Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Curb Your Enthusiasm (Season 7, Episode 10: "Seinfeld")

Curb Your Enthusiasm finale, “Seinfeld”, may be the best final episode of a TV series that I ever saw. It builds a bridge between two television legends that Larry David’s über-selfish mind spawned, it comments on both, and incarnates them at the same time. Not to reveal too much to those who hadn’t seen it yet, it’s fair to say that CYE finale managed to become one of the best Seinfeld episodes I ever saw.

One especially poignant moment comes when – after a jealous feud with Jason Alexander – Larry David auditions for the part of George (which he originally based on himself). And, however paradoxical it may seem, he doesn’t look the part: Jason Alexander owns it to the extent that Larry can only end up aping his quirks. It’s a great scene that exorcises the creator’s relationship to his own autobiographical creation – imagine Tennessee Williams in drag, playing Blanche, and you will get the idea.

Needless to say (spoiler coming up!), in the end we witness more than one reunion – the Seinfeld cast one being the less significant of the two. And even though there’s a sudden (and welcome!) surge of sweetness as Cheryl and Larry hug, it gets checked almost immediately – Larry again plunges into his obsessive pettiness (“Dou you respect wood, Cheryl…?”). This time around though, it’s because of these obsessions that Cheryl adores him. What can I say, but to applaud this ultimate neurotic’s dream?

Monday, November 23, 2009

Zombieland (2009, Ruben Fleischer)

After decades of watching the poor zombies making their listless shuffle from one bite to another, it’s refreshing to see them up and running. In Ruben Fleischer’s Zombieland (2009), the living dead spring at their victims, chase them around; make them appreciate their cardio. That concept, along with outstanding performances by everyone involved (Jesse Eisenberg’s angular awkwardness turns into beauty before our eyes, as always is the case with him) still doesn’t rescue the movie for me. The script is shifty-eyed, pacing is awkward and more than one idea seems superfluous (Bill Murray’s turn makes for a gigantic wink the movie snaps under). Also, the strange indecisiveness as to whether Zombieland cares about its characters’ plight at all undermines many scenes, namely the short flashback giving you insight to Woody Harrelson’s personal tragedy. This shamelessly sentimental pull is bad enough in itself, but then the writers put a crass line on top of it: “I haven’t cried like that since Titanic!”.

Thematically, the movie is a variation on The Grapes of Wrath (1940) – only this time it’s a makeshift family (rather than a biological one) that makes its way through the American wasteland. Also: instead of piousness and perseverance, what dominates here is violence – in case of Harrleson’s character verging on sadistic – and it’s small wonder that the most pronounced tribute is paid to Kubrick and his A Clockwork Orange (1971) when a gleeful, destructive orgy is played out to Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro overture.

The journey ends in an amusement park – the only safe place to be, at least for a while – which made me think of the Coney Island finale of The Warriors (1979), but also of the more direct America-as-a-Loony-House inspiration, which Spielberg’s 1941 (1979) probably was. Unfortunately, Fleischer proved unable of pulling the great Spielbergian trick: the amusement park in Zombieland, instead of being a structural matrix for the whole film, remains a mere location.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Smiley Face (2007, Araki)

For Jane F. (Anna Faris), the pothead Gregg Araki’s Smiley Face (2007) is built around, being stoned is being trapped in the world of ultimate, violent immediacy. There is no escaping one’s fears, but there are no qualifications to one’s bliss, either. These two extremes come and go, and nowhere is the fleeting nature of Jane’s experience more visible than in her multiple, sudden realizations of tasks at hand. Her “plan of action”, put together painstakingly, holds no more water than The Communist Manifesto she clutches to and, finally, scatters into the wind from the top of a Venice, CA, ferris wheel. Each task gets obliterated and/or forgotten every time yet another one resurfaces in Jane’s mind. She’s in the middle of one thing, and then – wham! – a sudden flash hits her: “I was supposed to do that other thing first!”. So she stops whatever she’s doing and jumps into another mode of immediate action. In that, Jane is awfully like Tilda Swinton’s character in Eric Zonca’s terrific Julia (2008), who also reasoned solely with her fingertips, and had similarly debased sense of long-term planning. The present and the fantasy are everything in Smiley Face – Marx and Engels would have enjoyed it.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Curb Your Enthusiasm (Season 7, Episode 9: "The Table Read")

Something towering and uncanny was achieved in yesterday’s episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm (2000–), which had the whole main cast of Seinfeld (1990-1998) reunited, playing themselves, playing Seinfeld cast reunited to shoot one last Seinfeld episode. Tangled enough for ya?

Until this (final?) season, the specter of Seinfeld lurked here and there in CYE, and both Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Jason Alexander made appearances on the show. The current seventh season basically replicates the narrative arc of season four, which culminated in a revival of Mel Brooks’ Broadway version of The Producers, with Larry David playing Max Bialystock. Since we are only one week away from the Season Seven finale, I’m really wondering what kind of a treat David cooked up: maybe it will be staged entirely as a Seinfeld episode gone terribly wrong…? Cannot wait!

Still, I salute the way David is balancing between social satire, private fun verging on an in-joke, and the mathematical precision of his farcical scripts. The comic redemption of Michael Richards’ real-life racist rant seen in yesterday’s episode was great, and so was the whole “pussy-rash” thread.

David’s biggest virtue as a comedian and a screenwriter is his immense flexibility: he can do several things at once, and yet never lose the main focus of the show, which is the wide-eyed astonishment over how easily people adapt (and enforce) social conventions upon themselves and others. This is of course a characteristic trait of Jewish humor as a whole – exemplified by Sacha Baron Cohen’s work, as well – but David has the performing affability of a truly great comedian, and he never comes off as insecure in his shticks (it happens to Cohen, when every now and then he effaces himself and showcases his “victims” instead of Borat’s or Brüno’s reactions).

And how precious is a line like: “You cannot give to Jason anything that can be inserted”…?

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

My Sister Eileen (1942, Hall)

Wisecracking is a form of breathing for Rosalind Russell’s character in My Sister Eileen (1942) – and anyone would get weary after listening in to a person’s breath for 96 minutes. Still, the cracks are mostly funny (“Tastes great with strawberry and cream”, says a label on a can, to which Russell reacts: “What doesn’t?”) – and it’s awfully easy to forgive overt cuteness once you’re treated with respect by the cute-ee.

Two sisters from Columbus, Ohio – a wannabe actress Janet Blair and an unpublished writer Russell – move to New York City and, in their newcomer’s desperation, rent an apartment from hell. It’s sure enough situated not far from it (it’s a basement flat and the blasts from a new subway tunnel shake the place up every couple of minutes). There’s nothing to the locale that would gross you out (no vermin, no mould), but in the course of the plot it becomes a literal three ring circus of eccentric guests, slapstick routines and the eternal blasts underneath.

Of course, it has all been musicalized later on in the 1955 Richard Quine movie (and in the Broadway show Wonderful Town), but Alexander Hall’s version has enough legs to stand firmly on its own. The juxtaposition of Russell and Blair – brains of one to the looks of other – comes off great. Blair is a real dish: a plain one, but still a dish. And men are always grabbing at her: literally and understandably.

As far as strong male presence goes, there’s not much in this film but Gordon Jones’ clueless and animalistic “The Wreck” Loomis, a neighboring football player forced to share the flat with Russell and Blair for a while. A heap of beef packed in nothing but drawers and undershirt, he bounces off the walls like a rubber Zorro (his shovel-like hands dangling in front of him). He’s an athletic clown to fulfill Henry James’ definition of Owen Gereth in The Spoils of Poynton: “He was stupid without giving offence”.

And there’s George Tobias, who may be the comic centerpiece of the whole thing. His Greek painter Appopolous – Russell’s and Blair’s landlord – is a great pretender and a lovable cluck. Tobias’ toothless smile with the added value of ridiculous mustache and wiry haircut (not to mention his short tie) add up beautifully and redeem every scene he’s in.

And then there are Three Stooges, but I wouldn’t be caught dead spoiling the nature of their turn in this movie. See for yourselves; it’s worth it.