Cruising Down the ‘Ole Alimentary Canal

Roach, Mary. Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal. New York: W.W. Norton, 2013.

It began with an ode to the anal sphincter: that unsung marvel of bioengineering and the ultimate multitasker. It concluded with a Q&A session spanning probiotics and coprophagy.

It was an evening with Mary Roach, the science geek’s ‘it girl.’

Thursday, May 9’s event before a standing room only crowd took place, appropriately enough, at Berkeley’s The Bone Room as part of their ‘Bone Room Presents’ natural history salon nights.

Roach is on tour promoting her 2013 release Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal and The Bone Room advertises itself as the home of ‘all manner of weird and wonderful things.’

(Among the weirdness in stock last night was a hand lettered sign advertising a ‘Neolithic child skeleton $6000.’  I didn’t know you could buy such things. I didn’t know anyone wanted to buy such things. But The Bone Room is your source if you do, and please don’t tell me why you want one. )

If you don’t know Roach’s work, you should. In his April 26, 2013 New York Times review, Jon Ronson, a writer who knows weird, says,

‘There is much to enjoy about Mary Roach—her infectious awe for quirky science and its nerdy adherents, her one-liners… She is beloved, and justifiably so.’

Roach’s previous works include Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers (2004); Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife (2005); Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex (2008); “Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void (2011); and My Planet: Finding Humor in the Oddest Places (2013).

In Gulp, Roach cruises our inner world from ingestion (the science of taste, which is mostly smell, among them a compound called Putrescine) and chewing (are you a ‘bolus roller’?) through digestion (the centuries-long history of flatus research with a side trip to mylar  pantaloons—airtight, get it?) ending with excretion, and appearances by the ‘criminal colon’ and rats in tiny black corsets.

There’s always one person in the room who asks THE question we’re all dying to know about our natural world but have been taught ‘nice’ people don’t admit to curiosity about.

She’s been her readers’ stand-in, asking the unaskable about death (Stiff), sex (Bonk), even space travel (Packing for Mars, which is worth the price if only to read about how grown men and women with The Right Stuff have to be re-potty trained

so they can use space toilets properly and not leave The Wrong Stuff floating around the room. Think zero g and the problem comes into focus.)

Roach’s loopy nerd-girl charm and guileless sense of wonder makes all those questions—and more—okay. Hey, it’s just science. Everyone owns an anus, we all produce copious amounts of flatus (that’s ‘fart’ dressed up in science-speak) and you’re absolutely correct when you say you had a ‘gut feeling’ about your daughter’s shifty boyfriend because the gut is so essential to life it contains its own primitive brain called the enteric nervous system.

(Side note, courtesy of Roach: the population balance between intestinal bacteria and us is so lopsided that it is an open question whether we have bacteria in our intestine or whether our intestinal bacteria have us.)

Read any of Mary Roach’s books and you’ll open a unique window onto the world around and inside you. You’ll also

gain a fund of small talk guaranteed to bring a halt to any other conversation taking place at adjoining tables at your favorite restaurant.

And if your fellow diners, or family, or both complain, you can point to Mary Roach’s example. The author admits it could said of her,  “‘That Mary really has her head up her a&%,’ but only briefly, and with the utmost wonder and respect.”

Wonder and respect. Not a bad way to view the world around us.

Picture of author Mary Roach answering audience questions, May 9, 2013 at The Bone Room, Berkeley, CA.

Author Mary Roach responds to audience questions May 9, 2013 at The Bone Room, Berkeley CA. (Photo H. Delgado)

 

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Call the ‘Fashion Police’

Poster image, 'Fashion Police,' E! Entertainment Network, Fridays 10/9pm.

‘Fashion Police,’ E! Entertainment Network. Original broadcasts Fridays, 10pm/9 Central. Check your local cable provider for time and rebroadcasts. (Image courtesy IMDB.com)

 

‘Fashion Police.’ Joan Rivers, Kelly Osbourne, Guiliana Rancic, George Kotsiopoulos.

A college boyfriend once told me, after listening to the tales and tidbits I’d picked up at the gym, that the crosstalk in the women’s locker room was ten times worse than what was said by men in their own sanctum.

‘Nothing’s  off limits for you women, is there?’ the Pac-8 (hey, it was a loooong time ago) defensive lineman said, shock and yes—awe—in his eyes.

Poor delicate dear. He’d faint dead away if he watched an episode of ‘Fashion Police.’

And that’s why I like it.

Joan Rivers says what we all would, at least in our group trips to the ladies room, were we invited to the Academy Awards, the Golden Globes, the Tonys, or to a private party at the Chateau Marmont.

‘Fashion Police’ gets all the snark out of my system so I can appear to be a much nicer person than I really am.

In the panel format, host Rivers is flanked by fashion stylist George Kotsiopoulos, Kelly Osbourne and Giuliana Rancic. Kotsiopoulos lends a certain professional credibility plus he’s the gay pal, Osbourne speaks intelligently and informedly of ‘serious’ fashion from the younger perspective, and Rancic is the ‘nice’ one.

But you don’t tune in to ‘Fashion Police’ for platitudes and hemline analysis. You tune in to see over-the-top clothes and hear Joan’s oh-no-she-didn’t one-liners.

And Rivers doesn’t disappoint. With regular segments such as ‘Guess Me From Behind,’ ‘B%tch Stole My Look,’ ‘Fash&le of the Week,’ and ‘Starlet or Streetwalker’ she skewers the pretension and grotesquery that is modern celebrity.

A few of her reviews of the 2013 Golden Globes appearances:

Anne Hathaway: ‘It’s Chanel, it’s beautiful, but the top looked like a body cast. Three fans came over to sign it.’

Amanda Seyfried: ‘It’s a John Travolta dress. It’s white, it’s boring and it should just stay in the closet.’

Wine colored dresses were the color of the night, ‘and not just to wash down your pills.’

The night’s Worst Dressed?  Jessica Chastain. ‘You found Osama bin Laden, why couldn’t you find a decent hairdresser?’ Rivers particularly disliked Chastain’s draped and low-hanging split bodice, or, ‘Zero Droop Saggy’ as she termed it.

C’mon now, if you’re older than thirty and have a measurable bustline, you know all about gravity and why Chastain’s dress deserved that scorn.

Men may have to limit their comparisons to the infamous ‘sideways peek’ but we ladies are forced to wear the effects of time for all to see.

And comment upon, even if it’s just in their heads.

Think that’s not so?

Take a stroll through the mall some afternoon and watch the eyes. We all do it, and that’s why, ultimately, women’s fashion is a blood sport.

And that, for me, is Rivers’s appeal.

No matter how outrageous her comments, Joan Rivers, who will be eighty this June, presents the Everywoman opinion that few women get to voice. Or are listened to, when they do.

With her self-deprecating delivery and her former-homely-girl image, Rivers points her finger from a seat right beside us.

There’s a trace of vulnerability that fuels her delivery, and not a stitch of implicit ‘just try a little harder, dear, and you can be almost as perfect as I’ that passes for humility in today’s Hollywood.

So watch ‘Fashion Police’ for the fashion, sure. Laugh at the wardrobe malfunctions and bad taste bombs.

Best of all, laugh with Joan Rivers as she skewers the assertions that all these size double zero celebrities are ‘naturally thin’ and that a fifty year old woman can wear a dress slit to her waist without a new set of 375cc’s and a whole lotta double stick tape.

It’s all the glamour, without the guilt trip. I love ‘Fashion Police.’

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Langella’s Irrepressible ‘Dropped Names’

Langella, Frank. Dropped Names: Famous Men and Women as I Knew Them. 

Image of book cover, Frank Langella's 'Dropped Names,' Harper Collins 2012

Langella, Frank. Dropped Names. New York: Harper Collins, 2012. (Image courtesy Amazon.com)

 

Frank Langella’s Dropped Names is true to its title. The author presents a series of cameos of ‘famous men and women as I knew them.’

These are not exercises in depth psychology. They’re the tales told by the most entertaining man at the cocktail party. All the vignettes are interesting, many are funny, some are poignant.

Born in 1938, Langella began his career in the sea change between two great acting epochs. As a fresh-faced up and comer and/or a newly minted Broadway star, he worked with many of the greats of the preceding generation in their emeritus years, including Laurence Olivier, Charles Laughton, Rex Harrison, Charles Laughton, Ida Lupino, Deborah Kerr and Loretta Young.

He also worked as a junior contemporary to luminaries such as Robert Mitchum, Elizabeth Taylor and Rita Hayworth.

Other reviews of this book, and the convention of the actor memoir, already likely will have informed the reader that much canoodling is involved.

Langella was a healthy, handsome male enjoying the burgeoning of the sexual revolution. Rita Hayworth, Jackie Kennedy and Elizabeth Taylor are just a few of Langella’s partners. Laurence Olivier and Tony Perkins made hopeful overtures. Langella apparently cut a wide swathe even given the permissive times and his occupation.

Yet this is also a surprisingly discrete recounting.

Langella refrains from either the soft-porn recreation or warts-and-all revenge tale that mars so many other examples of this genre.

Langella’s remembrance of Rita Hayworth and their brief affair is compassionate and poignant. Hayworth, on the set of her final film, mind laid waste by unrecognized Alzheimers, was despised by cast and crew for her seeming unprofessionalism.

Langella recalls Hayworth struggling with ‘panic and terror in her eyes’ to remember any of her lines, and ‘her pride and happiness at the smallest of her achievements.’ Yet for brief moments in their private time together, Hayworth was able to recapture something of herself and appear as ‘the Goddess’ she had once been.

Langella makes no excuses for himself when he admits he left her without regret upon the end of filming. He saw her one more time before her death when she was clinging to a huckster promoter.

I suspect he is still haunted by her final words to him: ‘Frankie, he’s all I got.’

A similar portrait of blighted powers and desperate courage is that of Cameron Mitchell in his twilight. Langella speaks of his initial contempt then his growing respect for Mitchell as Mitchell soldiered through the low-budget shoot, hiding his embarrassment and shame with a forced bonhomie.

At an ‘In Memoriam’ tribute after Mitchell’s death, Langella is repelled by the smattering of applause from people ‘misguidedly confident that what they were wearing…was forever going to fit.’

Langella also regales us with brighter tales of film’s (and some of history’s) greats:

Charles Laughton, devastated to near paralysis by bad reviews, until he learned to ‘exorcise them from his soul’ by repeating the critics’ words with Shakespearean histrionics, to the vast amusement of his listeners.

Coral Brown, brilliant stage actress and renowned wit, on Olivier: ‘Darling Larry. I adore him. From a distance.’

And Brown’s husband, the equally witty Vincent Price, explaining why Coral can’t come to the phone: ‘She’s just gone to confession. And she’s going to be gone a very long time.’

Charlton Heston, ‘as humorless as a CAT scan,’ who Langella surmises never really vacated his most famous roles—Moses, Michelangelo, God—endlessly repeating his stock opening line: ‘Did you like the weather today? I did my best.’

Anthony Quinn, whose ‘aura was so sour and his sense of entitlement was so pervasive’ that it acts upon Langella as a kind of psychic wet paint sign.

Langella recounts his increasingly outrageous attempts to wring some sign of personal recognition from Quinn in their successive meets.

Langella doesn’t exclude himself from a turn on the spit. He remembers the divinely witty and equally monstrous Rex Harrison, ‘who would send back the wine at his own table.’

Beloved by audiences and the young Langella’s own personal idol, Harrison responds to Langella’s effusive greeting by handing him his coat. And no tip.

And then there is Langella’s introduction to the Queen Mother, who gets one over on Langella when he commits the solecism of translating for her the French title of his play.  She responds ‘with utter sweetness’ as Langella imagines ‘the equipment gearing up to help load my big dumb foot into my mouth.’

Also present with more than their fair share of word count are President John F. Kennedy, Jackie Kennedy and plutocrats Paul and Bunny Mellon. If Langella is shameless in recounting private jet rides, visits to the winner’s circle at Epsom Downs and tête-à-têtes with Jackie O., neither is he an ingrate.

He credits Mrs. Mellon and her gentle, gracious charm with civilizing the rough-edged ‘boy from Bayonne’ into the urbane man who is on every guest list.

Dropped Names delivers exactly what it promises and a bit more. It is a highly selective, entertaining and breezy actor’s autobiography, deliciously opinionated without being cruel.

It is also luminously tender and humane in rendering the fragile personalities that give so much to their ephemeral art and to our enjoyment.

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‘Amish Mafia’–Whole Lotta Nothin’ Goin’ On

 

 ‘Amish Mafia,’ The Discovery Channel. Original broadcasts Wednesdays 9pm Eastern. Check your local cable provider for time and rebroadcasts.

Cast photo of 'Amish Mafia,' courtesy Discovery.com

Cast photo of ‘Amish Mafia,’ courtesy Discovery.com

‘Amish Mafia’ has been roundly condemned by critics and widely debunked by media observers and bloggers. It’s become the show people love to hate.

The truth is that ‘Amish Mafia’ is not worth the emotional energy.

It’s not the inspired-lunacy bad of ‘Plan Nine from Outer Space’ or ‘The Long Island Medium,’ the ‘I can’t believe what I’m seeing’ bad that is compulsively watchable to see just how bad it will get.

‘Amish Mafia’ is just the amateurish and dull kind of bad, the ‘my brother-in-law’s film script he’s been carrying around for years’ bad.

The show follows the activities of a man called Lebanon Levi (that’s a sobriquet like ‘Lonely Larry’) who is portrayed as a sort of ‘fixer’ among the Amish, a man ‘above the law’ to whom the Amish allegedly turn ‘for protection and justice.’ 1

He has a group of minions, most of them gangly youths, who run errands for him. They have a clubhouse in what appears to be a dairy barn, where Levi sits at a desk set amidst the hay and reads the paper in between handing out honey-do lists to the boys.

On these lists included, in the episodes I watched: organizing parties where Amish youths could mingle and snog while doing their laundry; ‘collecting’ for Levi, otherwise known as picking up rent money from tenants; and participating in buggy drag races.

Oh, and sitting before the camera to give commentary on the (non)happenings. By my rough estimation, approximately fifty percent of the elapsed time of each episode consists of Levi or one of his henchmen talking about an event that just happened, will happen, or might happen.

The show might more accurately be titled, ‘Talking About the Amish Mafia.’ There’s a whole lotta nothin’ goin’ on here.

The errors and oddities are easy for even this Californian to pick out: Many of the actors appear to stumble over their German. One of the group’s ‘enemies,’ a former member, is a Mennonite, as is a current member. So they’re not really the Amish Mafia, they’re the Pan-Anabaptist Mafia? Snopes.com has an excellent roundup of the errors, anachronisms and outright confabulations.2

Yet the show regularly leads the ratings in its category. Take December 28, 2012 for example, when some 1.773 million people, arguably at least some possessing IQs higher than their body temperature, tuned in to ‘Amish Mafia’ for their weekly fix of the preposterous and risible. 3

In his January 3, 2013 piece, Brett Hambright notes of Levi, “Jeffrey Conrad, another lawyer, said he asked his Amish connections about such a person. ‘Who?’ they responded, Conrad said. ‘Across the board, no one heard of him.'”4

And those envelopes of ‘protection money’ supposedly collected by the minions from Levi’s tenants? Levi doesn’t even own the buildings.  Bobby Pollier writing for EnStarz: “According to county property records, Meacham and Ziffer have actually been the owners of the establishment since 1989.”5

And on it goes.

The show is produced by the team at Hot Snakes Media, the same group responsible for ‘Breaking Amish.’ That’s the ‘reality’ show outed for being scripted and using actors to portray Amish and Mennonite characters. Examiner.com’s Emma Riley Sutton cites Discovery Channel’s sister network TLC explanation explanation that ‘Breaking Amish’ ‘is not true, but some of it is.’ 6

Each episode of ‘Amish Mafia’ is headed by a caveat that the show is based on ‘the legend of the Amish Mafia.’

It’s reality television dumbed down.Try thinking about that without shuddering.

‘Amish Mafia’ and its ilk are an exercise in discovering how low networks, production companies and yes, viewers, can go in standards of taste, value, interest, even basic writing and acting skills and still keep these revenue juggernauts rolling.

And therein lies the method in Discovery Channel’s madness. Eat enough vending machine tuna sandwiches and even Denny’s meals taste like gourmet cuisine. Watch enough ‘Amish Mafia’ and even Honey Boo Boo is ‘must see TV,’ by comparison.

Watching ‘Amish Mafia’ has made me appreciate the talents of Kim Kardashian.

I’ll never forgive the Discovery Channel for that.

 

http://dsc.discovery.com/tv-shows/amish-mafia/about-the-show/about-the-show.htm

2 http://www.snopes.com/politics/crime/amishmafia.asp

http://www.thefutoncritic.com/ratings/2012/12/28/wednesdays-cable-ratings-discoverys-amish-mafia-event-leads-demos-espn-tops-viewers-926325/cable_20121226/

4 http://articles.philly.com/2013-01-03/news/36113525_1_amish-community-amish-mafia-amish-behavior/2

5 http://www.enstarz.com/articles/11136/20130102/amish-mafia-tv-show-spoiler-reveals-the-truth-behind-the-series-legitimacy-details.htm

6 http://www.examiner.com/article/breaking-amish-cast-member-has-previous-television-experience

 

 

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‘The Hobbit:’ An Unexpected Disappointment

 

‘The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.’ Dir. Peter Jackson. Screenplay by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson, Guillermo del Toro from the book by J.R.R. Tolkein. Starring Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage. New Line Cinema/MGM/Wingnut Films, 2012. 169 minutes.

‘The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.’ Dir. Peter Jackson. Screenplay by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson, Guillermo del Toro from the book by J.R.R. Tolkein. Starring Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage. New Line Cinema/MGM/Wingnut Films, 2012. 169 minutes.

 

‘The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.’

There’s so much potential in ‘The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.’

So many fine performances.

So much outstanding CGI work.

So much breathtaking New Zealand.

And so little heart to tie it all together and  in the darkness of the theater, bind it to our hearts.

Sigh.

It is possible to have too much of a good thing. ‘The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey’ is a prime example.

‘The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” is what happens when a director ceases to be a filmmaker and becomes an iconographer instead. Director Peter Jackson is either so in love with Tolkien’s source material, or with his own filmic memorializing of it, that he has ceased to exercise the critical function required to successfully adapt one medium to another.

The saddest thing about Jackson’s slavish fidelity is that it spotlights Tolkien’s difficulty with plotting.

The story, at its most basic, is a series of vignettes, like a string of beads. First this, then that, and afterwards, this yet again. This would be a prime opportunity for the director’s art to provide a corrective for a sprawling plot, imposing order on the embarrassment of riches that is Tolkien’s world building.

Unfortunately Jackson not only fails to prune the repetitive events and slogging time signature of the original, but even neglects to triage those events to create an escalation of impact. In Jackson’s hands, all conflicts are equally dramatic, which blunts the impact of any of them.

The troop of dwarves lurches from one CGI battle to another with little cause and no effect.  We’re told in one of the two prologues that Dwarf prince Thorin wants to reclaim and rebuild the ancestral Dwarf capital stolen from his people by the fearsome dragon Smaug.

But there’s little talk of why these twelve men are willing to risk everything now to recapture a dream, or what the dream means to each of them. What brought them  together? What did they leave behind? Why are they willing to trust Thorin with their lives?

They just bounce along from fight to fight without anyone saying, ‘here’s why,’ or ‘this is what it means.’

It’s difficult to care about the Dwarves’ quest because we don’t get to see that they care about it. It’s all as engaging (and endless) as a Middle Earth treadmill.

Or perhaps an extended Middle Earth music video. There are innumerable slo-mo bromance glamour shots of the more toothsome dwarves, including Thorin, Fili and Kili with a wind machine blowing their hair, their eyes sparkling as they exchange lingering soul-gazes.

There is one shining moment of plot development, when Gandalf demands of Thorin, ‘Who did you tell?’ and decides, ‘Someone is hunting us.’ Supposedly there is a growing evil in Middle Earth. Wonderful! Mystery, betrayal, distrust: now we’ll hear the troop chew that over on the trail, see the individuals react under pressure, watch them either rise to the occasion or fall to their demons, right?

Not a chance.

That would lead to character development and no, we’ve got to get on the road for more interminable battles.

‘The Hobbit’ is not without its strengths. There is not a weak performance on the screen. Of particular note: Ian McKellen’s Gandalf is wizardly without camp and Martin Freeman as Bilbo is clever and appealing. Of the Dwarves, Ken Stott as Balin, the wise elder, and James Nesbitt as Bofur the offbeat philosopher are standouts among the throng.

Andy Serkis reprises his Gollum of ‘Lord of the Rings’ fame. So many superlatives have already been attached to Serkis’s work, but add to them, ‘most frightening creature in ‘The Hobbit.’

All the combined screaming, ripping and slashing of Orcs, Trolls and Goblins cannot compete with the intimate horror of Gollum.

Gollum crawls about near naked in the darkness, talking to himself for company and comfort, despised and despising. He batters a young Orc to death with a rock before Bilbo’s eyes and butchers it for a meal, but his eyes light up with eagerness to play a game of riddles.

Gollum’s wickedness happens on a small scale, a horribly human scale. Equally relatable is the vulnerability, fear and the terrible loneliness Serkis’s performance evinces. That potpourri of conflicting emotions is reflected in Bilbo’s face as he holds Gollum at knifepoint then spares his life.

After the sturm und drang of screaming Orc hordes and rampaging Goblins, monumental underground capitals and airy Elvish spires,

it is the small scale emotions of that lakeside life and death battle of wits between Gollum and Bilbo that best displays what ‘The Hobbit’ could have been, and what it is not.

Our danger, the evil we face every day, comes not from necromancers and Trolls, but from the Gollum-like creature inside each of us. The enduring appeal of Tolkien rests on his recognition of that ultimate, intimate battle that each of us must fight, and his invitation to see ourselves as the warriors we are. Though we do not live in Middle Earth, we each have a quest, and the potential to become a hero.

This is where Jackson fails with ‘The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.’ In striving to maintain the purity of Tolkein’s images, he has lost sight of what those images mean.

 

 

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The Best Christmas Movie You’ve Never Seen

 ‘Three Godfathers.’ Dir. Richard Boleslawski. Screenplay by Edward E. Paramore, Jr., Manuel Seff; based on the novel by Peter B. Kyne. Starring Chester Morris, Lewis Stone, Walter Brennan. MGM, 1936. 81 minutes.

‘Three Godfathers.’ Dir. Richard Boleslawski. Screenplay by Edward E. Paramore, Jr., Manuel Seff; based on the novel by Peter B. Kyne. Starring Chester Morris, Lewis Stone, Walter Brennan. MGM, 1936. 81 minutes.

 

Three Godfathers’ (1936):

 

I first saw this film at 2 a.m. on a sleepless Christmas Eve eve. After the first fifteen minutes I sat up in bed repeating, ‘Oh my G&d, Oh my G&d.’ Halfway through, I had to turn on the light to find tissues. I never forgot it, and now this unknown Christmas movie gem is available on DVD.

A plot synopsis will sound clichéd and trite: Desperadoes come across a dying woman with her newborn baby. Against the objections of his partners, one of the men agrees to carry the baby to safety. One by one the bandits die, until the most vicious of the men, overcome by the promptings of his conscience, sacrifices his own life to lay the child safely in the arms of his pursuers on Christmas day.

Thanks to a brilliant, if unsung cast and inspired direction, there is nothing clichéd about this stark distillation of the cost of sin and the price of redemption.

I would be tempted to call it ‘modern,’ except ‘Three Godfathers’ does not kowtow to any exaggerated niceties of feeling, what we call ‘political correctness’ now.

Can you imagine any filmmaker of today creating a scene in which Sangster (Chester Morris), determined to leave the child behind, screams at the squalling child to be quiet?

As if this is not brutal enough, Sangster suddenly draws his gun and fires at the child. Only after long seconds of silence are we allowed to see that Sangster has shot and killed a rattlesnake threatening the infant.

Nor did screenwriters Paramore, Jr. and Seff and director Boleslawski create a ‘bandit with a heart of gold’ prior to this scene to telegraph the eventual resolution. In the robbery of New Jerusalem that opens the film, Sangster not only victimizes Molly, his former fiancé (Irene Hervey), but his vicious interaction with her carries the dark threat of rape. The acting is stark, naturalistic and restrained; the direction avoids editorializing.

We don’t need to be told Bob Sangster is lost to sin, and that sin is bad. We can see that.

Peter B. Kyne’s 1913 novel has been adapted to film at least eight times according to Wikipedia, from 1916’s silent version to a loosely related 1996 episode of Walker, Texas Ranger. The most famous filming is John Wayne’s 1948 star turn, directed by John Ford and beloved by fans of Pedro Armendariz.

By all means, enjoy this good-natured romp; but it is an emotionally blunted equation.

Consider the relative wages of sin: in 1936’s version Sangster saves the child and redeems his soul at the cost of his life. In 1948 the wage of sin is one year in prison.

Perhaps that is the enduring appeal of this story: no matter how we dumb down the consequences of our actions in the social context, some essential component of our being understands the elemental cost of right and wrong.

For Boleslawski’s 1936 ‘Three Godfathers,’ the Christmas setting is not a feel-good convention but the context in which Sangster’s sacrifice and redemption make sense and acquire their authority.

Highly recommended.

(A two-disc set including 1936 ‘Three Godfathers’ and the 1929 version, ‘Hell’s Heroes’ is offered by Amazon.)

Image courtesy IMDB: www.IMDB.com

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Sweet Memories and ‘My Grandmother’s Ravioli’

 

‘My Grandmother’s Ravioli,’ Cooking Channel. Original broadcasts Wednesdays 8:30pm Eastern. Check your local cable provider for time and rebroadcasts.

‘My Grandmother’s Ravioli,’ Cooking Channel. Original broadcasts Wednesdays 8:30pm Eastern. Check your local cable provider for time and rebroadcasts.

I ran across this little gem completely by accident, and it stole an entire Sunday afternoon from me.

Despite the title and network, this isn’t really a cooking show. This is something better. It’s a sweet and goofy, golden retriever of a food culture show that makes you want to call your grandmother just to say ‘hi.’

The premise is simple.

Host Moe Rocca visits a grandmother (or grandfather) who cooks and teaches the tastes of ‘the old country.’

Rocca is not a chef.  With a background that includes Harvard’s Hasty Pudding show and behind the scenes work at PBS kids’ and humor shows, he is an amiable, lightly goof-ball avatar for the viewer who longs for her grandmother’s ravioli or abuelo’s posole and the taste of family, home and tradition.

The series begins with Ruth Teig, math teacher and Jewish grandmother, who coaches Rocca in the making of kreplach and gefilte fish,

with a slight detour for her “Miracle Coffee Cake.” Why ‘miracle’? It was good enough to send Ruth to the head of the line at the DMV. If that’s not a miracle, what  is?

As Teig cooks, she shares with Rocca, and with us, not just the ‘what’ but the ‘why’ of the food and what it means to her family. The separation of meat and dairy in her kosher kitchen; the subtle differences between Polish gefilte (“slightly sweet”) and the Lithuanian version (“totally peppery without any sweetness at all.”) Even the  explanation for gefilte fish’s evil reputation:

“Ever seen gefilte fish in a jar? It’s horrid. [shudders] Horrid.”

Then to the folding of the kreplach,“like Yiddish wontons” with Teig’s unique mathematical twist: “It’s like an isosceles right triangle. Take two ends from the hypotenuse and put them together. “

Rocca’s first effort, naturally, “goes to the land of misfit kreplach.”

True to the premise of Rocca being a ‘grandson for a day,’ this history includes the bittersweet. Teig survived the holocaust by hiding in a barn; some of her siblings did not survive. Rocca asks her, “How can you be so optimistic?” Teig’s response is simple, and eloquent: “Life has been incredibly good to me. I remember it, but—life is too good.”

Perhaps the genius of this little show is it taps in to our fragmented, post-‘melting pot’ culture.

‘Grandmother’ is now ‘mother,’ or we never met her, or Grandfather lives across the country and is only a wavery signature on a birthday card.

We long for the gentle rhythm of chopping and kneading accompanied by stories of your own parents when they were children or grandmother when she was a child herself.

We can still hear her, even if we created her whole, the Scheherazade of the kitchen spinning half real, half magic tales of how ‘they’ became we.

Just look at the viewer comments at the show’s recipe page to see the rich vein  ‘MGR’ taps, the need for family bred deep in our DNA. The reviews not only laud the recipes but even more, the food created and shared in the heart of the family. There is an essential home-kitchen nature here, a hominess.

This is not prima donna food that stands alone, this is food that pulls you in.

Successive episodes include culinary visits with Jamaican, Italian, Ecuadorian, Maharashtrian Indian and Thai families, and their cuisines.

Excuse me; thanks to Moe Rocca and ‘My Grandmother’s Ravioli,’ I’ve got to run to the store to pick up some ingredients.

I’m going to spend the afternoon making souberag, something I haven’t done in years.

In honor of my Armenian picture-bride grandmother, Flora, and of my Aunt Rose, who told me the story.

Shalom and thank you, Mrs. Teig.

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Avoid This Holiday ‘Dog’

Picture for TV movie review, 'The Dog Who Saved the Holidays'

The Dog Who Saved the Holidays. Dir. Michael Feifer. Screenplay by Richard Gnolfo, Michael Ciminera. Starring Gary Valentine, Elisa Donovan, Shelley Long, voice of Joey Lawrence. ARO Entertainment, 2012. 87 minutes.

 

‘The Dog Who Saved the Holidays’ (2012):

Making cheap, fast made-for-television holiday flicks must be Hollywood’s version of pro bono work.

Most of the films are harmless; good for parking the kids while you’re wrapping presents.

‘The Dog Who Saved the Holidays’ isn’t one of them.

It’s not just bad. It’s pernicious, crude, and slyly misogynistic.

Actually, it’s an equal-opportunity snigger-fest: the minds behind this mess also poke fun at seniors, children, marriage, family, pregnancy, Christmas and dogs.

The general plot concerns the efforts of Labrador Zeus (voiced by Joey Lawrence) to foil the efforts of mobile dog groomer Ted (an unrecognizable Dean Cain) and his flatulent sidekick (veteran character actor Joey Diaz) to burgle the wretchedly excessive Malibu home of Aunt Barbara (Shelley Long) while Zeus’s family, George and Belinda Bannister (Gary Valentine, Elisa Donovan) are visiting.

Hilarious holiday subplots include Belinda’s suspicion her husband George is committing adultery, new puppy Eve’s successful efforts to push Zeus out of the family, and the Bannister children’s harsh rejection of their loyal pet.

There are some truly inappropriate scenes for what is advertised as a holiday, family film. The ‘is-he-or-isn’t-he-cheating’ theme allows the producers to weave a sour and salacious sexuality into the film. A hidden microphone allows the burglars to listen to what they believe is a couple having vigorous sex; this scene is interminable. Belinda’s mother provides marital and pregnancy advice in nauseating detail. Much of George’s dialogue with his wife includes sexual double entendres.

Production values are of the ‘it’s just a kid’s tv movie’ philosophy.

Most dialogue is shot in extreme close-up, giving the actors a distorted, bloated appearance. In contrast, the lengthy exterior shots, particularly of Aunt Barbara’s vulgar McMansion and the Malibu setting, make me think the film was made at one of the producer’s home for the tax deduction.

Performances are just adequate.

Veteran actors Michael Gross and Shelley Long appear stiff and forced. Perhaps they were.

The child actors are unpleasant, sarcastic ‘twelve-going-on-twenty-nine’ stereotypes unredeemed by charm. They’re young. I blame the director and writer. Fortunately for viewers, as well as the child actors, they are virtually absent for the final third of the film.

The canine actors are the best of the bunch, though they are not called upon to do much beyond hitting their marks. Zeus spends most of the interminable eighty-seven minutes needing his face wiped.

I’m starting to have too much fun picking at this scabrous offering so I’ll end by noting

it is brought to you by the same team behind the rest of the ‘Dog Who Saved…’ franchise (and this year’s ‘Jersey Shore Shark Attack.’)

Mario Lopez, who voiced Zeus in the first two chapters of the series (‘Dog Who Saved Christmas’ (2009) and ‘Dog Who Saved Christmas Vacation’ (2010)) bailed prior to 2011’s ‘…Halloween,’ and this film.

Wise man, that Mario Lopez.

Avoid ‘The Dog Who Saved the Holidays’ as you value your immortal soul.

 

 

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Triumphal ‘Lincoln’

Poster for 'Lincoln,' 2012

‘Lincoln.’ Dir. Stephen Spielberg. Screenplay by Tony Kushner. Starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, David Strathairn, Tommy Lee Jones. Dreamworks Pictures/20th Century Fox/Reliance Entertainment/Participant Media, 2012. 150 minutes.

I knew I was in trouble within the first five minutes of the film as my eyes filled, listening to four star-struck soldiers repeating back to President Lincoln his Gettysburg address.

Of course, how could the filmmakers go wrong? The final months of Lincoln’s life, January to April 1865, focusing on those fevered weeks in January leading to the House’s passage of the 13th amendment abolishing slavery. As denouement, Lincoln’s body, the apocryphal words, ‘Now he belongs to the ages’ almost the last words of the film. It’s a can’t-lose proposition, yes?

Not quite.

In other hands, this could so easily have been a turgid, rigid and idolatrous bore.

It is to the great credit of director Steven Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner that they have threaded the dangerous path between slavish adoration on the one hand and prurient speculation-for-the-sake-of-saying-anything-new, on the other hand. What they have created is a loving illumination of four months in the life of a man, who was also a hero.

They are aided in this by an incomparable cast, headed by Daniel Day-Lewis. Day-Lewis inhabits not just the role, but the man. His is a restrained performance, a heart-stealing performance. Day-Lewis’s Lincoln shambles through the White House in run-down slippers, wearing a blanket as a shawl. This Lincoln is a father, a husband, loving but also sometimes driven almost to breaking by their competing but oh-so-human demands on him atop the tearing imperatives of a country at war.

Day-Lewis’s scenes with Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln ache with the reality of marriage in any era, or estate, that no one can hurt you as deeply as the one who loves you, and whom you love.

Additional standouts include: Tommy Lee Jones as Representative Thaddeus Stevens. Despite his tendency of late to deliver drive-by scenery-chewing cameos by rote, Jones’s characterization here is nuanced, his vitriol delivered strategically, the man behind the historical imperative very much in view.

David Strathairn as Secretary of State William Seward; Hal Holbrook as Preston Blair, founder of the new Republican Party; Bruce McGill as a suffer-no-fools Secretary of War Edwin Stanton; Lee Pace as firebrand Representative Fernando Wood; David Constabile as amendment sponsor Representative James Ashley, all deliver performances at once infused with the intimations of history, and the passions of men.

A lone exception is Joseph Gordon-Levitt, though that may be more the limit of the role than the actor.

Gordon-Levitt’s Robert Lincoln, the scapegrace son, is either petulant, in his few major scenes with Field and Day-Lewis, or petrified, as a silent witness attached to General Grant’s staff.

Kushner’s screenplay is largely informed by historian and biographer Doris Kearns Goodwin’s widely lauded 2005 work Team of Rivals, a study of Lincoln as a leader of men. Spielberg’s genius is to vary the tone and pace so his audience is not driven against the back of their seats by the weight of the history. Spielberg does not shy from the natural humor arising from an era addicted to dramatic presentation, florid rhetoric and shameless political skullduggery.

Jared Harris’s squint-eyed W.N. Bilbo and John Hawkes as oily Robert Latham are pungently funny as hired-gun lobbyists wrangling queasy-conscienced congressmen into voting for the amendment.

Peter McRobbie’s sneering George Pendleton, Boris McGiver’s political naïf and Walton Goggins as a party-pecked rube are comic exemplars of the hurly burly of 19th century politics.

Production values are uniformly outstanding. John Williams composed the magisterial score, which was performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. Stay in the theater for the final credits to hear more of their lovely work. I predict this CD will be a bestseller. One quibble: I wish Spielberg had been able to resist the American custom of tarting up every dramatic moment with ‘pay attention, this is important!’ background music.

Janusz Kaminski’s cinematography gives us the dark and light contrasts of Victorian spaces. Art decoration, set and costume design are all richly detailed without making a fetish of being a period piece. Michael Kahn’s editing moves us through the sprawling geography and complex timing of the story with coherence and grace.

I cannot tell you I will purchase this DVD and watch it over and over. Like Schindler’s List and The Green Mile, it’s too deep, too cathartic to count as mere entertainment accompanied by pizza, washing machine sloshing in the background.

What I will do is read Team of Rivals. I might even start on Carl Sandburg’s six volume biography of Lincoln, finally.

Seeking the man behind the myth. Surely that would be an epitaph that even Mr. Lincoln would approve.

Recommended without hesitation.

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Vibrating with ‘Hysteria’

Poster for 'Hysteria' movie

‘Hysteria.’ Dir. Tanya Wexler. Screenplay by Stephen Dyer and Jonah Lisa Dyer. Starring Maggie Gyllenhaal, Hugh Dancy, Jonathan Pryce, Rupert Everett. Informant Media/Sony Picture Classics, 2012. 100 minutes.

At the climactic courtroom scene in ‘Hysteria,’ protagonist Dr. Mortimer Granville refers to Charlotte Dalrymple, putatively a sufferer of hysteria as, “confounding…fire and brimstone one moment, compliments and common sense the next.” He might well have been describing this muddle headed film.

‘Hysteria’ cannot decide if it is broad romantic comedy or biting social satire. It ends, instead, as an unsuccessful hybrid, say, a pickle sundae.

‘Hysteria’ is the (very) loosely historic tale of the invention of the personal massager. Yes, those massagers. Dr. Joseph Mortimer Granville was the first to patent one of these labor saving devices, designed to treat the late-Victorian plague of female hysteria.

The labor being saved was that of male physicians, who were suffering repetitive motion injuries thanks to their efforts, hours at a time, at ‘pelvic massage’ to bring on a ‘paroxysm’ in their patients and thus relieve their symptoms.

Dr. Robert Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce) desperately needs an assistant. He is overwhelmed by a growing practice of women who require his weekly ‘treatments.’ Young Dr. Mortimer Granville (Hugh Dancy) has just been fired, yet again, for being progressive, and outspoken about it. The new, young associate becomes not only popular, but nearly crippled by his success. Thus the hunt is on for a mechanical shortcut.

Had it stayed the ‘odd medical history’ course, ‘Hysteria’ might have been an engaging, even witty film.

There would have been ample opportunity to demonstrate the wooly-headedness of patriarchal systems of the past, a far more effective method than ‘Hysteria’s haranguing the audience with political polemic. Consider 1990’s ‘Awakenings,’ a far more successful example of this genre. Of course director Penny Marshall was working from Dr. Oliver Sacks’s deeply compassionate autobiographical account.

Instead, ‘Hysteria’ grafts in a gratuitous romantic triangle between Granville and Dalrymple’s daughthers: Emily (Felicity Jones), the ‘angel of the house,’ the sweet and womanly ideal of Victorian womanhood, and her elder sister Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhaal), the rebellious ‘new woman’ suffragette and settlement house mistress. The ensuing complications are predictable, down to the grand courtroom speech and ‘ah hah’ moment of recognized love.

The lack of subtly extends to the characterizations. Gyllenhaal’s daughter of the professional class displays the manners of a navvy, sprawling in a chair, chomping her food.

She is curiously naïve; she works in a Neverland of grateful deserving poor, commuting from her father’s comfortable home where one of her (partially) reformed prostitutes serves and cleans so Charlotte doesn’t have to.

She grandly announces that the only thing wrong with her father’s patients is their lives of domestic drudgery and unsatisfying marital relations, but she, and the filmmakers, have no solutions for the reality of families that need feeding, babies who need changing, laundry that needs doing, regardless of one’s political persuasion. Charlotte proclaims socialism is the answer, as ‘just a group of people working together.’

But with apologies to Mrs. Thatcher, the problem with radical second wave feminism is eventually you run out of other people, no matter their gender, to do the dishes.

Dancy’s Dr. Granville veers wildly from diffident, civilized Victorian gentleman to caustic, contemptuous bully without warning or precedent. I am guessing we are meant to see Mortimer as only free to be himself with Charlotte who is struggling to be free herself. It appears they are both free to be their most unpleasant selves.

Then there is the film’s inexplicable descent into low farce, as when Charlotte knocks down Granville with her bicycle. He lands atop her, his hands on her breasts. Hugh Grant has made a career of this sort of overgrown schoolboy pratfall. Dancy should not seek to add this to his own repertoire.

The plot is similarly problematic. Dr. Dalrymple is fingered as having ordered a brutal attack on his daughter. This serves as a pretext for Charlotte to punch a constable and get hauled into court, and is neither resolved nor mentioned again.

Granville is abruptly fired by Dr. Dalrymple for failing to provide a successful ‘treatment’ for a patient despite Granville’s creating a flood of new business.

At the grand engagement party thrown for Emily and Granville by Lord and Lady St. John-Smythe, Granville is shown entering with the other guests and being announced, instead of being in the receiving line as guest of honor with Emily. Emily and her father arrive separately from Granville.

Naturally, Charlotte and Granville get their ‘happily ever after.’ He defends her in court and realizes he loves the “confounding” Charlotte. It doesn’t hurt that Granville has become rich from the licensing of his ‘Granville Percusser’ device and can support the settlement house. Whether that is a ‘too little too late’ nod to the realities of life, or a selling out of political ideology is debatable.

Happily, the supporting cast is uniformly outstanding.

Rupert Everett steals every scene he is in as eccentric inventor Lord St. John-Smythe. Georgie Glen touches the heart with her gently dignified—and very patient—widow Mrs. Parson.  Sheridan Smith is blithely pert as Molly, maid cum part time prostitute cum medical pioneer. Tobias Menzies’s toffee nosed barrister is the man you love to hate. Gemma Jones in her mere two or three scenes as Lady St. John-Smythe conveys a world of character and context with her slightest gesture.

‘Hysteria’ isn’t a bad movie. But t could have been a much better, much wiser film had the filmmakers spent less time propounding doctrine and more time just telling a story well.

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