Sunday, March 26, 2006

The 40 Year Old Virgin (2005)

Our eponymous, experience-challenged sad-sack is Andy (Steve Carell), surrounded by well-meaning but clueless bro-buddies who endeavor to liberate him from his lifelong celibacy. Despite questionable adventures in meat-market bars and speed-dating carousels, Andy finds lovely compatibility in Trish (Catherine Keener). But can true love deliver the dirty, dirty sex that Andy's been hearing so much about? Crude and crass without being too-terribly stupid, this coming-of-age (see what I did there?) comedy never degrades or insults its characters, elevating a one-joke premise into a nuanced story. Much credit to Judd Apatow and company; turning the obsession over "collectibles" (action figures kept pristine, in the original packaging, to maintain value) into a hilariously layered psychosexual metaphor deserves kudos. But what was the deal with the whole Bollywood Age of Aquarius set piece? Oh well, I laughed anyway. Wasn't that the point?

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Slacker (1991)

Semi-scripted documentary showcasing the bohemian fringe community in Austin TX, circa 1990. Richard Linklater's camera functions like the proverbial fly hanging out on yonder wall, focusing on a rotating series of characters -- many of whom appear to be students or at least campus ne'er-do-wells, all of whom lead busy but job-free lives (though Linklater has stated his usage of the term slacker was meant to be positive, it has entered the lexicon distinctly otherwise). The capricious narrative bounces from one eccentric persona to the next: Linklater himself gets the ball rolling as the motormouthed "Should Have Stayed at the Bus Station," ranting about alternate universes from the back of a taxicab. Other oddballs of note: "Guy Who Tosses Typewriter," "Scooby Doo Philosopher," and "Hand Stamping Armlicker." While a young scam artist tries to unload "Madonna's pap smear" on the nearest rube, an aging anarchist bemoans being out of town on the day Charles Whitman climbed the UT clocktower to a dude who believes NASA astronauts encountered aliens on the moon, just like in 2001 (1968). Before long, this bizarre clutter begins to cohere into a crazy-quilt whole. Best of all, everyone seems to be having a good time, if not actually "Having a Breakthrough Day." Shoohee, howdy, shucks.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Sunset Boulevard (1950)

Joe Gillis (William Holden) is a down-on-his-luck writer (is there any other kind?) who finds employment revising a bloated Salome screenplay, pet project for aging silent-screen diva Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson). The rub is that he must dwell in her creepy mansion/shrine-to-her-former-self while he works, listening to Desmond emote to the shadows. She is convinced Salome is the key to her comeback. Gillis knows better, but he soon comes to forget or ignore that fact, as the ghostly allure of faded stardom gets the better of him, all despite the cloaked warnings of Max (Erich von Stroheim), Norma's mysterious butler. As the plot of Billy Wilder's noir classic slowly spirals in on itself, the movie itself spirals outward, one particular scene being key: Desmond snuggles down with Gillis and commands Max to screen one of her early silent pictures -- the meta-joke being that the film screened is Queen Kelly (1928) indeed starring Swanson, and directed by von Stroheim, one of the few he helmed before falling out of Hollywood's favor, keeping his career afloat by taking bit parts ... much like the role of Max, in this film, perhaps. Likewise, the Twilight Zone episode "The 16mm Shrine" is a supernatural narrative extension, in which an obsessed and secluded actress finds a portal out of this world and into the world of her old movies. Better than the static hell seemingly preferred by the characters of Sunset Boulevard.

Friday, March 3, 2006

Network (1976)

After declaring intent to commit suicide during his live broadcast, newsman Howard Beale is kept on-air by network bigwigs for the ratings generated by his spontaneous, outrageous statements ("I'm mad as hell..." and other greatest hits). As revenue increases, the dowdy set is exchanged for a velvety, spotlit stage Beale shares with gossip-mongers and soothsayers, while the suits upstairs (Max Schumacher, the principled head of the news department, and Diana Christensen, the bloodthirsty new head of programming) make for literal odd bedfellows. This would be a one-track satire if not for Paddy Chayefsky's brilliant late-reel turnabout involving a shadowy corporate figure who delivers a fire-and-brimstone carpet-calling. Mad Prophets, indeed. A sub-plot unveiling how acts of terrorism are staged for video hits uneasily close to the the 21st Century; a weirdly prescient journey into the dark heart of television news/entertainment. Bring back J. Fred Muggs!