Character Assassination

What can ruin a good story for you?

For me, if I don’t care about the characters, I won’t care about the story. I felt that way while watching the film Public Enemies – John Dillinger was a horrible person, and I couldn’t invest any energy in caring whether he was caught or betrayed or killed. His charisma wasn’t enough to make me care, the cat-and-mouse game he was playing with the Feds wasn’t enough to make me care, his Johnny Depp-ness wasn’t enough to make me care. I was completely detached from the film, just waiting for it to end. (And trying to spot my friends Bill and Shannon Butler, who were swing dancing extras in the movie – the only thing that made watching it worthwhile.)

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Likewise, I have a friend who hated La Femme Nikita, because the title character murders a cop in cold blood at the beginning of the film, and he couldn’t forgive her for that. Never mind that the story was about transformation and redemption – and about how society says it’s okay to be a monster, as long as you’re a monster on the right side of the law.  (Yeah, I loved it. But I get why he didn’t. )

We all have sins we consider unforgivable.

I just finished reading Menfreya in the Morning, by Victoria Holt. It was written in the 1960s – a Daphnie du Maurier-style Gothic romance, set in the early 20th century.

I was liking it a lot, the style is spot on: sweeping rocky coasts, a glorious old manor gone to seed, horseback riding accidents, political scandals, rumors of a ghost in the east wing – the whole Gothicky works. The main character, Harriet, is likable: a lonely, odd, smart girl with a despised limp, who ends up capturing the heart of Bevil, the man she’s been in love with since she was 10 and he was 20. He’s a gorgeous Lothario, and the most eligible bachelor in all of Cornwall. Even after they get married about half way through the book, she can’t really believe that he wants her – he’s had a lot of affairs in the past and still flirts with women more beautiful than Harriet.

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The marriage happens early on, because the rest of the the story is tres Rebecca: what with the dark suspicions about her husband’s infidelity, the ghost in the east wing, the sinister governess and all. So, although they have an ideal honeymoon, when they get back, those little dreads begin to take hold. One night they have a major disagreement over Harriet’s best friend, who is also Bevil’s sister. After the argument, Harriet is furious with him, and announces that she’s going to sleep in the other bedchamber. He says no, he wants her there with him. She refuses.

Aaaaannnnnd he rapes her. It isn’t spelled out as such, but it’s pretty clear what happens… her arms and back are covered in bruises the next day, and she describes it as “the most soul-shattering experience of her life.”

Okay, I thought. Do I put the book down now? But Holt doesn’t pull her punches. She takes care to express the rage, humiliation and fear Harriet feels, and especially the loss of her autonomy, the realization that whatever she wants, he’s stronger, he’s her husband, and she has no way of fighting back.

Meanwhile, there’s a kind young man lurking vaguely in the background, and I started wondering whether Harriet was going to ultimately end up with him. Would her husband die? Then I thought, wow. This is a totally different book than I thought it was going to be.

EXCEPT IT’S NOT. Harriet makes excuses for her husband, and eventually learns that she was wrong about the sister, and he was right, and all her suspicions about Bevil’s infidelities were unfounded, and he really just loves only her and she loves only him and those two crazy kids work it out, by gum.

Fuck you, 1966.

What story was ruined for you by a character’s actions?

 

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Veronica Mars and the Case of the Kickstarter Kerfluffle

So then. Veronica Mars. I just wrote about the virtues of that very show in my last blog, Small Screen Gems – and lo and behold, a short time later, it’s become the Show that Made History – that is, creator Rob Thomas gathered, on Kickstarter, as of March 16 at 3:12 PM Central Time, $3,517,129 toward making a Veronica Mars movie. With 27 days to go.  Sure, there are some big money donors in there, but for the most part, we’re looking at a lot of folks donating smaller amounts… last I heard, the average donation was $61.

There’s been some backlash. Let’s take off the table the idea that maybe this money could be better spent on more humanitarian causes, and stick to the subject of artistic projects, specifically.

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Plus – cute as a bug in a Snuggie.

The argument, from one section of the virtual roundtable, is that fans’ enthusiastic response to the Veronica Mars Kickstarter campaign sets a terrible precedent for the way movies are funded, the future of independent cinema, etc. I’m not going to get into that. For a good article on the subject, check out Sam Adams’ piece in Slate.

What I will get into is this: There are two sentiments I’ve heard repeated most often… 1) “What’s next.. a movie version of ____?” <–fill in your choice of marginal TV fare. Clever, albeit snarky folks are hating on the VM. I honestly believe that most of them have developed a perception of the show, and have never actually given it a fair chance. Because it’s decidedly not marginal fare.  And 2) “Why can’t people just let go? How about funding something NEW?”

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Hmm. It’s true. We geeks don’t like to let go. This is, essentially, why the film Serenity got made. And certainly, Hollywood is not the best purveyor of Things New – and this often goes very badly. Look at every movie version of a 70’s TV show designed to pander to Gen X viewers, every ill-begotten ‘re-imagining’ or sequel (Bruce Willis Dying Hard yet again), and the poster child for Not-Knowing-When-Enough-Is-Enough-Already, George Lucas. I’m often frustrated by these trends as well – and I love the rare book or film that is truly original, truly Something New.

Next up, Manimal the movie!   

Also, sometimes an author or auteur needs to understand that the story is, in fact, done, and trust the imagination of their readers and viewers. For instance, the final chapter of the Harry Potter books. I freaking adore that series, but I’m not a big fan of the way we’re handed a neat little package of an ending, a peek into the future of our favorite surviving characters – instead of being allowed to imagine all the possibilities. The crux (or horcrux, amirite?) of the story was complete one chapter earlier, after all.

But what about those artists and authors who can’t let go… of a world, a character, a story, and the result is something great? I defeat the haters’ argument with 3 examples: Evil Dead 2, Lord of the Rings (books), and The Jeffersons. BOOM! Not to mention Cape FearFrasier, Updike’s Rabbit books, Godfather 2, The Colbert Report, several terrific Jane Austen movies and miniseries, Legend of Korra, many mystery series, The Man Who Knew Too Much, Clueless, Moulin Rogue, Angel, Nosferatu, the occasional Batman show or movie, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, and let us not forget Gremlins 2. And here’s the deal… sometimes we viewers are not ready to say goodbye to beloved characters or worlds, and we relish in the idea of closure, or a peek into their future.

Veronica Mars is such a show. Due to network manipulation, and some floundering on the part of the writers, season 3 wasn’t all it should have been, and we were left with a bit of a cliffhanger, not to mention a lot of question marks where characters’ lives were headed. It’s a show that deserves more, and Veronica is unquestionably someone whom I want to meet at age 28. Rob Thomas created an interesting world packed full of complex characters, some beloved, some nasty as hell, many deliciously in the middle- and I, for one, am looking forward to seeing them all again.

I plan on donating at the $25 amount, so I can get the t-shirt.

Cheers,

Q

PS. If you haven’t seen Kristen Bell’s sloth meltdown, you need to watch it. It might just make you want to fund her movie.

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You’re Welcome.

Have You Seen This? 13 Great, Often-Overlooked Films

Part of Finding the Yummy is picking out that perfect film for that particular crowd, for that precise night. Here are some of my favorites from the 1990s that you may have missed… or may want to watch again. Why the 90s? Call it the 20 Year Rule: now that we’re in the 20-teens, the 90s are finally starting to come into focus. As a bonus, I’ve included the perfect drink to pair with each film.

Big Night, 1996, Directed by Campbell Scott and Stanley Tucci

I really love this movie. You’ve got a pre-Monk Tony Shalhub, (back when we only knew him as ‘that funny guy from Wings’)giving us an early glimpse of his prodigious drama chops as Primo, a temperamental Italian chef who co-owns a restaurant with his brother, Secondo.  Secondo, played to perfection by Tucci, is a slick character who seduces everyone he meets (especially women) – but really, it’s he who’s being seduced, and ultimately duped, by the American Dream.  Add to that mix an at-her-best Minnie Driver, Allison Janney, Isabella Rossellini, Ian Holm (in a scenery chewing role as a rival restaurateur), and Campbell Scott, and you can hardly go wrong. Then set it all in a glossy, gauzy, 1950s, add a killer jazz soundtrack, some truly funny bits, and a feast scene to rival even Babette’s. Warning – don’t watch on an empty stomach. Delicious.

“To eat good food is to be close to God.”

Pair With: Tomassi Amarone (if you’re feeling munificent), or a Valpolicella – terrific at almost any price. (You might want to have a substantial antipasto plate handy too.)

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Cold Comfort Farm, 1995, Directed by John Schlesinger

There was time, back in the 1990s it was, when the world was a kinder place, and a young actress named Kate Beckinsale was known more for her wit and talent than for the way her leather pants stretched across her patookis as she crouched atop a flying buttress, surveying her nighttime domain. Giving crappy vampire franchises their due, I still think playing Flora Poste in Cold Comfort Farm is Beckinsale’s finest hour. Flora is akin to Jane Austen’s Emma (in fact, Beckinsale went on to play Emma only a few years later), a buttinsky and a matchmaker who gets away with her interfering nature because she’s just that charming.  The main difference is that, unlike Emma’s schemes, Flora’s tend to be successful. It’s the 1920s: Flora’s parents have just passed away, and she chooses to go live with her gothickly rural relatives at the titular farm. They are a miserable, hilarious lot – including a fire-and-brimstone preacher patriarch (Ian McKellen), his wretched wife (Eileen Atkins), and their oversexed, hunky son (Rufus Sewell). Flora sweeps into their lives and refuses to allow them to wallow in their desolation. Also with AbFab’s Joanna Lumley, and one of my favorite people on the planet – Mr. Stephen Fry.

“I saw something nasty in the woodshed.”

Pair With: A Brandy Sidecar – a jazz era favorite!

Deja Vu, 1997, Directed by Henry Jaglom

Not to be confused with the Denzel Washington film of the same name (don’t worry, I’ll get to Denzel in a minute), this is a talky little art house film that managed to capture me despite some flaws. Okay, one particular flaw, in my mind. Like David Mamet, Jaglom will insist upon casting his wife (in Mamet’s case, the occasionally good, but often flat Rebecca Pidgeon, and in Jaglom’s case, Victoria Foyt). Foyt co-wrote the script, so in a way, I understand. It’s not that she’s a crappy actress, and I really like her strong, beautiful features (but what’s with that haircut from 1984?). It’s just that…well, she’s sometimes annoying. When her character, Dana, is upset, Foyt lapses into a whiny voice that I find altogether irritating. So why is this film on my list, you may well ask? Number one: Stephen Dillane. You might know him now as stern Stannis Baratheon on Game of Thrones, but here he is utterly swoon-worthy. If you like the male variety of the species, you might just fall in love with his character, Sean. The other reasons to watch Deja Vu? The writing, and the rest of the cast, including Vanessa Redgrave as a gorgeous, winning, adventurous creature, who is also shockingly self-centered. There is moral ambiguity in this film – who’s the better, more complete human, the person who follows their bliss, or the one who sticks with their commitments, no matter what happiness they may end up denying themselves? (Hint: there’s no right answer. Warning: if you believe that infidelity is universally reprehensible, you probably will not like this movie.) Mostly, I come back to the film because it gives me chills. The good kind of chills. Jaglom plants us firmly in the real world with his naturalistic dialog and documentary-style camera work  – and then suddenly, he hits us with fate-laden, wondrous, magical moments.

“To cheat oneself out of love is the most terrible deception, it is an eternal loss for which there is no reparation, neither in time or eternity.”

Pair With: A Kir Royale, or some hot chocolate.

Devil in a Blue Dress, 1995, Directed by Carl Franklin 

This movie stars Denzel Washington, so you’d think that pretty much the entire world would have seen it by now – yet, when I worked at a video store (Nicollet Village Video in Minneapolis, now Filmzilla – an actual, surviving brick-and-mortar video rental shop – What?!), I often discovered customers who had never even heard of it, let alone seen it. It’s simply a great period noir, from the book by Walter Mosley. Jennifer “The Bride” Beals is the requisite treacherous woman (guess what color her dress is?) – and though I tease with “The Bride” stuff, she is very well cast, as it turns out. Washington, at the height of his early stardom, smolders as Easy Rawlins, an amateur sleuth in way over his head. The real standout here, however, is Don Cheadle, before many of us knew who the hell Don Cheadle was, as the terrifying psychopath Mouse Alexander. Surprisingly, rather than having Mouse work for the bad guys, Mosley casts him as Easy’s tenuous friend – he’s like a rabid dog on a short leash – and Easy has to decide how much slack to give him, never knowing when he might break free on his own.

“…if you ain’t want him dead, why you leave him with me?”

Pair With: Bulleit Bourbon, neat.

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Funny Bones, 1995, Directed by Peter Chelsom

I remember the first time I saw this film, on video, with friends – and as the credits rolled, we just sat there in stupefied silence, unable to speak until the end of the reel. The opening sequence has a similar impact… a sort of “What the…Did that just happen?” vibe. Oliver Platt plays Tommy Fawkes, a comedian living in the shadow of his much more famous father (played by Jerry Lewis, pretty much as himself). After Tommy bombs at what was supposed to be his big break (a really painful scene, but I promise, it’s the only one in the movie), he travels to Blackpool, England, an old family vacation spot, to search for the next great act. What he finds are family secrets, the fine line between comedy and violence, and quite possibly, the funniest man alive… a sort of humor savant named Jack (Lee Evans). A truly unusual and very funny film.

Nicky: “Have you lived in Blackpool all your life?” 
Jack: “Not yet.” 

Pair With: A Beefeater Gin and Tonic.

The Ice Storm, 1997, Directed by Ang Lee

This is a dark one, so be prepared. It takes place in the 1970s; Allison Janney again (let’s face it, everything’s a better with a little A.J.) hosting a “key party,” Sigourney Weaver and Kevin Kline cheating on their spouses, Christina Ricci seducing her boyfriend’s younger brother, and both Spiderman (Tobey Maguire)  and Frodo (Elijah Wood) running around trying to figure out life while courting sex and death — all against the setting of a spectacular ice storm. If the cast isn’t enough to recommend this film, then let Ang Lee draw you in. He might just be the most diverse director working today – he has an eye for delicate detail, and the ability to sweep us away in any genre. After all, the man directed both Sense and Sensibility and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

“Ben, you’re boring me. I have a husband. I don’t have a need for another one.”

Pair With: A Bloody Mary, preferably before noon. 

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The Impostors, 1998, Directed by Stanley Tucci

The first of three films on this list that include Hope Davis in the cast, and the second directed and written by Tucci. Every person I have shown this movie to has loved it, and yet, on IMDb, it only garners a slightly above average rating. Granted, I count among my friends many actors and jazz musicians, and the film appeals greatly to these two demographics. Do you like Laurel and Hardy? Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead? Farce? 1930’s jazz? Then run, don’t walk to rent this film. It makes me laugh until I tear up every time I see it. Oh, and did I mention? Oliver Platt (again), Tony Shalhoub (again), Allison Janney (again), Campbell Scott (again), IsabellaRossellini (again), Richard Jenkins, Alfred Molina, Lily Taylor, Steve Buscemi, Billy Connolly, and Woody Allen. Whew!

Perhaps we should wrestle sometime. Do you like the taut roundness that exercise brings to the buttocks?”

Pair With: A Gin Martini with Olives. (Although perhaps not as large as the one Arthur orders in the movie.)
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Joe vs. the Volcano, 1990, Directed by John Patrick Shanley

This, perhaps more so than any other film on this list, has become a cult favorite. It was seriously panned when it came out, the one time the Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan formula didn’t seem to work. The writer/director is a playwright, which might explain why it didn’t go down well with everyone. Don’t get me wrong: at times, it’s goofy. It’s not grounded in reality. Meg Ryan turns up as three different characters. Abe Vigoda plays the chief of an island tribe, and one of the tribesmen is Nathan Lane. Let me say that again. One of the island tribesmen is Nathan Lane.  And all of this makes complete sense when you accept the fact that Joe Vs. The Volcano is a fairy tale.  (It even starts with the words “Once Upon A Time…”) Drenched with symbolism, really funny, incredibly sweet and highly quotable – hitch yourself onto Joe Banks’ raft made of luggage, and I promise you a fun journey.

“Very exciting….as a luggage problem.”

Pair With: A Mai Tai, served in a coconut, with plenty of fruity garnishes. 

Lone Star, 1996, Directed by John Sayles

This is the movie that made Matthew McConaughey a star, so upon re-watching it the other night, I was surprised at how little screen time he has. Now that his looks and manner are so familiar, his absence is noticeable, but back then his brand of charisma was a novelty, and his character, a sheriff’s deputy in the 1950s, so loomed over the story, that I remember him as being in at least half the film. Chris Cooper plays McConaughey’s son in the present day… and really, the whole movie is about fathers and sons (it follows multiple families) – do you accept your parents’ legacy, or write your own story? It’s also about race and power. But mostly, it’s  about a 40-year-old murder mystery that Sheriff Sam Deeds (Cooper) is trying to solve. The victim was a monster of a man, played with great menace by Kris Kristofferson  – and it’s soon clear that the world is better off without him.  Deeds’ main suspect? His deceased father, and local legend, Buddy. Add to this Sayles’ always dry, clever dialogue, and a very sexy Elizabeth Pena, and you have Texas gold.

Sheriff Sam Deeds: “Mrs. Bledsoe?”
Minnie Bledsoe: “That’s me.”
Sheriff Sam Deeds: “I’m Sheriff Deeds.”
Minnie Bledsoe: “Sheriff Deeds is dead, honey. You just Sheriff Junior.”
Sheriff Sam Deeds: “Yeah, that’s the story of my life.”

Pair With: (Need I even say it?) A Lone Star Beer, ice cold.

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Miller’s Crossing, 1990, Directed by the Coen Brothers

Okay, this one isn’t that obscure, but it, like another one of my favorite films, The Royal Tenenbaums, bears a second (or twelfth) viewing. Yes, it is extremely violent – it is a mob movie after all. And yes, like many of the films on my list it is a period piece (1930s). Gabriel Byrne is Tom, the right-hand-man of Albert Finney’s Irish mob boss, Leo. Due to, what else, a dame (or, in the parlance of the film, a ‘twist’), Tom shifts his loyalties over to the Italian side of the underworld…or does he? Is he playing the most brilliant long game ever, or is he, like he claims, just making it up as he goes along? Marcia Gay Harden is mesmerizing as the dame, and who can forget John Turturro as her weasly brother Bernie… one of his greatest performances, and that’s saying something. And as the final cherry on this scrumptious concoction, Miller’s Crossing has some of the best noir dialogue ever to grace the silver screen.

“You ain’t got a license to kill bookies and today I ain’t sellin’ any. So take your flunky and dangle.”

Pair With:  Bushmills Black Irish Whisky or a Negroni, depending where you are in the film.

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Mumford, 1999, Directed by Lawrence Kasdan

This stars Hope Davis again, and Loren Dean (why don’t we see more of him?) as the title character. Mumford is a psychologist in a town that shares his name. He’s appeared, seemingly out of nowhere, and now is making great strides in helping the quirky townsters solve their problems, including a weight-obsessed teen (a young Zooey Deschanel), a shopaholic mom (the always great Mary McDonnell) with a boor of a husband (Ted Danson), a lonely software billionaire (Jason Lee), and a sickly, oppressed and beautiful woman (Davis). But who is Mumford, really? A couple of rival shrinks want to know. His story, when revealed, elevates this romantic comedy from a meet-cute with a cast of loveable oddballs, to something a little darker, a little richer.

“When I was in high school the thing I wanted most when I was stuck in class, the thing that I was desperately in pursuit of, was a hall pass. That’s all I ever wanted. I loved moving freely around the school while everybody else was trapped in there. That’s how I feel right now. Like I have some giant – all day – hall pass.”

Pair With:  A virgin Cuba Libra (Coke and lime).

Next Stop Wonderland, 1998, Directed by Brad Anderson

Another Hope Davis romantic comedy. What can I say? She brings a certain sadness to her characters that makes her more interesting that your average big-toothed, sparkly-eyed romantic lead. Her character, Erin, is indeed sad – a state of being which is nicely echoed by the film’s glorious, melancholy, bossa nova soundtrack. Erin hasn’t recovered from the death of her poet father – add to this the ignominy of being dumped by her blowhard poser hippy boyfriend (Philip Seymour Hoffman – pre-greatness, but already great), and having a mother who is way more glamorous than she is (Holland Taylor – completely unaged since Bosom Buddies). Erin prefers the gentle nudgings of fate to guide her path – her mother, a much more proactive person, takes out a personal ad for Erin without her consent. She passively agrees to these dates – and humor ensues. All the while, however – as in Sleepless in Seattle, or Serendipity, we know who she’s supposed to be with – a man named Alan (Alan Gelfant – who, in an era of sensitive leading boy-men, was a masculine breath of fresh air), whom she hasn’t yet met. We’re following his story as well – and we can’t wait for that moment that fate finally decides to bring them together. Sure, there’s a goofy bit about the mob and a stolen blowfish (no, really) – and some two-dimensional characters, but all in all, a terrific romantic comedy (and those are hard to come by).

Cricket: “Don’t you just hate men?”
Erin: “Oh God, I wish I did. That would make my life so much easier.”

Pair With: A Caipirinha – the national drink of Brazil.

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Zero Effect, 1998, Directed by Jake Kasdan

My friends and I were some of the only people in the Uptown Theater the night we saw Zero Effect. You guys. It’s so, so good – more people need to see this film. I’ve always liked Bill Pullman (Especially in While You Were Sleeping), but even I admit he can be shaky at times. As Daryl Zero, a modern-day Sherlock Holmes (although not a Sherlock derivative), Pullman is at his very best. Casting him seems like it was a bold move on Kasdan’s part, as was the casting of Ben Stiller (not yet a box office draw) as Daryl’s put-upon guy Friday. Daryl Zero is a nearly autistic, recluse private detective, who can only function in the world when he’s on the job, pretending to be someone else. He’s investigating a blackmailing on behalf of a millionaire (Ryan O’Neal), who’s clearly not telling the whole truth. The story is extremely well written, the clues all fall into place beautifully, and watching Daryl work as he illuminates his methods, we really believe that we are watching a genius – the best detective in the world. Pullman manages to capture the character’s brilliance, dysfunction, and infuriating capriciousness, all with humor and depth. Kim Dickens, intense, and yet somehow still very at ease, is great as Daryl’s only equal. 

“A few words here about following people. People know they’re being followed when they turn around and see someone following them. They can’t tell they’re being followed if you get there first.”

Pair With:  A Tab soda and tuna fish out of the can.