The Casual Watcher

Big screen. Boob tube. Even billboards. Write what you know.

Friday, October 22, 2004

hiatus

The Casual Watcher would like to casually announce that due to sickness, a toxic workload and trauma due to the sister's reality-show addiction (For Love or Money with a new twist!), the site has been on hiatus for the past three weeks and will be back to regular blogging by the end of the month.

Monday, October 04, 2004

Raising Helen

At the start of the movie, Kate Hudson’s Helen Harris admonishes the receptionist at Dominique’s modeling agency for bringing her daughter to work. “You know Dominique doesn’t like children.” Aha! Plot point! How… obvious. Even without knowing much about the film’s premise, you seem to know where the movie is headed.

Helen seems to breeze through life in this “feel-good” movie about a Manhattan party girl who suddenly inherits three children from her oldest sister, who dies with her husband in a car accident. It is a surprise both to Helen and their other sister Jenny (Joan Cusack), who is a model mother, down to the “mumsy haircut”. Helen tries to make do, moving to a different apartment, having to give up her social life, and eventually losing her job. Add to this the intricacies of raising three children: Audrey (Hayden Panettiere) wants to begin sexual exploration; Henry (Spencer Breslin), is morose and does not want to play basketball, once his favorite sport; and Sarah (Abigail Breslin) is added for the cutesy factor, as if Kate Hudson weren’t enough.

Joan Cusack doesn’t disappoint in her supporting role, Helen Mirren was quite a joy to watch, and John Corbett played his usual delectable man-next-door. Kate Hudson is playing a character not unlike almost every character she has played in the past; it’s like Penny Lane from Almost Famous just grew up. A little. There is also an Indian neighbor, Nilma Prasad, played by Sakina Jaffrey, who becomes Helen’s crisis control center. Nilma is the ideal neighbor, dropping everything at a moment’s notice to attend to Helen’s problems. Would that we were all lucky enough to have neighbors like her. The children, all veterans in their own right, are a delight to watch, especially Spencer (previously seen on The Kid), displaying a mixture of vulnerability, silliness and a degree of maturity so wonderful in children.

Aside from the overall lack of appeal or edge, there are a few major gripes about this pedestrian movie masquerading as a chick-flick, suffering from a fluffy plot and unimaginative screenplay. For one, parenting is serious business, and having three children suddenly thrust upon you when you are a work-worshipping, party-loving single woman—that would be cause for a nervous breakdown. But Helen seems to go about it jovially; in fact, even the fact that she loses her job doesn’t really faze her much—which can be credited to either bad writing, bad directing, bad acting, or all of that. On another note, that Helen makes a major decision about the children only after finalizing some arrangements with her job seems to cast a shadow of doubt on her decision: does she do it only because it is convenient?

In fact, this movie’s plot suffers from a total regard for convenience; and as such, the trials and difficulties are downplayed, so that there is no real tension regarding how things will end up. It was quite convenient that the pastor-principal of the children’s Lutheran school is a bachelor who falls for Helen; it was quite convenient that there was a next-door neighbor who would respond to Helen’s emergency calls at the last moment. Instead of being an empowering chick-flick, this movie (like a lot of director Garry Marshall’s movies) has settled on being saccharine, almost cloying. Still, there are quite a number of chuckle-moments, and the requisite scenes that tug at the heartstrings (and lachrymal glands) as well. These are not enough, however, to save this movie from a shadow of blandness and mediocrity.

Sunday, October 03, 2004

Saved!

Saved! is an irreverent satire that pokes fun at fanatical religion, much in the same vein as Dogma, only for born-again fundamentalism rather than Catholicism.

Jena Malone plays Mary, a devout born-again girl who is part of the Christian Jewels, the in-crowd clique headed by the big girl on campus, Hilary Faye, played in tongue-in-cheer manner by Mandy Moore. Mary’s life is turned upside down one summer when her jock boyfriend Dean (Chad Faust—how apt) tells her he thinks he might be gay; and then she gets a “vision” of Jesus Christ telling her to help Dean. She does in the only way she believes will work: she sleeps with him. Unfortunately, they do not use protection (because Mary is convinced God will restore her virginity) and Mary ends up pregnant.

Dean is shipped to Mercy House, a rehab center that specializes in drug and alcohol treatment as well as “de-gay-ification”. When Hilary Faye uses information on Dean to her advantage, Mary decides to go about it alone, keeping everything even from her mother (Mary Louise Parker), who is having a confusing flirtation with the school’s principal Pastor Skip (Martin Donovan). She finds solace, though, in the company of the school’s outcasts, Hilary Faye’s paraplegic brother Roland (Macaulay Culkin) and the rebellious Cassandra (a doe-eyed and kick-ass Eva Amurri), who is defiant as well as the only Jew in school; as well as the attentions of Patrick (Patrick Fugit), Pastor Skip’s son. As Hilary Faye heightens her campaign against the non-Jesus freaks, Mary takes a roller-coaster ride of questioning her faith as well as the intentions of the people around her.

Jena Malone has become adept in playing troubled teens with a certain degree of kick beneath the troubled veneer. Mandy Moore, meanwhile, is positively gleeful playing the staunch Hilary Faye; Macaulay Culkin as the wheelchair-bound Roland is quite charming, although the Kevin McAllister smirk is still there. In something that could be straight out of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, Patrick Fugit, he of the wide-eyed performance in Almost Famous, has been transformed into a Christian skateboarding hunk. Mary Louise Parker and Martin Donovan are delightful in their inhibited, cautious displays of affection. Heather Matarazzo, though, was underused in this movie. The same cannot be said for scene-stealer Eva Amurri, who at this young age shows signs that she has inherited quite a degree of talent from her mother Susan Sarandon.

Cassandra and Roland’s repartee as well as Mary and Hilary Faye’s contrasting naïve and fanatical fundamentalism, respectively, provide the laughs, although Malone’s narration could get monotonous at times. Aside from the many comic and satirical turns (the trailer’s scene of Hilary Faye throwing a bible at Mary to get her to stop running away from their intervention is just one of many), we also glean some degree of characterization that makes some characters, like Culkin’s Roland, particularly endearing.

This movie is great fun, even if one happened to be a born-again fundamentalist. After all, it is the extreme fanaticism of certain individuals or sects that is being derided. However intense the ardor or zealous manner, to do un-Christian acts to uphold Christianity is, after all, quite imprudent. At the end of it all, Mary is still a devout Christian who has just strayed; Cassandra the Jew is actually a nice person; and although things were thrown topsy-turvy, everything ended the way it should have. In this delightful romp trying to delineate extremism and zeal, tolerance is shown to be actually the right thing and it was probably the way Jesus taught it too.

Saturday, September 25, 2004

Pumpkin | How Correct is Politically-Correct?

A bottle-blond Christina Ricci is playing consummate W.A.S.P. and cheery sorority girl Carolyn McDuffy who falls in love with a mentally- and physically-challenged boy, Pumpkin Romanoff, played by Hank Harris. The initial premise won’t really catch your fancy. However, Pumpkin, the movie, seems to hook you with a degree of dark satire and an outrageous, not-so-politically-correct treatment that is at times hilarious and at times a hitting statement on so-called politically correct behavior.

The root of all the hoopla is a competition among the Greek-letter sororities for Sorority of the Year. Carolyn’s sorority, Alpha Omega Phi, is sponsoring a team for the Challenged Games, so that each sorority sister is assigned a challenged person to coach. She is teamed up with Pumpkin, whom she initially disdains, but eventually she falls in love with him because he “sees into her soul,” having to choose between the retarded-er-challenged boy and her tennis champ-campus king boyfriend Kent.

Christina Ricci has made a living out of playing quirky characters and this one is no exception. She parodies the got-it-all-together blonde campus queens (maybe a take on Elle Woods) and gives her performance a little oomph. Marisa Coughlan plays the focused sorority president who does everything and anything in her power to win Sorority of the Year—missed her since that promising yet ill-fated Wasteland. Brenda Blethyn, quite a talented actress, is a bit underused as Pumpkin’s protective alcoholic mother, who can’t make heads or tails of her son growing up and actually maturing (“you’re not retarded… you’re special… we’re sure, we had you tested!”).

Honestly, you might not know what to make of this movie—if it’s a black comedy, a parody, or a romantic comedy. There are flashes of brilliant satire, and then there are some seemingly ill-placed bouts with saccharin that don’t really just fit in. It seems like the director wanted to make it all of these, but the totality wasn’t all that seamless. It does have its moments, though, and it stretches the boundaries of so-called taste. Favorite moments included a West Side Story-like face-off and the fuss about Alpha Omega Phi’s Asian member.

Pumpkin pokes fun at the pretentiousness of supposed politically-correct organizations, in how the sorority deals with the “inappropriate” relationship of Carolyn and Pumpkin, one of their own, and one of their charity cases. This is not a movie that I would watch over; and in fact it could have been shortened a little bit. However, it did elicit wry smiles and the occasional laugh—not a total waste.

Neither hilarious nor serious, but borderline scathing. Rightly so that this movie was viewed on cable.

Thursday, September 23, 2004

The Stepford Wives | Almost Camp, Almost Satire, Almost Funny

It seems that there is some sense to the satirical, almost campy, approach that the Frank Oz and Paul Rudnick have taken with the remake of the 1975 cult classic The Stepford Wives. From the Ira Levin novel released in 1972 to the screen adaptation in 1975 and several TV-movies, the term “Stepford wife” has infiltrated popular culture; yet its moment seems to be over. Truly, in the 1970s, men would have had something more objectionable to say about feminism and being a “career bitch” (which is what Nicole Kidman’s character Joanna Eberhart has always wanted to become since she was a young girl), but today, it would indeed seem the best way to tackle a storyline such as this is with farcical rather than sinister elements.

Kidman stars as Joanna, a network president who gets sacked after her feminist-leaning reality shows reap tragic results. After Joanna suffers a nervous breakdown, her husband Walter (played by the always pleasant-faced Matthew Broderick) transplants the family to Stepford, Connecticut, where there is no crime and “no pushing”. Joanna tries to fit in with the always-genial, eternally dressed-up and coiffed women of Stepford, seeking solace among fellow new residents Bobbie Markowitz (expertly played by the talented Miss M, Bette Midler) and gay “wife” Roger Bannister (Broadway regular Roger Bart). The three seeming misfits get together to speculate on the goings-on in town, including Sarah Sunderson (country singer Faith Hill) having an apparent seizure. Glenn Close and Christopher Walken round out the cast as premier Stepford couple Claire and Mike Wellington.

As time goes by, Walter gets deeper into the Stepford men’s club inner circle, while Joanna tries to assimilate and be chirpy. However, when Roger Bannister (apparently staunchly Democratic), becomes a gay Republican who dresses in Brooks Brothers, and Bobbie Markowitz, the dreadful slob who once wrote a book entitled “I Love You, But Please Die” for her mother, becomes a blonde Betty Crocker fanatic, Joanna confirms that something is amiss. The audience, though, has known that for quite some time.

The talented cast gamely churns out good performances (Kidman and Midler’s comedic turns, Close’s steely effervescence, and Walken’s menacing evenness are the most noteworthy) but it seems there is something that prevents the story from actually taking off, preventing the film from totally engrossing the viewer. This shouldn’t be the case because this is a fresh take on a classic; yet it seems the snappy one-liners, pop culture references and great pacing and comic timing still, somehow, fall flat. Even the twist at the end of the tale doesn’t hook you.

It was a good decision to watch this only when there was nothing else to watch. It has its moments, but you can flip back to those from time to time if ever you’re watching on cable. Mind you, though, Nicole Kidman looks absolutely delightful as a Stepford wife. Delish.

Wednesday, September 22, 2004

The Notebook | Into Each Life, Some Mush Must Come

Ah, love. Bane of our existence, yet it could be the very thing that keeps us alive. The Notebook is yet another love story, harkening to a world where things are more straightforward, where a boy from the wrong side of the tracks could woo a girl from the “right side” over the course of a summer and she would fall in love with him; where parents could be villainous and prevent their daughters from seeing certain unsuitable people; and, most importantly, where true love could prevail.

The Notebook is a faithful rendition of the poignant Nicholas Sparks bestseller, which dealt with first love, lost love and the debilitation of Alzheimer’s disease in a slim volume. Noah Calhoun and Allie Hamilton come from different sides of the track. They meet during an idyllic summer filled with the exuberance of youth and the first stirrings of passion. Rich girl, poor (albeit literary-inclined) boy—this situation inevitably leads to parental displeasure. Separation, intercepted letters, and a world war later, Allie is engaged to be married to prize catch Lon Hammond, who, like Noah, is a war veteran but is from old money. Circumstance brings the former lovers to each other’s periphery and Allie has to make a choice between two men, either of whom could be the love of her life. Meanwhile, in the present time, Duke is reading to an older Allie from a notebook: Allie is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, and there are only a few lucid moments when she is herself again.

The Notebook is a good-looking story. The lighting is almost always perfect, and Ryan Gosling (young Noah), Rachel McAdams (young Allie) and James Marsden (Lon) are a beautiful set of people. Even the older Noah and Allie, portrayed by veteran actors James Garner and Gena Rowlands are nicely shot and impeccably dressed—perhaps partly due to the fact that Rowlands is director Nick Cassavetes’ mother. Previous Nicholas Sparks adaptations Message in a Bottle and A Walk to Remember were also prettily done. Therein lies the beef. Sparks stories, and particularly, Sparks leading men, seem quite prettily perfect. Admittedly they have a character flaw or two but this ends up to be quite endearing. In the case of Noah Calhoun, his character is written so compositely unsullied that any mistakes that he might make are easily acceptable and, in fact, make him more endearing. Unfortunately for real girls, there seem to be very few, if any, real men, who would actually be like Noah Calhoun. And they would most probably be taken. Or gay.

As always, old hands Garner, Rowlands, and Joan Allen, give solid performances; but it is especially noteworthy that Gosling is getting more range as an actor, actually portraying a “normal” person in this film, rather than the troubled, psychotic youths he had previously portrayed in movies such as Murder by Numbers and The United States of Leland.

Admittedly, director Cassavetes pulls out all the emotional stops in this tear-jerker. The plot is simple just like the book, moving back and forth between present-day Duke reading from the notebook interspersed with flashbacks to Noah and Allie falling in love and then losing each other. There is nothing earth-shaking, but rather something comforting, about simple love stories such as The Notebook, because, beneath layers of cynicism and world-weariness, the joy of love—be it the innocence of first love, or the strength of everlasting love—still does make us smile. Never mind if you’ll never meet anyone remotely like Noah Calhoun.

Weepy date movie. Better watched with girlfriends, with a lot of popcorn and sighing.

Saturday, September 11, 2004

shiny, happy

Channel-surfing yielded shiny, happy stuff:

On Studio23, The Swan featured extreme changes on this contestant named Cindy, who went from looking like a witch with a hook nose to looking like… a regular Filipina. Great.

On National Geographic, the topic was asteroids. I am always entranced by those big shiny things in the sky—I think it’s an offshoot of my not being interested in people but in bigger things. I’m continually reminded that I’m a speck of dust in an infinite universe.

On AXN, Brad Pitt in The Devil’s Own. I remember watching this in college in a packed cinema. I think it was one of my first exposures to the hunka burnin’ love that is Jennifer Aniston’s hubby. It’s like, Brad just has to smile, and the world is a better place.

Okay snap out of it.

On HBO, Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. The battle of Helm’s Deep, and the Ents’ attack on Isengard, in particular. Sigh. Would that we could battle modern-day orcs (corrupt politicians and their henchmen?) and evil could be defeated by burning a Ring…

Monday, September 06, 2004

Connie and Carla : Variations on a Well-Trodden Comedic Scheme

Connie and Carla is Nia Vardalos’s take on Some Like It Hot, with a girl-power twist. Vardalos’ Connie and Toni Collette’s Carla are childhood friends and aspiring dinner-theater performers who witness a mob hit (hmm, Sister Act, anyone?). Carla screams, “Drive, Thelma, drive!” in a different nod to another well-loved film, and on the run now, they head towards Los Angeles, which Vardalos derides as having no dinner theater and no culture (apparently a widely accepted derision regarding the City of Angels). They end up pretending to be gay men in drag (defer to the great Julie Andrews in Victor/Victoria) and wowing audiences at The Handlebar after its main drag act leaves for Vegas.

Connie and Carla elicits a few good laughs, basically because Nia Vardalos is quite a witty writer, but her best work to date is still My Big Fat Greek Wedding. Everything she did and will do after that movie, like this film, will find the comparison difficult. Many things about the movie have to be taken at face value because not much of it is logical or makes sense, unlike the comparatively seamless (although haphazard) logic of My Big… However, if you get it behind you that Vardalos and Collette could never be mistaken for drag queens, the movie gets quite interesting—the musical scenes are especially entertaining. It is noteworthy, though, that the movie tackles some relevant issues such as body image (not that Toni Collette could ever be considered fat) and acceptance of alternative lifestyles (hence the subplot about a drag queen’s straight brother accepting his gay brother and his cross-dressing). Vardalos could have used a little more research on her drag queen information, as some of the representations bordered on the stereotypical.

Vardalos can still be cute, but we have seen this act before, in My Big Fat Greek Wedding, in an acting job to which it was obvious she gave more commitment. Toni Collette, meanwhile, seems to be giving Vardalos acting lessons, even if Vardalos seemed dead-set on being the star of the show. The seasoned actress is a joy to watch, going from lovesick girlfriend to woman of substance through the course of the movie. Sad to say, it seems that her and David (still-can-be-disarmingly-cute) Duchovny’s talents were not fully utilized in the movie. Vardalos and Duchovny’s chemistry as Connie and Jeff (in a series of meet-cutes) wasn’t particularly great, yet somehow the movie works because the actors seem to all be so enthusiastic about it. (Vardalos, meanwhile, could get some pointers from another comedic screenwriter and actress about writing a great script but staying in the background: Tina Fey, with Mean Girls.)

Stephen Spinella as Robert/Peaches, Jeff’s cross-dressing brother, gives a balanced comedic performance with a hint of poignancy. Boris McGiver, as Tibor, the Russian gangster out to get Connie and Carla, provides an excellent subplot with his effective transformation into a showtunes/dinner theater fan. Meanwhile, Filipinos in particular have to watch out for Alec Mapa playing Lee/N’Cream, one of the drag queens. Parts involving Mapa (one time he shouts out, “Hoy!”) elicited a great deal of laughter from the Filipino audience.

All in all, Connie and Carla was a run of the mill but rightly funny film, not a movie that you would seek out, but a good choice for an evening out with the friends. The fact that you watched it all together makes it worth the ticket price at Power Plant. Otherwise, this would be worth Glorietta 1, at least.

Friday, August 27, 2004

Anticipation

Movies to watch out for:
Wimbledon - Paul Bettany is a skidding tennis player and Kirsten Dunst plays a tennis golden girl. Set amidst the traditional and well-loved Wimbledon courts and tournament.

Without a Paddle - Seth “love-pa-rin-kita-Oz” Green and Matthew “Shaggy” Lillard on a sometimes distasteful but funny camping trip-cum-journey of discovery.

I Heart Huckabees - Jude Law and Naomi Watts lead a wonderful ensemble ironing out existential issues, including Dustin Hoffman, Lily Tomlin, Isabelle Huppert, Jason Schwartzman and Mark Wahlberg. Tippi Hedren and Shania Twain have cameos.

Vanity Fair - Reese Witherspoon plays Becky Sharp in the film adaptation of Thackeray’s classic novel, supported by such notables as Jim Broadbent, Bob Hoskins, and Natasha Little (who played Becky in a miniseries adaptation of Vanity Fair a few years back). To watch out for are Rhys Ifans in a serious turn far removed from his usual buffoonery and Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, who is just, plain and simple, nice to watch. Teehee.

Wednesday, August 25, 2004

Oprah | Studio23 | Aug. 24, 2004

On Oprah last night: Traci Lords

In an episode focusing on the bondage and molestation of women (the second part dealt with cult communities that espouse polygamy and child brides), Oprah interviewed former porn queen Traci Lords. Growing up in a household with three male cousins renting the room next door, it was inevitable that I would hear the name of the most famous porn star of that era in snippets of conversation, that were hushed immediately when underage ears when in the vicinity.

Lords has come out with an autobiography entitled Underneath It All, chronicling her abusive childhood, her foray into nude photography at fourteen which the blessing (pimping) of her mother’s boyfriend, her running away and beginning in the porn business at 15. During her interview she also spoke about hitting rock bottom, being questioned by the FBI, and eventually picking up the shards of her life, seriously taking up acting and landing guest roles in various TV series and movies.

I first encountered Traci Lords as a series regular in Profiler. She played Sharon Lesher, the homicidal accomplice of serial killer Jack, archnemesis of the main character, profiler Sam Waters, played by Ally Walker. I was drawn to that steely look, and the sheer nakedness with which she portrayed the troubled Sharon. Apparently, she had a lot of life experience on which to base that characterization.

I admire that Oprah puts topics such as abuse on the forefront on her show without appearing crass or exploitative. There is always a great degree of taste and compassion when it comes to the exploration of sensitive topics such as these on the show.

Meanwhile, I was also glad that Lords was able to come across as a very intelligent person; and a recovery from the depths of abuse that she went through was optimistically portrayed as being possible, and necessary. Traci Lords is doing something positive by serving as a role model. The best part of her interview was when she explained why she didn’t change her name, stating that she wanted to face up to her past and not make excuses about it. This woman rocks.