In her seven seasons as a cast member on Saturday Night Live, Kristen Wiig became known for an array of bizarre recurring characters and for taking on difficult and highly memorable impressions (Bjork, Kathie Lee Gifford and Suze Orman spring immediately to mind). She's done her fair share of comedic film work, but in the last few years has really found her niche in indie dramadies. With The Skeleton Twins and Hateship Loveship under her belt, Wiig now appears in her strongest performance to date in Welcome to Me as Alice Klieg, a woman with borderline personality disorder.
The concept works because it is too absurd to be true. Essentially, it begins with the fact that Alice has a complicated relationship with television. It has comforted, cared and educated her over the years. Despite her mental issues, she's stopped taking her prescribed medications and relies on piles of VHS tapes to calm her nerves. She leaves the television on in her apartment at all times, telling a visitor to her home that it hasn't been turned off in 11 years. Before she can go out into the world, Alice will sit down and pop in an old Oprah episode into the VCR, reciting every line of dialogue. To her, these Oprah episodes have been a better guide for living her life than the time spent with her therapist (Tim Robbins). Spontaneity is not Alice's specialty, often expressing her feelings in "prepared statements" handwritten in advance to spare her from getting too emotional in the heat of the moment.
One night, Alice turns on the California Lottery and matches the numbers to her recently purchased ticket to discover that she has won a massive $86 million dollar jackpot. Without the checks and balances of proper care for her illness, her newfound wealth enables her to invest in the lifelong dream of having her own talk show. She teams up with New Vibrant Studios, home to a struggling local home-shopping network owned by brothers Rich (James Marsden) and Gabe (Wes Bentley) and offers to pay upfront to produce her show, which quickly goes from a weekly program (entitled Welcome To Me, with increasingly more complex opening title sequences as the show goes on) to a daily one.
It's nonsensical that actress Michelle Monaghan isn't a bigger name in Hollywood. She is an excellent foil to Robert Downey Jr. in cult dark comedy Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and inspires Jake Gyllenhaal in Source Code. She was even in the lauded first season of True Detective (which I didn't watch). Fort Bliss, a film written and directed by Claudia Myers, is a special treat for Monaghan fans. Instead of supporting an A-list actor onscreen, Monaghan gets her chance to lead a film.
She plays Staff Sgt. Maggie Swann, recently returned from service in Afghanistan. Maggie is an army medic, quick to respond to injuries in the field, yet thrown by the changes that have occurred while she's been abroad. Her young son Paul (Oakes Fegley, This Is Where I Leave You) has lived with Maggie's ex-husband Richard (Ron Livingston, Office Space) and grown extremely close to Richard's new wife Alma (Emmanuelle Chriqui, Entourage). Maggie expects a warmer welcome from her son than what she receives. Her father (John Savage, The Deer Hunter), also a veteran, reminds her about the story of Rip Van Winkle, and how long absences mean dealing with change upon return.
With the slightest excuse, I can go on and on about how Some Like It Hot is truly the perfect comedy if not the perfect movie. Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond's script has a perfect symmetry -- every setup is paid off, every gag is repeated bigger, better and often with a kind of lyricism ("we have the same type blood, type O"). The timing of the maracas scene is breathtakingly brilliant. People like to gossip about director Wilder's difficulty in working with Marilyn Monroe but you see none of that onscreen. Most importantly, I've seen the movie countless times but it's still funny, every single time.
Recently I've been interested in -- and vastly entertained by -- comedies that aren't perfect, and that don't quite work for one reason or another. The thin, ridiculous plot is just an excuse for strings and strings of gags. You can see the joins where the movie was recut for one reason or another. Casting choices threw the movie out of balance. You get the idea. And yet they are still marvelous in many ways.
For example, a few years after Some Like It Hot, Wilder directed Kiss Me, Stupid, a film that provided a sharp and smutty contrast to the pastel-colored "sophisticated comedies" of the time. Instead of Rock Hudson and Doris Day flirting on gorgeous sets, you get Ray Walston and Kim Novak in harsh black-and-white, bargaining in a quote-roadhouse-unquote.
A new year, a new you and a new Slackerwood! I took a break from this article for a while, but now I'm back and ready to bring you recommendations of films you might have overlooked.
In looking through my Netflix history, I discovered that 2014 was a big TV year for me. It seems like the website stepped its game up this past year, cranking out the latest season of current shows faster than before. (Except for Downton Abbey -- get on it, Netflix!) Here are a few television shows that came across my radar these past few months.
Twin Peaks -- When I learned writer/director David Lynch was creating a new season for the now 25-year-old show, I saw this as the sign to bring it up from the bottom of the list. FBI agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) is sent to the town of Twin Peaks to investigate the mysterious death of a teenage girl. His journey along the way takes him through a slew of oddball characters, creepy places and out-of-this-world situations. Although a little confusing towards the end, the story leaves you wanting more. I'm excited to see what Lynch will bring back in the new season! Available on Netflix, iTunes, Amazon Instant and Hulu Plus.
For decades, the vast and beautiful land of Texas has been used as the backdrop for dozens of feature films, spawning beloved classics from virtually every genre. Yet when it comes to horror, it seems that the one title most associated with the state remains Tobe Hooper's masterful The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974). A great film which, without question, will live on, Chainsaw was one of the first instances which successfully portrayed the wide-open spaces of Texas as potential landscape of sheer terror.
In the years following the film's impact, a variety of features -- most notably a number of Chain Saw sequels/remakes -- have continued to paint Texas as a rich setting for some truly inventive and fright-filled tales. In time for Halloween, and in celebration of the Texas-set 2014 remake of The Town That Dreaded Sundown (currently in limited release and on VOD), here are a few titles that have, in their own way, given a chilling new face to the Lone Star State. Put together your own Texas-themed horror night sometime soon with these movies.
Shot and released two years after Chain Saw, 1976's The Town That Dreaded Sundown is a retelling of a true story that had plagued a small Texas town in post-war America. In the small community of Texarkana, a hooded killer known as the Phantom stalks and kills various citizens in unpredictable ways while continuously eluding authorities. Shot in the almost documentary-like style common with independent films of the decade, The Town That Dreaded Sundown was one of the first horror films closely based on true events; a fact the film relishes with matter-of-fact narration. That, combined with the film's open ending, a random cast that includes Ben Johnson and Dawn Wells, and a killer whose mere still presence in front of the camera gives off instant chills, made the movie an instant event for horror fans.
I'm writing this on Sunday, August 31. If Molly Ivins were still alive, it would be her 70th birthday. And today is Labor Day, so it seems like a fine time to remember my favorite political columnist through movie and video clips.
Actually, Don writing a TAMI Flashback about John Henry Faulk (go read it when you're done here) inspired me. I had first read about Faulk in Ivins' essay in Molly Ivins Can't Say That, Can She? If you watch the TAMI video from Faulk's memorial service, right at the end Ivins tells a very funny story from that essay. Here, I'll make it easy on you by embedding the video again. Skip ahead to 1:24:00 for Ivins. (The story might also make you feel nostalgic about Cinema West.)
The names Ken Lay, Jeff Skilling and Andrew Fastow are not as prevalent in the media as they were in the last decade. These men, behind the success (such as it was) and severe failure of Enron, were eventually found guilty of fraud and other charges.
The 2005 documentary Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room is based on the book of the same name. Director Alex Gibney (Taxi to the Dark Side, The Armstrong Lie) interviews the book's authors, journalist Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind, along with journalists, political figures and former Enron employees. Peter Coyote (E.T., Erin Brockovich), who could narrate practically anything and lend it a certain credence, talks of the bravado and bluff in the history of the energy-trading company based in Houston.
These interviews and Coyote's narration speak to the shenanigans going down at the once-praised company. The "macho culture" at the business is described, corraborated by video clips from an extreme motocross trip and discussion of one executive's love for strippers (with requisite strip club footage). Audio of male traders making rude and conspiratorial remarks is played over scenes from the 2000-2001 California electricity crisis. In such a case, it's not shocking that a woman, Sherron Watkins, turned whistleblower against Enron.
Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room depicts the real-life events as a sort of morality tale, with many of the interviewees speaking about the lousy ethics of the company's business and their "synergistic corruption." The director includes C_SPAN video of Skilling before a Senate committee, lying about his part in the faulty financing Enron was using. Because the company appeared to be doing so well -- they were making loads of money, anyway -- any outside person who tried to ask important questions about the business or look closer at their dealings faced repurcussions.
You never know what you might find when you're browsing Netflix Instant selections on a dull Sunday afternoon, and when my husband (who had the remote, go figure) started to skip past the unknown-to-us movie The Hot Flashes, I did a double-take and said, "Wait, stop -- is that directed by Susan Seidelman?" As in, Susan Seidelman who made Desperately Seeking Susan and Smithereens and I haven't heard about her since that She-Devil adaptation I don't want to think about? My attention was caught.
Then we read the synopsis, which was about middle-age women playing basketball -- okay, that's novel -- and decided to play the "give it 10 minutes and turn it off if it's too dumb" game. We lasted through all 99 minutes with no regrets. (Full disclosure: After 10-ish minutes I exclaimed, "Hey, this movie is set in Texas! I'm gonna write it up," and ran to my office for a notebook and pen. Writers are like this.)
The Hot Flashes is a little bit dumb and a more than a little bit obvious, with a narrative of the utmost predictability. But an excellent cast, working together beautifully, and some clever scripting kept us watching. In addition, how often do you see films that star women about to hit menopause? Wait, it's better than that -- this is a feature film about women over 40 playing competitive sports. I know some of you are intrigued now too.
This month's list of films available online was all over the place. I was watching ridiculous Craig Robinson comedies and intense documentaries about the struggle to make art. "How the hell do I tie these together?" was the question, as my themes usually come to me quite easily. When I thought back about all of these stories, though, I finally found one kernel within each movie that linked them: topics we don't like to talk about.
What does or does not making something "taboo" is different for each of us. Some are universally obvious, but some might not strike us right away. We have to learn more and try to understand a situation before writing it off as totally unthinkable. Several of the films I watched this month explore topics that are hard to talk about, let alone make a movie about. When you get to know these characters though, you start to see where they are coming from.
I'm not saying they're right, or that they're even heroes. But they're people. They're human, just like you and me. Give their stories a shot this month.
I hate jokes and anyone who makes them. Having a sense of humor has always disgusted me, and is one trait in people that I absolutely cannot stand. It's an automatic deal breaker for me when, after just having met someone, they crack a joke or use a bit of sarcasm in an effort to be impressive. If you're one of these people, we probably haven't gotten along very well (and that's probably why I never called or texted you back). It truly is the one thing I can't stand.
... Okay, that was my belated April Fools joke for you all. Who am I kidding? I love joking around with people, and will always be the first to lighten the mood in a room (or at least try to). In keeping with that tone for the month, I found myself watching a lot of films lately that have rather foolish protagonists. Some of them are jerks, some just don't have a clue. Some of them are just too young to know what's right and what's wrong. We've all acted foolishly in our own lives, and sometimes we might not realize it until we see someone acting the same way.
I'm not saying these movies will make you realize you're a fool. But, maybe they'll cause you to reflect on those elements of yourself that you didn't realize you had. Who knows -- you might just make some improvements this month.