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Renée Zellweger is incandescent in third installment of ‘Bridget Jones’ franchise

Bridget Jones's BabyIn my opinion, there’s nothing sexier than a beautiful, confident woman basking in middle-age glory. In the third installment of the Bridget Jones series, Bridget Jones’ Baby, Renée Zellweger is a glorious goddess. Beautiful, smart, and witty, this Bridget is far more self-assured than the hapless heroine of Bridget Jones’ Diary (2001) or Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason (2004). And Zellweger plays her with dignity and maturity, even in the more slapstick moments (such as falling face first into a mud puddle, or being carried awkwardly by two men while in labor). While the third film is not the classic the first one was, it’s light years ahead of the mediocre stumble of the second film.

Bridget Jones fans will realize that unlike the first two films, the third isn’t based on a novel. Helen Fielding’s third Bridget Jones novel, Mad About the Boy has a different tone and plot surprises that may alienate some fans. Instead, Fielding teams up with comedic writer Dan Mazer and Renaissance woman Emma Thompson (who has a hilarious cameo as Bridget’s dry ob/gyn) for a wholly new story that has Bridget dealing with pregnancy and romance.

Colin Firth returns as the taciturn and terse Mark Darcy, the man that seems so right for Bridget, yet so wrong. As in the first two films, Mark is often frustratingly stiff and uptight. Like Mr. Darcy from Pride and Prejudice (the inspiration for Fielding’s works), Mark hides his feelings beneath a hard shell, constructed for self-preservation.

After a chance meeting at a funeral, Bridget learns that Mark is engaged to be married. We learn that in the ensuing decade after Edge of Reason, Bridget and Mark had an on again/off again relationship which has ended sadly. Instead of wallowing in self-pity, as she would’ve done in the first film, Bridget moves on with her life, partying with her work chum, TV host Miranda (Sarah Solemani), at a music festival. It’s here that we get most of Zellweger’s flair for physical comedy, as she stomps through sodden fields of mud in inappropriate white pumps, before face planting in a field of mud, only to be rescued by handsome American Jack Qwant (Patrick Demspey, charming). The two have a one-night stand, and Bridget leaves happy.

The rom-com gods have Bridget reunite again with Mark at a christening, in which she discovers that he’s leaving his wife. The two share a magical night and make love, and it’s lovely.

That is until she finds out she’s pregnant. The big mystery of the film is who is Bridget’s baby daddy, Mark or Jack? Both men are dreamy candidates and for Bridget it’s an embarrassment of riches.

Fielding, Mazer, and Thompson put together a funny film that manages to be appealing and light, despite its potentially-appalling premise. Though the summary sounds like a British take on Maury, it’s all handled with grace and dignity. And the movie’s funny. Funny as hell. There are great one-liners and even the most absurd situations (Bridget going into labor) are written with humor that we can overlook some of the implausibility.

At the center of it all is Renée Zellweger, who is gifted with a fantastic role, and matches it with a beautiful performance. Her Bridget is slightly bruised and her maturity gives her a hard-earned gravitas. There’s also a lovely poignancy to the performance – Bridget is going through a lot, being pregnant and single (and going through a “geriatric” pregnancy as she’s reminded repeatedly throughout the film), and there’s a slight feeling of melancholy to a middle-aged Bridget. She’s lived a lot and seen a lot and is better for it.

Being a thoroughly British comedy set in contemporary times, there are gentle nods toward the current climate in the UK – most notably in the characterization of Bridget’s mum, Pamela (Gemma Jones). Running for local office as a conservative, she quickly shifts to the left when learning of her daughter’s situation, embracing diversity and becoming a liberal candidate instead. This feels a bit like wishful thinking, but it’s a good way to remind viewers that Bridget Jones is a symbol and heroine for the underdogs: for the single girls, for the heavy girls, for the queer boys, for anyone who feels a bit left out.

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Melissa McCarthy charms in ‘Spy’

Spy (fka Susan Cooper)Recently it was announced that the CBS sitcom Mike & Molly was being canceled. Though it still pulled respectable ratings, it was clear that its star, Melissa McCarthy was slumming it, co-starring in a middling sitcom (for which she won an Emmy in its premier season). Instead of being a TV star, though, something far more interesting happened: Melissa McCarthy became a bonafide, box-office superstar. More than any other female comic in recent years, McCarthy has racked up a list of box-office smashes (Bridesmaids, Identity Thief, The Heat, Tammy) and is going to star in the remake of Ghostbusters. With this impressive track record, she’s joined the ranks of Adam Sandler, Jim Carrey, Judd Apatow, and Ben Stiller. And like Sandler, Carrey, Apatow, and Stiller, the quality of the films – despite their financial success – ebbs and flows.

But Spy is an excellent outlier in the otherwise mediocre film oeuvre of Melissa McCarthy. It’s a spoof on the action film, but doesn’t rely on parody to tell its story. Instead, it’s that strange rare popcorn film that is smart, broad, funny, and progressive.

McCarthy stars as Susan Cooper, a CIA analyst who must jump into the field as an undercover agent to stop the black market sale of a nuclear bomb. The plot sounds ridiculously far-fetched written down, but writer/director Paul Feig (reunited with McCarthy after Bridesmaids) has crafted a fantastic story. Susan could’ve easily been a joke, but instead, he writes a character that is smart, wise, and resourceful. When all of the CIA’s top agents’ identities have been compromised, it’s the normally-invisible Susan that is called on by her boss, Elaine Crocker (a snarky Allison Janney) to go undercover and tail Rayna Boyanov (Rose Byrne, McCarthy’s costar from Bridesmaids), who may know where and when the nuke sale will take place.

Credit must be given to Feig, who creates a solid action caper. He sends his heroine to some ritzy locales in Paris, and poor old Susan has to don some pretty hideous wigs and costumes to pass as an assuming frumpy American tourist. As a director, Feig also handles the action sequences well – though it must be said, that for a mainstream comedy, it’s shockingly violent, and there are a lot of deaths – some of them quite graphic. The fight sequences are beautifully choreographed: there is one brilliant fight scene, in particular, set in a kitchen between McCarthy and Nargis Fakhri (who plays a henchman) that benefits from some spectacular choreography, fantastic staging, and some nifty use of kitchen equipment as the two women go head-to-toe, brandishing cleavers, knives, and using skillets as shields.

Though not explicitly feminist, Spy has a great message and uses its star wisely. It’s tempting to use a comedienne like McCarthy for sight gags and physical comedy, particularly because of her weight – and in the past, McCarthy herself has leaned on that as a crutch. She’s great at playing very broad characters, but she’s always managed to imbue even the most cartoonish character with flecks of personality. In Spy, she’s finally gifted with a script that allows for her to make use of her considerable slapstick prowess, but yet, still build a character. She employs well-placed pauses and verbal inflections, and has an understated way of delivering her lines, which is a perfect balance for her more raucous moments of falling over, crashing through doors, or face planting on the ground.

And though McCarthy is the star, she gets some fantastic support from a well-cast supporting ensemble. Byrne, not most people’s first choice for comedienne, does bitchy very well, and is great as a straight man to McCarthy – the two, though adversaries in the film, make for a great comic duo – she serves up some deliciously cruel one-liners and the two bounce off each other well. And as Susan’s best girlfriend, stand-up comic Miranda Hart (Call the Midwife) blesses the film with her ebullient presence. And as the male leads, Jason Stratham and Jude Law both show wiley, hidden comic chops – the former, especially, steals his scenes, as a disgruntled CIA agent, disgusted at Susan’s sudden professional ascent.

As a spoof, Spy works because it gently tweaks at the conventions of the spy genre, but it also transcends the film parody genre. Film parody is difficult to pull off because even if the jokes work, if the film serves merely as a way to make fun of something, without bothering to be any good, then the film ages quickly and doesn’t work after repeated viewing. What makes Spy so engaging is that though it makes fun of the spy genre, it’s also a legitimate entry, as well. It has all of the ingredients: a heroic lead, beautiful women, handsome men, luxurious locales.

But more importantly, along with the funny, we also get an important message about self-confidence and hard work. Susan is great at her job because she works hard and studies hard. She knows her shit. The only problem is that because she’s a woman and because she’s a woman of size, she’s marginalized by her colleagues. That is one of the reasons why as an undercover agent, she’d be a choice pick: who is more invisible than women of size? And the early scenes in which Susan pines for Law’s dashing agent are sad because she’s clearly under the mistaken assumption that because of his looks, Law’s character is out of her league.

And so Spy works on a deeper level because Susan learns about self-confidence and gains it as she gets better at her job. Quickly those who dismiss her or underestimate her regret doing so. Feig and McCarthy also take care to ensure that Susan isn’t the joke. There are no fat jokes, nor do we think Susan is anything less than gorgeous when she’s not done up in undercover frump drag. When she wants to infiltrate a fancy casino party, she ditches her drab gear and instead shows up in a sexy, open neck black dress, and owns the room. Later on, she gets done up in a sexy blazer and sports a chic bob (looking remarkably similar to fellow comedienne Dawn French). And it all feels right, and not of it feels condescending or pandering. Susan’s a catch. She’s dashing. She’s funny. She’s gorgeous. She’s brave. And she kicks ass.

Aspiring filmmakers should watch Spy to learn how to make a successful, compelling mainstream comedy that doesn’t talk down to its audiences, doesn’t punch down, or pander to the lowest common denominator.

Click here to buy Spy on DVD from amazon.com.

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‘I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story’ – a review

I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney StoryI Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story is an affecting documentary that tells the story of the man responsible for two of Sesame Street‘s most popular characters: Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch. The popularity of the characters rested on Spinney’s ability to create three-dimensional personalities that spoke to children’s feelings of confusion, insecurity, curiosity, and displeasure. Big Bird especially launched Spinney’s career and turned him into a folk hero among puppeteers. The documentary shows the beginnings of these characters and how Spinney was able to flesh them out into recognizable icons of children’s entertainment. The film also goes into Spinney’s life, which was marked by abuse, bullying, and contemplation of suicide. Though a generally enjoyable film, I Am Big Bird is also a very sad one.

Like many artists – particularly artists who work with children – Spinney’s childhood was wretched. Though gifted with a supportive and wonderful mother, his father was an abusive tyrant. His interest in puppets from a young age made him a target for schoolyard bullies who taunted him. His adulthood wasn’t that much better: an emotionally abusive first marriage almost drove the man to suicide. All of this context makes watching Sesame Street all the more poignant, especially when looking at Big Bird, arguably Spinney’s greatest creation.

What makes Big Bird so relatable is that he’s an everychild. Children learn about the harshness of the world and all of its confusion through Big Bird’s perspective. The show is able to impart some important life lessons using the 8-foot tall Muppet, by addressing important issues, but unpacking them as a child would. It’s important to note, that never does Big Bird talk down to children – one of the greatest things about Sesame Street is that it assumes the audience is bright and intelligent. Spinney, along with the group of gifted writers, has created an instrument for children to process the world around them.

In I Am Big Bird, the audiences see some of that building of character. We see early incarnations of Big Bird that make him almost unrecognizable. We also see the tedious and physical work Spinney has to do to be Big Bird – this includes strapping on a tiny monitor, putting on the suit, and keeping his arm raised over his head to operate Big Bird’s beak and head. A marvel of graceful aging, at over 80, Spinney is still doing a lot of the work (though some of it is supplemented by “apprentice” Matt Vogel). All of this minutia and details is interesting because it shows just how committed Spinney is to his craft.

And though the bulk of the film is focused on Spinney, the film also looks at the iconography of Big Bird and how that changed Spinney’s life. Before the rambunctious red-furred Elmo, Big Bird was Sesame Street. There is archival footage of Big Bird touring the country and performing at state fairs, opera houses, and theaters. The human cast of Sesame Street also add some valuable insight to the popularity of Big Bird, and attest to the cultural phenomenon Big Bird became. The actors – including Bob McGrath, Emilio Delgado, and Loretta Long – all offer fun and sentimental memories of going on the road with Big Bird. They also join the chorus of folks who sing the praises of Spinney, who not only is a great artist, but a very popular guy to work with.

Because of its subject matter, some may want to watch I Am Big Bird with their children. I’d caution those folks, because as lovely and as wonderful as the film is, it’s also very sad. It feels like every passage in the film somehow slips into a tear-jerking moment. Because Spinney’s life was so difficult, his vulnerability imbues the film almost as much as it did his characters. We watch as Spinney struggles with depression, or when he butts heads with directors, or when he mourns the passing of his dear friend Jim Henson. In one particularly harrowing sequence, Spinney describes an awful moment when during one of his appearances as Big Bird, he left the costume with a group of ROTC cadets during a lunch break, only to discover that the kids maimed, plucked, and destroyed his beloved alter ego (he went so far as to compare it to a rape of a child – an assertion that the filmmakers should have questioned and pushed but didn’t). The memory brought fresh tears to his eyes.

The film moves toward a conclusion that leads with Big Bird’s gradual descent in popularity. To attract younger viewers and to keep up with changing TV viewership, Sesame Street shifted its focus and tweaked its format, highlighting Elmo at the expense of Big Bird. These slights cannot be easy for a man as committed to his work as Spinney, and some of the cast members sympathize with the man – McGrath, who has also been steadily marginalized, likened his late work on the show as a hobby – and it’s clear that the film is leading its viewers to Spinney’s eventual retirement. It’s heartening to see that despite his age, Spinney seems remarkably spry, and still willing to do the physical work of being Big Bird.

Though there are some ugly moments in I Am Big Bird, the film works as a loving, respectful tribute to a man whose vision and talent has inspired, enlightened, and entertained millions of children for generations.

Click here to buy I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story on amazon.com.

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‘Modern Family’ starts to show its age and wear in the fifth season

Modern Family won five Emmys for Outstanding Comedy Series for its first five seasons. The voters got it right, I’d say for the first three seasons, but it’s criminal that the fifth season bested more worthy contenders like Louie or Veep (not to mention that the vastly superior Parks and Recreation wasn’t even nominated). My issue with the automatic wins for the show isn’t because the show’s bad – it’s not. Even at its most mediocre, it’s still better than most sitcoms on TV, but the fifth season felt like it had equal moments of lulls and highs. One cannot expect shows to be on top of their game forever, and the first three seasons of Modern Family are classic TV and cement a legacy that the creators – Christopher Lloyd and Steven Levitan – should be proud of.

That said, it feels like a lot of the fifth season of Modern Family was simply lazy phoning it in. The major story arc has Cameron and Mitchell finally get married after gay marriage becomes legal in California. While that’s a great way to fold in a potentially-difficult social issue into a MOR sitcom, it becomes problematic when the gay couple about to get married come off as irritating as fuck. The writers struck gold when they cast Eric Stonestreet as the effusive and demonstrative Cameron and Jesse Tyler Ferguson as the uptight Mitchell. The two actors share a great chemistry and Stonestreet is a marvelous physical comedian. The two also have a mastery of the snarky one-liners – unfortunately, the writers exploit the talents, having Cam and Mitch engage in bitchy verbal slapfests throughout the season as the stress of planning a wedding takes a toll on their marriage. I’m not saying they should be lovey-dovey, but judging by the fifth season of the show, Mitch and Cam can barely stand each other. The sniping – while sometimes funny – undermines any kind of emotional truth or value.

While the gay marriage arc is the most developed, there are other story lines that tie the episodes together. Claire and Phil Dunphy are dealing with Luke’s first day of high school, while Haley is still trying to find herself after getting kicked out of college, and Alex is feeling the pinch of growing pains. And Claire finally returns to the workforce, getting a job working for her dad’s closet manufacturing company.

I was always a little mystified why Claire didn’t work outside the home for the show’s run. It made no sense, and made the title of the show Modern Family a bit off-point. As Claire, Emmy-winner Julie Bowen is often very solid, though she can rely too much on being very brittle. She does do a mean slow burn though (Bea Arthur would’ve been proud). As her man-child husband, Phil, Ty Burrell is easily a first among equals, being able to levitate a lot of the material – even the ho-hum ones. And the child actors are growing up nicely – Sarah Hyland as Haley especially had a strong year in the fifth season, imbuing her character with a vulnerability that makes her flailing sad and relatable. As the over-achiever, Alex, Ariel Winter does some good work, as well, even being gifted with an episode that essentially worked as a one-woman show during which she opened up to a therapist after having a meltdown at a birthday party. Nolan Gould’s also good, though it’s clear that the writers are struggling to figure out what to do with an adolescent Luke.

Though their story lines are much lighter in the fifth season, Ed O’Neill and Sofia Vergara still offer some of the heartiest laughs. O’Neill as patriarch Jay has always been able to impart a deep intelligence to all of his performances, even when playing the proudly idiotic misanthrope, Al Bundy on Married…with Children. His work is so understated, that he often gets forgotten, but that’s unfair because he’s an integral part of the show. And as Gloria, Jay’s gorgeous trophy wife, Vergara has perfected her Lucille Ball-meets-Charo act. Gloria has been stretched out and broadened throughout the five seasons to capitalize on Vergara’s outstanding skills as a comedienne, but unfortunately, the writers have shortchanged her on deeper, more emotional moments (it’s not surprising that the actress was snubbed at last year’s Emmy nominations). In the Jay/Gloria story lines, the two are raising a little kid, while helping Gloria’s teenaged son Manny (Rico Rodriguez) navigate through high school. Like Luke, Manny’s life has changed significantly, but it seems to be for the better: his dandy affectations and eccentricities actually make him popular with his classmates.

As I wrote earlier, the big gay wedding dominates the fifth season. This means that we get some social commentary, though little of it is terribly pointed or trenchant, but that’s okay, we don’t expect Modern Family to proselytize. If anything, the show works its ass off to show how normal and average gay couples are. In fact, of the three couples on Modern Family, Mitch and Cam are the least affectionate and last demonstrative. They raise their daughter, Lily (the brilliant scene-stealer, Aubrey Anderson-Emmons) and live a suburban life (remember how bored Claire was when she went out on the town with them?). All of this admirable, but it feels a bit craven to bleed out any love, passion, and sexuality from the relationship, and replace it with bickering: at times, Mitch and Cam resemble a gay take on The Lockhorns. And the big gay wedding episode? Well, it’s not the event that it’s meant to be, even though it’s a two-parter, loaded with recurring guest stars and topped off by a tear-jerking voice over by Claire, the easy jokes and the episodic nature work against the emotion (though the image of Jay and Gloria walking Mitch down the aisle seems right).

As with the other seasons, there are some big names who stop by – Nathan Lane returns as Pepper, Mitch’s and Cam’s (and Jay’s, for that matter) pal who plans the wedding (and does so without any kind of deference to good taste); Justin Kirk is Mitch’s skeevy, feckless boss; Andrew Daly’s Cam’s principal; Fred Willard comes back as Phil’s goofy, pop, Frank; Adam DeVine creeps Jay and Manny out as Gloria’s choice as nanny; Peri Gilpin uses her throaty growl as a hooker Fred hired in error; Jordan Peele stops by as Jay’s nemesis, vying for a great parking spot; Jesse Eisenberg guests as an annoying eco-activist; Jane Krakowski battles Gloria to edge Manny out of a Washington, DC trip; Stephen Merchant, Fred Armisen, and Patton Oswalt appear in a Vegas-themed episode; and as Jay’s best buds, Shorty and Darlene, Chazz Palmintiri and Jennifer Tilly guest star in one of the show’s brightest episodes. Also fan favorite (though not mine), Rob Riggle’s recurring Gil Thorpe appears in the season as well, to needle Phil. The big names usually do very well, but the stunt casting does feel a bit Here’s Lucy at times.

If I sound down on Modern Family it’s only because I was spoiled by its excellence in the first few years. By now, it’s merely a good show, when at one point it was an excellent one. These slides in quality are inevitable, and it’s clear that the limitations of the show are starting to come out. Namely that with a cast this large, it’s difficult to give each character equal growth and development. Which is why we see Claire becoming more interesting and complex, while poor Gloria is regressing. I’d love to see Gloria struggle a bit with her own middle-aged crisis, and it’d be nice to see her get a job (her lady of leisure is a bit strange – she doesn’t even do good work). In one episode, she boasts that she’s so busy she’s the “How can she do it?” Gloria, except I know how she can do it: she’s got buckets of money, help, and a son who is willing to mother his own baby brother. This criticism is no knock against Vergara, who is still my favorite comedienne, and who does some fantastic work, but she really deserves more.

The sixth season has quite a hefty task in that it must restore some of the goodwill lost by the unevenness of the fifth season. This means giving Jay and Gloria more to do than simply harp on their age difference, her beauty, and his money. This also means making Mitch and Cam behave like a married couple and not to coworkers who don’t get along. I would also like to see Haley figure out her life – having her be a somewhat sad sack living in her parents’ basement is too limiting. Too often, the writers rely on the “Haley’s the hot one, so she’s also the dumb one” joke – an unfortunate trope that needs to be buried (sexuality and intelligence can coexist). Still, the sixth season does hit some great highs – the aforementioned Las Vegas episode encapsulates what made Modern Family so wonderful: it’s a well-constructed farce with hilarious writing, sight gags, and energetic, heartfelt acting. More episodes like “Las Vegas” are needed to return the show to its early glory days.

Click here to buy Modern Family: Season 5 on DVD from amazon.com.

 

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Second season of ‘The Mindy Project’ is even better than the first

I’ve been thinking a lot about Joan Rivers lately, and her death remained in the back of my mind as I binge watched the second season of The Mindy Project now on DVD. Starring/created by/and occasionally written by former The Office scribe and costar Mindy Kaling, The Mindy Project tells the story of Dr. Mindy Lahiri, a successful Manhattan OB/GYN who survives a string of disastrous love affairs while maintaining a successful practice with her partners, Dr. Danny Castellano (Chris Messina), Dr. Jeremy Reed (Ed Weeks), and newest character addition, Dr. Peter Prentice (Adam Polly). Supporting the doctors are nurses Morgan Tookers (Ike Barinholtz, who writes for the show and is a producer) and Tamra (Xosha Roquemore). Rounding out the staff are the two receptionists, Beverly Janoszewski (Beth Grant) and Betsy Putch (Zoe Jarman).

Like most work place sitcoms, Mindy’s coworkers make up her family. She turns to them for support. And like most work place sitcoms, very little work actually happens. I’m hoping this will be rectified in the third season, as I’m starting to wonder just how Mindy is able to have this successful career as a busy doctor, and yet still have time to do all the crazy, nonsensical stuff the writers have her do. Mindy Lahiri is an interesting example of the current female TV protagonist because she benefits from the trails blazed by characters like Mary Richards, Murphy Brown, Liz Lemon, and Leslie Knope, but she’s definitely much goofier and sillier than her predecessors. In fact, despite being a doctor, Mindy’s drawn more toward pop culture and junk entertainment than science or high culture. She models her life after Bridget Jones, seeing herself as a hapless singleton looking for love in the big city.

All of this makes for a very good sitcom, with the whole being greater than some of the parts. While Mindy’s a wonderful center for the show, it’d be nice if the writers took a break from making her the butt of every joke. And that is why I thought about Joan Rivers when watching The Mindy Project. A large part of Rivers’ act was self-deprecation – she turned the joke inward, insulting herself before anyone else could. It’s an old defense mechanism of every smart aleck kid who got bullied as a kid. It’s a poignant impulse, though it can become difficult to listen to – and that was one of my beefs with comediennes like Rivers, Phyllis Diller or 70s-era Bette Midler.

But Mindy Kaling is in control of Mindy Lahiri, and therefore has a large hand in the direction her character is going in, and so it’d be nice if we were reminded of just why Mindy’s such a great doctor. One doesn’t need to create perfect heroes in order to show competence. I’m obviously thinking of Amy Poehler’s brilliant Leslie Knope from Parks and Recreation – she, like Dr. Lahiri, is a wide-eyed optimist who loves TV and junk “literature” and is often roped into insane antics. But she’s also in love with her job and is crazy good at it; we have to assume that Mindy’s good at her job, too. And there are peeks of the kind of doctor Mindy Lahiri is, especially when she insists on helping women without health insurance. It may be that the writers don’t want to drag down the sometimes-lighter than air plots with politics, but some scathing social critique wouldn’t be out of place.

That being said, the second season is still aces because while it somewhat disappoints as a workplace comedy, it excels as a romantic comedy. It’s no big secret that Mindy loves romcoms, and sometimes arranges her life as if it were a Nora Ephron movie. Because of her idealism, she often gets into strange and ridiculous relationships, often with men who are completely inappropriate for her. She also is weighing her feelings for Danny, in what can be described as the Sam and Diane element of the show (is there a replacement for that trope for folks too young to remember Cheers?). Mindy’s a catch – beautiful, (at times) intelligent, funny, witty, and successful. So it’s no surprise that she has a string of boyfriends. What’s great is that throughout the show’s two years we got to see a line of great comics play Mindy’s plus one. In this season, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia‘s Glenn Howerton joins the show as Cliff Gilbert, the handsome and sensitive lawyer whose practice is down the hall from Mindy’s office. The relationship is obviously doomed because though Cliff is a nice enough guy, he doesn’t challenge Mindy. But it’s fun to see them together, especially in the early moments of their relationship, when they are still nursing adversarial feelings for each other: after all what romantic comedy doesn’t start with the two lovers hating each other first?

Another reason why the show hits more often than misses, is because the actors are really wonderful. An assemblage of comedians and comedic actors, each performer brings something unique and important to the show. As the central character, Kaling is great – and it’s clear that she’s developing into quite a versatile actress. The second season has some dark moments for Dr. Lahiri, and when the scenes ask for more than just Kaling’s facile wit and killer delivery, she responds with some Emmy-worthy emoting. Kaling’s growth as an actress is reminiscent of similar progressions in talent in women like Tina Fey, Roseanne Barr, or Amy Poehler – all comics who were able to develop and mature as actresses in their respective television shows. It’s a joy to watch talent blossom, and Kaling does some stellar work in the second season.

And the rest of the cast match her. As her comic foil, Chris Messina is also a standout. He plays Danny’s toughness with a soft, gooey center. And as Morgan, Barinholtz is a loud and raucous force of nature, throwing himself into some outstanding physical comedy. And new hire Polly steals his scenes as the bro-ish Dr. Prentice. Though not given as much to do, Weeks, Roquemore, Grant, and Jarman offer solid support. And the recurring guest stars who include Bill Hader, Chloe Sevigny, Max Minghella, Anders Holm, and Josh Peck each blend effortlessly into the cast, making strong impressions.

As the show progresses, I’m hoping that it shifts back to the workplace and we see Mindy the doctor. Adult children are great to watch, but they also have limited shelf-lives. I’m not saying Mindy Lahiri is a woman-child – and she definitely had some assertive moments in the second season – but it’s important that the writers allow for the character to grow out of her Meg Ryan-esque adorable phase – especially if the show lasts long enough for Mindy to enter her 40s (and judging from the strength of the first two seasons, there’s no reason why The Mindy Project couldn’t run for six or seven seasons). I know we’re watching a snarky take on a lot of romcom cliches – and they’re all funny. But when The Mindy Project reaches emotional highs like Danny’s fractious relationship with his deadbeat dad or Mindy’s feelings of self-worth after particularly bruising breakups, it shows that it can easily combine pathos and silly, rapid-fire comedy.

Click here to buy The Mindy Project: Season 2 on DVD from amazon.com.

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Uli Edel’s adaption of ‘The Mists of Avalon’ starts off strongly but loses steam…

The Mists of Avalon [VHS]The legend of King Arthur has been retold many times in print and on film. The consistent theme in the various adaptations has been the male point of view. In Uli Edel’s adaptation of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s popular novel The Mists of Avalon is different because the story of the Arthurian legend is told through the perspective of the women in the story, namely Morgaine (a so-so Julianna Margulies), King Arthur’s powerful sorceress sister.

Produced by TNT in 2001, the miniseries shows the story of the battle in England – the Saxons are threatening to conquer Britain. In the sprawling three hours, the script – penned by Gavin Scott – throws a lot at the audience: murder, violence, incest, usurpation, Pagan rituals, religious warfare. It’s dizzying and at times, a bit overwhelming to try and take it all in.

As a protagonist, Morgain’s an interesting choice. A conflicted and complex woman, she come of age, being raised in the traditions of the Goddess. She’s a seer with powers to see into the future. Taken away from her mother at an early age, she’s groomed to be a priestess by Vivian, Lady of the Lake (a commanding Angelica Huston),  the high priestess who is working to protect Avalon from the impending invasion of the Saxons.

Narrated by Morgain, the story takes some tragic turns. The story is plodding and episodic, each sequence working as a separate mini-story (it’s clear when watching the film in its entirety that it’s meant to be viewed in 40-minute increments). Some of the sequences work better than others, and the first half of the film is much more compelling than the second half, which includes elements of soap opera. While watching Morgain’s development and her evolution from wide-eyed child to a wise if calculating woman, we see Britain go through some important changes. Along with Vivian, she also has to contend with her aunt, Morgause (Joan Allen, who approaches scene-chewing camp), a frustrated and duplicitous woman whose machinations has tragic repercussions later on in the film.

For a television miniseries, the production values are impressive. The budgets for TNT made-for-TV movies must’ve been very generous because the scenery is often breathtaking. The scenes on the lake when Morgain is riding on a boat toward Avalon are gorgeous with swirling fog that adds atmosphere. Unfortunately, Edel doesn’t trust in subtly and the addition of the New Agey film score (which includes chanting by Celtic musician Loreena McKennitt) that pushes the film into Enya music video territory.

There are lots of battle scenes, and the violence isn’t for the squeamish – in one scene when Vivian and Morgain return to Camelot, the place is a post-apocalyptic mess with corpses strewn about and severed heads gruesomely impaled on spikes. The fight sequences are expertly filmed and superbly choreographed.

At a little over three hours, The Mists of Avalon drags towards the end. Because every character is full of contradictory impulses and allegiances, it’s difficult to root for anyone – even Morgain, the most sympathetic of the characters, has dark shadings and specious impulses. Still if one chops up the film in installments, then it’s a solid bit of entertainment.

Click here to buy The Mists of Avalon on DVD on amazon.com.

 

 

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Classics revisited: ‘A Star Is Born’

A Star Is Born is probably the most frustrated Hollywood masterpiece I’ve ever seen. Like Gone with the Wind or Citizen Kane, George Cukor’s 1954 classic is highly-revered among movie viewers for its searing performances and high class melodrama. When released, the film ran over 3 hours, prompting the studio to trim the film, but the result was butchery. Unfortunately, the cuts rendered the film messy and incohesive, hurting it at the box office as well as costing the film some Academy Awards. Restored on DVD, the audio is intact, however, the scenes that were cut are now replaced by sepia movie stills. As I said, a thoroughly frustrated experience to watch.

With that in mind, A Star Is Born is still an important film to watch. The third time the story was filmed (after 1932’s What Price Hollywood? which was directed by Cukor and a 1937 version directed by William Wellman) it tells the story of Norman Maine (James Mason), an alcoholic movie star whose career is descending as his wife Vicki Lester’s (Judy Garland) career is ascending. A biting critique of the cutthroat nature of show business, the film is an indulgently depressing drama that will have viewers reach out for the Kleenex box.

***spoilers spoilers spoilers***

The movie opens with a Hollywood benefit. It’s a garish, gaudy affair that looks like something out of a nightmare version of the Ziegfeld Follies. There are dancing girls with towering crowns of plumage and cowgirls riding horses on stage. Norman Maine is a popular actor – a debonair lady killer who arrives at the benefit drunk. Like the most tragic drunks, Norman cannot contain himself and instead makes a big ass of himself, wandering on stage when the orchestra is accompanying a song-and-dance trio, led by Esther Blodgett (Garland). Though Norman’s antics are annoying to everyone, Esther views his behavior with bemusement and saves his dignity by gently folding him into the act, fooling the audience into thinking that he’s part of the performance.

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Norman Maine (James Mason) makes a bad first impression with Vickie Lester (Judy Garland) at a Hollywood benefit

What this evening sets off is a romance that is paralleled by the mirror-image of each performer’s career trajectory. Norman sneaks into a bar and sees Esther perform an impromptu rendition of “The Man That Got Away” – one of the greatest musical numbers ever filmed.

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Vicki Lester (Judy Garland) singing “The Man That Got Away” accompanied by Danny McGuire (Tommy Noonan)

The “The Man That Got Away” sequence is justly lauded as iconic because of the wonderful camera work and Garland’s performance. It’s clear from the first few bars that Esther won’t be singing in empty darkened bars forever. Cukor stages this performance beautifully, framing his star by instrumentalists, all of whom are dressed in black, essentially fading into the darkness of the club. Garland herself is also dressed darkly, but her face is lit – a spotlight that follows the singer. And unlike most Garland musical numbers there are no quick cuts and fancy editing with elaborate sets that unfurl behind her; instead, it’s a simple, long, continuous shot following her as she makes her way from behind the piano to the front of the makeshift band.

Also key is Cukor’s use of Garland’s iconography. The borders that separate Esther the fictional singer and Garland the real live diva are rubbed away as she shows off her impeccable mastery of singing and performing. This performance is the closest viewers today will get to see the legendary Judy Garland of the Carnegie Hall/Palace days when she incorporated stage performance into her public persona. There is no autobiographical subtext in the lyrics of “The Man That Got Away,” but there is autobiographical subtext in the performance of the song. The nervous gestures, the awkward flailing of the arms, and the neurotic way in which she scrapes her hair as she sings is pure Garland – she steps away from being “Esther Blodgett/Vickie Lester” momentarily and allows Garland the singer to step in.

Because of her outsized talent, Norman uses his box office clout to have Esther become a contract player. Like Garland’s former studio MGM, the fictional studio does a number on Esther changing her name into Vickie Lester and transforming her, attacking her with false teeth, fake noses, wigs, golden powder foundation – all of this happened to Garland when she was a child actress at MGM. By 1954, the studio system was starting to fray – actors weren’t satisfied with long-term onerous contracts and many resented being treated like livestock in a factory farm.

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The cast of ‘A Star Is Born’

Again, as with “The Man That Got Away,” the screenwriter (Moss Hart) takes generously from Garland’s personal life and legend when plotting the journey Vickie and Norman take. Vickie’s natural charm and talent shine through and with Norman’s help, she shrugs off the makeup and fakery and impresses with her talent. It’s here that Cukor and Hart gift Garland with a long musical number called the “Born in a Trunk” medley which is capped off with Garland’s rendition of “Swanee” (thankfully she didn’t do it in blackface).

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Vickie Lester (Judy Garland) sings “Swanee”

The “Born in a Trunk” medley contains six songs that tell the fictional tale of Vickie’s rise to stardom that mirror Garland’s own; as she narrates her story, Vickie sings to her audience about her childhood as a kiddie hoofer with her parents, performing on Vaudeville, before wowing the audiences with a solo. As a struggling singer she does voice overs for commercials before heading a fledgling band and eventually running through a list of indifferent agents before becoming a star.

The musical number has two roles in the film: in the plot, it works as a way to introduce Vickie to her audience. It’s played in front of one of Norman’s lousy vehicles, and it’s quickly apparent that she’s going to eclipse his star. The sequence also works as a way to have Garland tell Vickie’s back story that neatly mimics Garland’s own story of working as a vaudevillian performer before being groomed by MGM.

Suddenly Vickie’s career starts to move forward at a clipped pace, while Norman’s drinking causes his career to quickly disintegrate. Finding himself unemployed, he tries his hand at being a Hollywood househusband. Vickie’s the breadwinner and is his tie to the outside world. To lift him from his ennui, Vickie goes over a musical number she was filming during the “Someone at Last” number – an inventive musical sequence that spoofs the extravagant musical numbers that Garland starred in for years; but because Vickie’s in her living room in stockings and a man’s shirt, she’s improvising with household items and furniture to tell the story of her day.

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Vickie Lester (Judy Garland) doing her best Edith Piaf/Maurice Chevalier during “Someone at Last”

Like the other two major musical numbers, the “Someone at Last” sequence is important because it affirms Vickie’s talent. It also confirms that Norman’s support wasn’t in vain. The song sequence – which includes some dated Hollywood racism – also is meant to show us Vickie’s wide range, as she sings with a French accent and a Chinese accent as well as dancing up a storm, holding court despite being alone in her living room. It’s during this sequence that Garland uses her hand to mimic a camera giving her a “big fat closeup” – an image that is used on most promotional photographs for the film.

The sequence is also a signpost for the film – after it, Norman’s descent into drink and depression speeds up an at an alarming rate, peaking with a particularly embarrassing moment during the Oscars, during which Norman drunkenly staggers onstage to interrupt his wife’s acceptance speech. As he begs for work he accidentally slaps Vickie in the face and collapse in remorse. There is some unintended irony in the scene because Garland would be up for an Oscar for the film, but unlike Vickie, she loses the Oscar (to Grace Kelly for The Country Girl).

In another heart-wrenching scene, Vickie is confessing to fatherly studio exec Oliver Niles (Charles Bickford) about Norman’s drinking and how she’s suffering from feelings of self-loathing and resentment. The scene is made all the more poignant because Vickie’s in costume for a musical number she’s filming, and she’s dressed up in tramp drag with a straw hat and goofy freckles. But instead, she’s miserable, crying to Oliver about how difficult her life has become and how much she’s starting to hate Norman for his behavior.

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Vickie Lester (Judy Garland) opens up to Oliver Niles (Charles Bickford)

Garland’s work during this scene is masterful – but it’s not clear anymore if she’s performing or reflecting on her own life. At this point in her career and life, Garland’s work was adversely affected by her bouts of depression, suicide attempts, and alcohol and drug addiction. While Vickie is the strong one who is trying to hold everything together, Garland is Norman Maine, letting her career and all her hard work fall apart because of her addictions. It’s an uncomfortable scene – very raw, demolishing the cheery image of the Judy Garland of the Andy Hardy days.

The intensity of her performance is something new for Garland – she lets herself be unlikable and difficult. She matched this scene in her last film, 1963’s I Could Go on Singing, in which Garland gives a performance using her personal troubles and misery to inform her character.

 What makes the confession scene between Oliver and Vickie all the more troubling is that she had just gotten off a sound stage energetically singing “Lose That Long Face” – again harking back to the Garland’s glory days at MGM. The song cheerily orders its listeners to “turn that frown upside down” and react to adversity with an optimistic smile. Both Vickie and Garland were paid to chirp these lyrics to inspire their audience, regardless of what was going on in their private lives.

The shiny optimism that is so harshly promoted in the lyrics of “Lose That Long Face” is a gruesome joke as Norman’s suffering one indignity after another. During a stint in a sanitarium his pride is smashed when he’s offered a bit part because of pity. And later at the race track, Norman has a confrontation with the odious Matt Libby (Jack Carson), the studio publicity man who nurtured and protected Norman’s career and the studio’s investment. Norman was under the misguided impression that Libby’s work was in part due to affection and altruism, but was quickly schooled – Libby nursed a noxious resentment of Norman’s behavior. Instead of having a peaceful talk the two take to fighting with Libby quickly flattening Norman with a meaty fist, sending the former movie star back to the bottle. With echoes of The Lost Weekend, Norman is found four days later in a jail cell, forced to have his mournful wife bail him out.

With his life in shambles and his troubles threatening his wife’s career, Norman decides to commit suicide – a terribly sad moment in the film, because yet again, the tragic tone is juxtaposed with something positive: in this case, Norman bounds from his bed in the morning, urging Vickie to sing while he takes a swim at the beach. It’s clear for the audience that the swim won’t end well, but Vickie isn’t privy to that knowledge, and unknowingly starts to warble “It’s a New World” and the last image of Norman we have left is his discarded bathrobe being thrown around in the surf.

At the end, Vickie rallies and shows up at another Hollywood benefit. And before she gets to sing a rousing number, she introduces herself proudly as “Mrs. Norman Maine,” to the rapturous applause and standing ovation from the audience. This Vickie performance is the Judy Garland that most are familiar with – the shaking voice and the smiles through the tears. It’s a familiar image, a somewhat comforting image to end a film that is deeply troubling.

A Star Is Born is remembered as the ultimate Judy Garland vehicle, at the expense of James Mason – which is unfair, because he’s just as effective in his role. He shares Garland’s pathos, but because his character’s arc is doomed, he’s given moments of pure despair. It’s not his fault that he’s overshadowed because the story isn’t about being a testament to Mason’s talents, in the same way it works as it does for Garland. And much like Clark Gable was eclipsed by Vivien Leigh in Gone with the Wind. Mason also has the unenviable task of being the leading man opposite a star with blinding charisma – but his performance is wonderful, and should be remembered as well.

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Norman Maine (James Mason)

After some review, it’s clear that both Norman and Vickie work as two sides of Judy Garland – the talented performer and the hopeless addict. We know that in her real life, Garland’s life ended more like Norman’s than Vickie’s – unable to escape her demons, she died of an accidental overdose at the young age of 47. A Star Is Born works not only because it’s fiction, but also because the fiction plays so acutely with so much of reality.

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