumentary, Waiting for Guffman (1996)

Friday, January 29, 2016

The Truth about Cats & Dogs (1996) - David Cross #2

or, At Cross Purposes

Director: Michael Lehmann
  Runtime: 97 minutes              

I'll start by saying I was pleasantly surprised by this movie. Garofalo plays Abby Barnes, a witty veterinarian with a daily radio show titled "The Truth About Cats and Dogs." During the course of a broadcast, a listener, Brian, (played by Ben Chaplin) calls in because he's put a dog in roller skates for a photoshoot, and the dog is just not having it.  Abby helps him out and charms him in the process, leading him to call the studio to ask her out on a date.  Through a comic misunderstanding, Brian is led to believe that Abby's neighbor Noelle (Uma Thurman) is Abby, and Abby is a friend named Donna.  The main romantic plot is pretty by the book: they both develop feelings for Brian (to different degrees), Brian is mystified and the lead man's best friend stock character (played by Jamie Foxx) dutifully reminds him that "he's thinking with his brain too much," Brian eventually discovers the truth, but ends up with Abby because it's a romantic comedy.  

This isn't a great movie, but it's above average, because Garofalo and Thurman are actually interesting characters.  Despite the truly terrible trailer, which seems to suggest that Abby's problem is being too assertive or having high standards, the fact is she's incredibly insecure about her appearance, while Noelle, an exploited ingenue, is insecure about her intelligence. It's the relationship between these two women, and the way they develop, that makes this movie anything more than completely forgettable.  (Nothing against Ben Chaplin, but he's the blandly perfect rom-com stereotype: handsome, artistic, sensitive, and British.  I guess Hugh Grant was busy when they were casting for this film.)  A lot of the jokes are actually funny, and there's a definite charm from the leads.   That said, I can understand why Garofalo hates the movie, and why a lot of people like it.  Roger Ebert, who gave it 3.5 out of 4 stars, wrote: "Of course all movies like this toy a little with the odds. The movie is based upon the presumption that Garofalo is not pretty, and of course she is."
Ebert completely misses the point.  The point isn't that Garofalo is or isn't pretty, it's that she feels ugly because she's surrounded by images of women like Thurman, because a cosmetics saleswoman berates her and reduces her to tears so she can make a sale.  Garofalo points out that this was intended as a small budget indie-movie, but only later became big budget and commercialized, and this is evident. The aspects that make this movie above average are cut short to make room for more of the main romantic plot, and plenty of other 90s mainstream silliness.  The film compromises.  It stops shy of making the points it's aiming towards as an indie film, because mainstream rom-com viewers don't want politics, and you can only mention Simone de Beauvoir to show how intelligent someone is, but actually discussing her philosophy would be boring.  It keeps some of its integrity, Abby and Noelle don't devolve into Jerry Springer-style "She stole my man!" cat-fighting, but are consistently there for each other.  Their relationship is far more interesting than either of their relationships with Brian.  As Garofalo also points out in an interview, the movie was originally going to end with Abby not getting the guy, which make sense, because her whole character arc is about establishing her own sense of self-worth and getting the guy is secondary to this development, but, in the final product, getting the guy is what creates her self-worth. 

 It's an above average movie, but it could have been a great movie.  As for recommendations, if you want to watch a romantic comedy, The Truth about Cats & Dogs is a good choice.


As to the putative reason for these reviews, David Cross, his role is extremely brief.  He's a call in guest on the radio show, a man whose dog, Lucille, has a cold. (Coincidentally, in Destiny Turns on the Radio, Cross played an agent representing a singer named Lucille.)  He also has a brief background cameo with Bob Odenkirk as Bookstore Man.

They're on screen for about ten seconds, nine of which are spent directly behind Thurman and Garofalo.    

Next week: The Cable Guy (1996)

Friday, January 22, 2016

Destiny Turns on the Radio (1995) - David Cross #1

Or, Crossing the Threshold

So, long story short, I was thinking about doing a series where I watch and review every one of some actor's feature film oeuvre, and I ended up settling on David Cross.  He's rarely a leading man, and the quality and styles of films he's in varies drastically.  So, without further ado, Destiny Turns on the Radio:

Director: Jack Baran  
Runtime: 102 minutes

The movie starts with a radio news report about Julian Goddard (Dylan McDermott) escaping prison after three years of incarceration.  Apparently he pulled off a major heist before getting caught, and the money has never been found.  We see him lying passed out in the middle of the desert, where he's found by Johnny Destiny (Quentin Tarantino), who gives him a ride to Vegas.

If you couldn't guess, yes, Johnny Destiny speaks in the third person.
He arrives at the Marilyn Motel, a run-down sleazy shack currently run by his former partner in crime, Thoreau (James Le Gros), who has some bad news:  Julian's girl, Lucille (Nancy Travis), is living with casino boss Tuerto (Jim Belushi), and the money is gone as well.  You see, after the heist, Thoreau and Goddard returned to the Marilyn Motel, only to find that Lucille had left Goddard.  Julian is determined to win her back, so he goes to find her and gets nabbed.  Meanwhile, lightning strikes the Marilyn Motel, the pool starts glowing, and out of the now-glowing depths emerges:

Now that I think about it, lightning striking a chintzy Vegas motel is a pretty credible origin story for Tarantino.  Anyway, the ham of the lake blasts Thoreau with a lightning bolt.  When Thoreau wakes up he discovers that his car and the money were stolen, and the pool is now empty.  He's been waiting three years for this mysterious man to return.  They both realize that this guy is Johnny Destiny, who, as is made abundantly clear very soon after, is a manifestation of pure luck.  As one woman says upon meeting him again, "I've been rolling snake-eyes ever since ya left me, Johnny." This is hardly the only instance of characters using gambling puns in all seriousness.  Thoreau's voice-over for the heist flashback remarks that, "the wheel of fortune was most certainly spinning in our favor."   Most of the dialog in this movie seems not only unnatural, but so self-consciously attempting to be clever, that it becomes simply ridiculous. Every line is delivered to the audience, not the character being spoken to, and it's very distracting.  

Julian goes to win back Lucille (who's now a reasonably successful singer headlining at Belushi's casino) and hopefully find Johnny and the money.   David Cross plays Lucille's tightly strung agent from Los Angeles.

Cross has managed to get a big-time record producer to come out and see her perform.   The producer's name is Vinnie Vidivici.  Yes, he speaks in the third person.  Anyway, Lucille has mixed feelings about Julian, Johnny shows up at the Marilyn Motel to tell Thoreau to refill the pool, Bobcat Goldthwait plays an undercover cop who shows up at the motel looking for Johnny only to get knocked out and tied to the bed for most of the remaining runtime. Two detectives who look like office-workers pretending to be detectives for a halloween party try to find Julian, only to lose him when Lucille decides to run off with him.  Meanwhile, Thoreau explains what he thinks Johnny really is: a manitou, a Native American "god with a small g."  That the term 'Manitou' appears not to have been used by the tribes from that part of the continent kind of kills this theory, but whatever.  The pool, then, is a portal to a spirit realm, and at midnight, Johnny Destiny will return home, and give Thoreau and Julian their money back.  

If that seemed pointlessly contrived, it turns out that Lucille is pregnant...with Julian's baby.  How?  They had sex in a dream, which he believes because he had the same dream.  This wouldn't be so bad, if the movie didn't take the whole thing so damn seriously.  Like with much of the dialog, it's clear that the writers/director thought it was very clever, rather than stilted.  Another example: Belushi complains to Lucille that she's "so cold I have to wear snowshoes to bed."  This is delivered as if it's a snappy zinger, rather than an awkward attempt at such.  Regardless, Julian and Lucille get married at an all night chapel, and Lucille is immediately kidnapped by two of Belushi's goons, who bring her to Belushi who tells her he's breaking up with her and she should leave.  Which kind of begs the question, why did he have her kidnapped?  He knows she's running off with Julian, so if he wants her out of his life, why drag her back into it?  Answer: so the cops can show up and force her to perform as scheduled that night as a trap for Julian.  Or, as one of the cops so naturally and believably phrased it, "I'm going fishin', and you are the bait."  

She does the song, manages to trick the cops and escape with Julian.  They go back to the Marilyn Motel, where Johnny shows up with the money.  The portal, he explains, is to all the other possible lives you could have led.  Johnny disappears into the pool, the cops show up, Julian and Lucille jump into the pool, lightning strikes the Marilyn again, causing the pool to magically empty.  The cops leave, and we get a shot of two stars glowing in the night sky, while we hear Julian and Lucille profess their undying love for each other.

This movie was a bizarre flop.  They had a decent cast, but the dialog was like a self-referential genre parody that they were forced to play seriously throughout. (Seriously, watch the trailer.) There were plenty of moments that were funny despite themselves, and plenty of moments that were meant to be funny but simply weren't.  This movie seemed to not know what it wanted to be, so decided to be everything.  Romantic comedy?  Crime thriller?  Science fiction?  There's a lot of pseudo-philosophical pondering about luck and destiny that is trying really hard to be profound, but never gets there.  Then there's the whole Las Vegas tourism commercial aspect.  Characters are constantly talking about what makes Las Vegas so special, and what Las Vegas is, really.  The consensus, arrived at by a few different characters, is that "Las Vegas is limitless possibilities."  Which may be true for movies, at least, because it seems like 1995 was the year for Vegas flicks.  Casino, Showgirls, and Leaving Las Vegas were all released in 1995 (and Paul Thomas Anderson's Hard Eight in 1996, Vegas Vacation in 1997, and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas in 1998).  Destiny Turns on the Radio seems to have tapped in to this Vegas mania, but without even a fraction of the success.  Even Showgirls, which was a notorious flop, earned nearly ten times as much per theater as Destiny (despite having an NC-17 rating and opening at slightly more theaters, 1,388, as opposed to Destiny's 1,126).  According to box office mojo, not only was Destiny the lowest grossing wide-release film in 1995, but, when considered per theater, it's the 29th worst performing wide release of all films since 1982 (right between Kids in America and X Games 3D The Movie).  It's currently available only on streaming and VHS.  Don't bother with either.

Next in the series: The Truth about Cats & Dogs (1996)

Monday, January 18, 2016

Review: Closing Time by Joseph Heller (1994)

Heller's first novel, Catch-22 (1961), is easily one of my favorite books of all time, so the existence of a sequel was both exciting and worrisome.  Closing Time, written more than thirty years after its predecessor, features an elderly Yossarian, who has survived the war, gone on to start a family and, eventually, work as the conscience of M & M enterprises, a major conglomerate run by Milo Minderbinder and ex-Private Wintergreen.  The life of Yossarian and his companions make up about half the volume of the novel, the other half is written as a first person account of two other WWII vets, Sammy Singer and Lew Rabinowitz, working class Jews from Coney Island who moved up after the war.  Their stories are much more grounded than Yossarian's, whose life gets crazy again when Chaplain Tappman finds him. (Tappman, it turns out, has started naturally passing heavy water, a nuclear compound.) Sammy and Lew are tangentially connected to Yossarian, and to be honest, I preferred their sections to those centered on the Catch-22 characters.  The best word I can use to describe Yossarian in 1994 is 'weary.'  He's an old man now; a virile, sardonic old man, but an old man nonetheless.

This is a book about anti-climax, about Heller's generation, the young men who went to war, saw and endured great and terrible things, then came back to a country that was economically booming and with the benefit of the G.I. bill, many of whom grew up poor then made good, raised families, and were now starting to die of old age.  In Catch-22, death was cataclysmic and unexpected, in Closing Time it's a slow, inevitable wasting away.  The problem with the Yossarian segments is that they are often incomplete attempts to recapture the Yossarian of Catch-22. At one point, he paraphrases Camus to his son, saying that the only freedom we truly have is the freedom to say 'no.'  But this Yossarian isn't the kind that would refuse a medal by appearing to the pinning ceremony naked; this Yossarian says no, then does it anyway.  While I can appreciate the contrast between the Singer/Rabinowitz sections, showing how vast a gulf separates the lives of these men from the defense contractors and politicians and billionaires Yossarian deals with, it harms the Yossarian sections.  Yossarian away from the war is like Ahab away from the sea.

There are a couple other aspects of the novel that need mentioning.  The structure seemed very messy, especially compared to Catch-22, which is meticulously organized, whereas Closing Time meanders.  There's also a strange supernatural element to this novel, that I'm still not sure how I feel about.  It most reminds me of the heaven scenes in Vonnegut's Happy Birthday, Wanda June (1970).

But while it has many faults, Closing Time is worth reading.  Heller is one of those authors cursed with a debut novel that was not only a masterpiece, but a commercial success.  Unlike, say, William Golding, whose first novel (The Lord of the Flies) is certainly his most famous, but went on to win a Nobel, Heller never managed to recapture the success of Catch-22.  And Yossarian in Closing Time has had to come to terms with the limits of his success, the realization that there isn't much more he can accomplish.  Yossarian frequently talks about author William Saroyan, regretting obscurity falling on the man's life and works, and it is all too easy to see in these passages Heller's struggles with his own legacy. Too often Yossarian et. al. seem like wraiths of their former selves, but, as unpleasant as it is to see our literary heroes withered, that may very well be the point.   Despite how the novel ends, this is a book about old age and the inevitable anti-climax that entails.

Monday, November 16, 2015

The Dangers of Entertainment

Around the time the David Foster Wallace biopic, The End of the Tour, came out, heated discussion of its representation of Wallace's views on irony and entertainment led me to reread his long essay "E Unibus Pluram."  The majority of the essay focuses on the effect of mass media on literature and the prevailing literary mode of irony for irony's sake, and how this mode is becoming inadequate.  It also makes some observations about how we interact with television, the first being rather self-evident, that we emotionally invest ourselves in the characters, which provides a sense of belonging, of camaraderie, and that this vicarious version of these emotions comes at the cost of real interpersonal relationships.  The second point, one that Wallace doesn't follow up on, is the idea that television flatters the audience.  Referring to a Pepsi ad making fun of mass consumerism, Wallace writes that "[the ad] invites Joe into an in-joke the Audience is the butt of.  It congratulates Joe Briefcase, in other words, on transcending the very crowd that defines him." I would argue that this method of flattery is endemic in the majority of television programs, both scripted and 'reality.'

Flattery, simply put, is telling someone something nice about themselves, with the connotation that what's being told is exaggerated, effusive, undeserved, and/or simply false.  It's also lovely to be on the receiving end, especially if you think the flatterer is sincere.  Beyond the vicarious relationships mentioned in the first paragraph, I think most television programs, and a large portion of all entertainment, falls into one of two categories, positive flattery and negative flattery.  Positive and negative here referring not to a moral or practical good/bad judgement, but rather a statement about a quality the consumer possesses (e.g. "You're smart, just like the detectives on this show") or a statement about a quality the consumer lacks (e.g. "you're not narcissistic like these real housewives").  What both of these forms of flattery do is provide the consumer with a sense of accomplishment, of being a good person, of figuring out a mystery, all by doing nothing more than staring at a screen for thirty minutes to an hour.  And the concerning thing is that we are naturally inclined to like accomplishing things.  Solving puzzles, finishing a task of any kind, it gives us a nice little mental boost of happiness and contentment.  And much television is produced with this goal in mind.

The best example of positive flattery in television I can think of comes from the crime procedural.  Anyone who has watched a handful of episodes will likely be able to figure out who the bad guy is before the show is even half-finished.  That is, you figure it out before the detectives, or the scientists, or the math genius, or whatever gimmick the particular procedural has, regardless, before the successful and brilliant protagonist figures out what's going on, you've already figured it out.  So, first you get that little burst of happy brain chemicals for solving a puzzle, then you get the satisfaction of watching the brilliant people trying to figure out what you already know.  What feels to me to be particularly disingenuous about the whole thing is that these shows are edited and filmed in such a way as give the viewer clues early and often, but this is done in a way that tries to hide itself.  Unlike Columbo, which started by explicitly telling the audience who the bad guy was, most modern crime procedurals do essentially the same thing, but more subtly.  The most common method is one I call Chekhov's Shoehorn.  Whereas Chekhov's gun is an admonition to remove any details that won't be important later, producers of crime procedurals work backwards and shoehorn in long dramatic shots of objects or people in the background precisely because they'll be important later.  When paying attention to this, there might as well be bright yellow subtitles flashing the words "IMPORTANT!" throughout the scene.  This information is in reality handed to the consumer on a platter, but is presented disingenuously, with a false nonchalance, as if the camera just happened to linger on the fireplace grating or the special guest star lurking in the shadows.  This is far from the only means by which the crime procedural quietly gives the solution to the consumer.  Timing and formula are important; the bad guy isn't going to get caught before the first commercial break, the detectives' first theory is always wrong, etc. etc. There are rules built into the genre, and these rules are picked up intuitively by the consumer, creating a framework in which they can know more than the brilliant detectives, solve crimes faster, and feel a sense of accomplishment.  But these rules are only valid within this framework.  All that is accomplished, all that can be accomplished, is a better ability to navigate and use this framework and its rules. Thus watching it gives you a sense of achievement, but what you've achieved is only useful for watching more procedurals.

Negative flattery tends to be primarily in the realm of "reality" television.  People talk about watching television ironically, or of watching it for the same reason people slow down to see a gory car wreck. The Jerry Springer Show, Jersey Shore, any of the Real Housewives franchises, while there are those that fully identify with the casts, many watch to ridicule.  There are more blatant examples, series of essentially clipshows titled "World's Dumbest..." where the ellipses is filled with everything from criminals to holidays to tourists, all of whom are mocked by C-list comedians. In my view, these shows can be broken into two categories: those that inspire mockery, and those that inspire righteous indignation.  World's Dumbest... is a good example of the former, because the whole point is to mock, to laugh at how stupid other people are.  But of course the consumer isn't stupid, not like these guys.  The show promises that there are a whole lot of morons out there, so join us in laughing at them, because after all we aren't stupid.  The other category, righteous indignation, can be seen with something like the Real Housewives, Keeping up with the Kardashians, Jerry Springer, or The Simple Life.  This last is a the epitome of a pretty major reality tv subgenre: Terrible Rich People.  The whole point is that they lead a life of extreme wealth and privilege, yet are shallow, callous, and condescending to those they consider beneath them.  With Jerry Springer or Maury we can be disgusted with people who cheat, or we could just look at Cheaters.  Toddlers in Tiaras and Here Comes Honey Boo-Boo are as geared to an audience looking to jeer the child beauty pageant industry as it is to the industry's devotees.  The dangerous thing about righteous indignation is that it lets us feel righteous when all we really are is indignant.  That merely finding something awful can be transmuted into a feeling of personal goodness is a powerful tool when used to inspire action, but here it is used only to get you to watch the next episode.

I mentioned earlier that these trends are not exclusive to television, which is true.  The internet is rife with this, but with a major bias towards negative flattery.  Countless blogs, "news" sites, special interest forums, etc., are dedicated to deriding those of opposing opinions, and they operate in the same fashion. The message: Look at how stupid, disgusting, or evil these other guys are. We see this on every side of every spectrum.  Like tv shows, websites live and die based on the number of consumers.  

I don't mean to imply that all television is flattering entertainment, or even that entertainment is necessarily bad.  To bring this back to The End of the Tour, Wallace compares watching television to masturbating:
"I’m not saying TV is bad or a waste of your time. Any more than, you know, masturbation is bad or a waste of your time. It's a pleasurable way to spend a few minutes. But if you're doing it twenty times a day, if your primary sexual relationship is with your own hand, then there's something wrong."

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Digital Humanities and the 2016 Election

I've previously mentioned the advent of digital humanities, especially in regards to measuring ebb and flow of positive and negative words.  The New York Times has done something similar, but with the presidential candidates on a scale of positive/negative and simple/complex, while also including the books closest to them on this matrix.  That Trump's language is the simplest, by a significant margin, is not surprising.  In fact, his placement is directly above The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (a novel narrated by an uneducated thirteen year old) and slightly below the Fairy Tales of Hans Christian Anderson.  To be fair, this is a man whose most lasting contribution to English letters was a two-word catchphrase.  The positive/negative spectrum is more interesting, especially when you look within a party.  The democratic candidates are interesting in that they form almost a mirror image, with O'Malley just a hair from the center line, and Sanders and Clinton equidistant from the origin on the negative and positive sides, respectively.  It's not difficult to see how this corresponds to their rhetorical style, with Sanders spending more time focusing on what's wrong and why we need to fix it, while Clinton is more focused on saying how things will improve.  

It's an interesting article, and provides a neat visualization of political rhetoric.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Christopher Walken's "The Raven"

Just in time for Halloween, here's a reading of Poe's classic poem "The Raven," read by none other than Christopher Walken: