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Tuesday, Nov 21, 2006


Love at first sight is such a frightening concept. The notion that, without warning, your emotional circuits could fire all at once, sending you off into sentimental fits so profound that you may never recover from them, is chilling. Some can mistake lust for love, or physical attraction for something far more ephemeral, but when a single glance creates infinite adoration, the possibilities are endless—and so are the potential problems. For you see, love is not an easy emotion. It does not translate well, nor does it affect every person the same exact way. We can try to allude to universal opinions, but the truth is that love means different things to different people. Passion may seem boundless, but everyone has their own set of borders. Crossing over into it can be the best—or the worst—thing that ever happens to you.


Like an elegy to the emotion it best exemplifies, Le Notti Bianche is a tender, bittersweet slice of unbridled radiance, an ode to the concept of the instant connection, and a prayer for a preference of the present over the past. Though it only deals with three main characters, it speaks for all individuals caught up in the perplexing feelings of devotion and attraction. It’s a visual representation of complicated thoughts forced into an ethereal, enchanted world. Italian master Luchino Visconti creates a lilting lullaby, a gentle breeze of a movie that wafts over your soul like a sudden zephyr on a hot summer day. Though taking place mostly at night, this is the bright side of love at first sight. Sadly, like clockwork, every evening brings the harshness of day. Just like any emotion, the brilliance of love can—and does—bring about the gloom of unsatisfied desire.


While strolling the streets of a Venice-like city late one night, Mario (Marcello Mastrioanni) runs into a sad and weeping woman named Natalia (Maria Schell). Instantly taken with her charms, he asks if he can escort her home. Reluctantly, she agrees. Over the next several nights, the couple meets—sometimes purposefully, other times by happenstance—and they soon begin to connect. Mario asks Natalia why she seems so sad all the time, and she tells a long, involved story about her present home life.


Her grandma is a near-invalid who repairs rugs for a living. She also takes in boarders to help pay the bills. Natalia helps her grandmother, as she is the last remnant of the old woman’s family (Natalia’s mother and father ran off years ago). She also feels trapped in her surroundings. But that is not what makes her unhappy. One day, a strange Tenant (Jean Marais) arrived at Natalia’s house looking for a room. The young girl, seeing the startlingly attractive older man, fell madly in love with him, and an unspoken affection began. Soon, the Tenant claimed devotion to Natalia, and the young woman, seeing a possible way out of her subservient life, clings to the hope that they will be together. Out of the blue, however, the Tenant announced that he must leave; he is in a lot of trouble and has agreed to go away for a year. The couple then makes a pact—if they still feel the same for each other a year from now, they will meet along the back-alley bridges of the city, where they will rekindle their bond. It has been over a year now, and Natalia has been back every night. That is why she is upset. She has kept her word, but the Tenant has yet to show.


This information complicates things. Mario wants Natalia all for himself. While she likes this new man, Natalia still sees the Tenant as the answer to her prayers. Mario will continue his pursuit, but Natalia will not let go of the past.


Le Notti Bianche is a tragedy. It’s the story of love unrequited and incomplete, set within the shadows of a gloriously gloomy locale. The dreamscape backdrop may suggest a sort of unkind fairy tale, a dour fable without a happily ever after, but the truth is a little more complex. This is myth masquerading as mystery, an enigmatic movie that reveals its layers in slow, deliberate stages. True, the main narrative thread is the poetic pursuit of a perfect, rhapsodic fidelity, but it is foolish to feel everyone in the film will find his or her own Prince/Princess Charming. At least one character seems settled at the end of the film, and the other two are prepared to live off the implications of that, if not forever, at least for the time being. The subject of the setback may seem novel, and the twisting of masculine/feminine roles may require a little getting used to, but Luchino Visconti—as he has done in several other sensational motion pictures—finds a way to shift and shape his story to fit the format of his feelings. Here, love is inscrutable and unobtainable, always interrupted by elements outside the lover’s control. So naturally, the setting should be surreal. Emotional barriers are a lot more transient than real ones.


The first thing you notice about this film is how inexplicably beautiful it is. Le Notti Bianche frequently resembles a series of sublime charcoal sketches come to life. Like walking through a divine gallery where, around every corner, a new masterpiece awaits, Visconti’s monochrome magnificence is heartbreaking. There are times in Le Notti Bianche when you don’t want the characters to move. The scenery is so stunning, so breathtaking in its interplay of shadow and light that you just want to sit there, drinking in the inherent drama and beauty until your unquenchable aesthetic overflows. It’s not just the places and the presence that is rapturous. Visconti employs three amazingly handsome actors—Marcello Mastroianni (looking better here than he did before, or ever will again), Maria Schell, and Jean Marais—and situates them as icons among the everyday people populating the city. As a result, our eye never wants to leave the characters. We want to experience their exquisiteness, and contrast their fantasy facade against the reality that surrounds them.


This juxtaposition is important, because it helps to emphasize the theme of isolation and loneliness in the film. Visconti wants his characters to be different and distinct, the better to keep them locked in their own often-oppressive world. Mario is a loner, a man who ran from home, kicked about the country, joined the military, got a job, and basically fends for himself. As the movie begins, he’s only just arrived in this vision of Venice, and it’s a daunting and intimidating locale. He is a stranger in a strange land, lost in his thoughts and sticking to certain areas to satisfy his casual curiosity. This is perhaps why he is so struck by Natalia. Aside from being lured by her looks, he senses her remoteness, her connection to something that is making her sad, and it stirs inside him intense, familiar emotions. The reason we buy the love at first sight angle of this film is that Visconti sets us up with characters who seem prepared—or at least predisposed—to such sudden emotional lightening bolts. Mario wants to care for Natalia the first time he sees her, just as Natalia wants to melt into the Tenant’s arms the minute she sees him. All three characters are lonely, not just alone. Such a shared personality trait brings the story’s triptych tendencies to the fore. This is not just a movie about Natalia and Mario. It’s a film about the Tenant as well, and what he means to the burgeoning couple.


It is interesting to note that, as melodramatic as the premise sounds, Visconti does not fill his film with histrionics. This is a movie about small moments, about the casual glance between hopeful lovers, the sharing of a word or the passing of the hour hand. Visconti avoids crowds at first. He wants his potential paramours to remain mysterious, distant, almost unapproachable. As their affection grows so do the number of people in the streets. In perhaps the most stunning sequence in the entire film, Mario attempts to avoid Natalia (he has his reasons) while strolling through a crowded market square. The press of people and the ever-present glances from other women seem to condemn the man, and Mastroianni orchestrates the sequence exceptionally well. Equally telling is a dance hall scene where Mastroianni thinks he’s won the battle for Natalia’s heart. As the music goes from classical to the slink and sexuality of late 50s rock (Bill Haley and the Comets kicker “13 Women (and Only One Man in Town)” is perfectly placed here), we sense the eventual consummation of the couple’s relationship. They dance with abandon and share a closeness that is almost stifling. Yet the minute Natalia hears it is after 10 p.m. (her ritualistic Tenant time), she completely changes.


Such a switch is at the core of Visconti’s vision. He wants to argue that love is not only blind, but cruel and calculating. Every character here suffers from sentimental shortsightedness. Mario believes he can win Natalia, Natalia thinks the Tenant will return, and the Tenant has either put all his faith in a fickle, unpredictable child, or has used his position of paternal power to turn the head of a naive young girl. No one is really focused on the big picture, of how their passions will play out over decades, not just days. Natalia never exhibits the kind of steadfast resolve we expect from someone convinced of their conviction. Instead, she constantly sways between mania and depression, giggling incessantly or weeping torrents. Mario wanders the streets in kind of a happy daze, never really illustrating his professed isolation. Sure, he seems to befriend anything in his path (including a hungry dog), but we never really feel that this minor man has a major problem. This is why the character of the Tenant is so important. He is a mirror and a blank slate, a way for both Mario and Natalia to project their own images of perfection. She sees him as love personified. He sees him as the mysterious object of an undying desire.


Visconti himself is also guilty of playing with our perceptions. He uses his backdrop deceptively, always hinting at unseen evil in the alleyways, untold vices going on in the barely perceptible shadows. As a filmmaker, he understands that the best fairy tales are crafted out of good and evil, not just straightforward virtue. There has to be a threat—a haunted woods, a wicked witch—to keep the fantasy definable. Visconti achieves this through his amazing visual work in the film. The night shots seem brighter than the day imagery. Crowded streets are claustrophobic and chaotic. Rain becomes a representation of the passion in the air, and a sudden snowfall in the final act seems to suggest a breakthrough in our lover’s lives. With the help of his excellent cast (Mastroianni is just superb) and controlled narrative desire, this is a movie that creeps up on you and steals away your subjectivity. When Le Notti Bianche starts, you want Mario and Natalia to find happiness. As the movie ends, you realize that such a goal was antithetical to what happiness really is.


Though there is a density to Visconti’s designs, Le Notti Bianche is not a deep movie. It is base and broad, a testament to the power of love and an indictment of the blindness in said bliss. It certainly functions like a fable since it appears to offer a sad, succinct moral to what, initially, appeared to be a typical boy-meets-girl panorama. Like that first great obsession that you never quite got over, or that intense emotional pull you experienced from someone who is now no longer part of your life, Visconti wants to exemplify the yin of pain to affection’s extreme yang. For every white night (the movie’s title translation), there’s a dark day, either of location or of spirit. Funny thing is, there is no difference between the two states of being. Both exist within the core concept of love. There is no happiness without sadness to signify the difference—and vice versa. For Mario and Natalia, they see salvation in the arms of another. For both Mario and Natalia, what they want may not be the best thing for them after all. That is the lure of love, and the problems of falling into it at first sight. That is also the message of Visconti’s moving visual feast.


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Monday, Nov 20, 2006


This week starts the hit or miss hodge podge that seems to signal the start of true holiday splurge spending. While you won’t see sunlight-lacking losers camping out to get any of these new releases, here’s SE&L‘s guarantee that at least a couple of the titles will be around a lot longer than some bug-filled video gaming fad gadget. So while you’re waiting for your Wii or wondering why you stood in line for 72 hours just to get another Sony product that requires tech support moments after it’s unwrapped, perhaps the purchase of a new digital product or two will cure that nagging buyer’s remorse. Criterion provides yet another stellar example of fine foreign filmmaking, and a former Presidential candidate argues for a more environmentally friendly approach to our destructive self-centered lifestyle (guess he’s happy about all that Styrofoam and cardboard packaging heading toward municipal landfills nationwide, huh?). Granted, there’s another example of microprocessor mediocrity posing as animation, and a couple of clunky comedies on tap, so beware. Specifically, the slapdash collection of titles for 21 November include:


The Double Life of Veronique: Criterion Collection

*
After his epic TV series based on the Ten Commandments (1989’s Dekalog), Polish director Krsysztof Kieslowski was looking for another way to explore spirituality and its place in the world. He decided to craft a complex exploration of duality and parallelism featuring two identical women living similar lives in different parts of the planet. Veronique/Weronika both have magical singing voices. They are also both burdened with a biological birth defect that eventually turns fatal. What follows is a mysterious meditation on the connectivity between human beings and the possibility of unlinked lives still being inseparable and intertwined. Though he followed up this film with his remarkable Red/Blue/White trilogy, many consider this to be Kieslowski’s crowning achievement. Criterion obviously believes so, considering the solid special edition treatment it gives the title.



H6: Diary of a Serial Killer

Here’s an unusual twist on the whole insane spree killer genre – a Spanish style Psycho. Antonio inherits a hotel from an unknown relative, and decides to use the place to “purify” his guests. Many critics call what follows a hacienda Hostel, with excessive bloodletting and vivisected body parts taking the place of cinematic subtlety and character development. First time director Martín Garrido Barón obviously believes that imitation is the sincerest form of cinematic flattery since he patently rips off several better known horror films. Gorehounds may groove on all the excess vein vodka tossed at the camera, and some may cotton to the overall atmosphere of dread, depravity and darkness. Still, this is a very one note nod to the worst parts of post-modern macabre.



Ice Age: The Meltdown

Just what sugared-up kids, already cranky over the impending holidays, need – more of Fox’s famously fussy (and unfunny) CGI candy. When we last left the characters in this quasi-clever take on prehistory, Manfred, Sid and Diego had just delivered the Eskimo brat to his beleaguered parents and all was right with the frozen tundra. This time around, the ice is melting and a massive wall of water is threatening the indigenous anthropomorphic population. Under-age aimed hi-jinx supposedly ensue. Responsible for the rash of clever creatures with famous voices phase of 3-D animation, Fox must feel really good about the bountiful box office receipts each installment of this franchise creates (yep – Part Three is on the way). But good cash flow does not a classic make. Instead, this is more of the same crude, crass commercialism that is more or less destroying the entire cartoon category.



An Inconvenient Truth

*
All jokes about former Vice President Al Gore, big screen idol aside (Futurama already confirmed his star power, after all) this intriguing documentary – really nothing more than Gore’s multimedia lecture presentation fleshed out for film – is a wake-up call for anyone on the fence about global warming. Showing how hurricanes like Katrina will become the norm, not the aberration, in coming years, as well as arguing for the flooding of major US cities should the polar ice caps continue to melt, this may be the most frightening cinematic experience of the year.  The scariest thing, of course, is that it all is scientifically provable. Argue over the man’s previous record as a member of Clinton’s clan, or challenge his way with words, but the plain fact is we humans are killing the planet in the name of our own sense of entitlement. It’s a thought that makes the title even more apropos.


 


A Miracle on 34th Street: Special Edition*
Hold up – don’t worry. This isn’t the irritating John Hughes remake from 1994, or the baffling TV version featuring David Hartman and Sebastian Cabot from the mid-‘70s. No siree, this is it – the resplendent real deal. Perhaps one of the best holiday films of all time, the original Miracle mixes the magic of the holiday season with the cynicism already creeping into the cultural mindset to create a classic comic entertainment. Edmund Gwenn is so convincing as the mystery man who professes to being the real Santa that he’ll even have you believing in his benevolent bowl full of jelly-ness. Thankfully, Oscar acknowledged his efforts with a much deserved Best Supporting Actor trophy. The rest of the cast ain’t too shabby either – especially little Natalie Wood as the precious little pessimist that eventually melts under St. Nick’s spell.



Scoop
When Match Point came out last year, you could hear Woody Allen fans worldwide exhale, releasing a significant sigh of relief. After a string of subpar films (Hollywood Ending, Melinda and Melinda, etc.) he seemed to have turned the corner and was back making important motion pictures again. Unfortunately, Scoop indicates that it may be time to take that deep breath back. Even with an amazing pair of leads (humans beings don’t get anymore attractive than Hugh Jackman and Scarlett Johansson) and the familiar Allen setting of a murder mystery, the frequently inconsistent auteur created another creaky, stilted effort. Some fear that Allen, now in his fifth decade of filmmaking, has lost his artistic edge. Others feel that his “one film a year” schedule is responsible for his slumps. Whatever the case, there’s no need to stop the presses over this lame effort.


PopMatters Review


You, Me and Dupree
If there were such a thing as crudeness copyright infringement, the Farrelly Brothers would be up to their necks in proactive litigation right about now. Still milking the There’s Something About Mary school of basic bodily humor, the siblings Russo (Joe and Anthony) use the overdone concepts of non-erotic male bonding and arrested development to create another crass, humorless entry in the worn-out ‘wild and crazy guy’ cinematic sub-category. Heck, even Mary‘s Matt Dillion is along for the redundant ride. Instead of finding inventive ways to have title slacker Dupree interact with his old buddy (Dillion) and his newlywed wife (the completely lost Kate Hudson), the Russo’s rely on cliché and formula to find the funny. All they manage to uncover is the continuing funeral march that is the sound of big screen wit in creative freefall.



And Now for Something Completely Different:

In a weekly addition to Who’s Minding the Store, SE&L will feature an off title disc worth checking out. For 21 November:


Grand Theft Auto: Tricked Out Edition*
Desperate to break into directing after years as a well-considered child star, little Ronny Howard struck a deal with Indie icon Roger Corman. If he starred in the producer’s car wreck actioner Eat My Dust, the mogul would give the kid a chance behind the camera. The result was a sequel of sorts, the vehicular quickie Grand Theft Auto. Typical of the mid-‘70s drive-in diversions that relied on stunts more than story to draw heavy petters to the passion pits, Howard actually showed some inventive cinematic style here, experimenting with shot selection and scene length to keep his narrative on maximum overdrive. While he’s now earned an Oscar and some critical kudos for his big budget Hollywood histrionics, GTA will always be a favored starting point. And this new DVD even features a Corman/Howard commentary – how cool is that?



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Sunday, Nov 19, 2006


If we are to believe the non-professional pundits, as well as actual journalists invested in the entertainment industry, the race for Oscar 2006 is more or less over. At a selective advanced screening of Bill Condon’s December offering Dreamgirls, critics got their first chance to see the big screen adaptation of the famous Broadway spectacle – and apparently, it was pretty good. David Poland, of Movie City News and The Hot Button, practically anointed it the next Best Picture prizewinner (better than Chicago, he argues rather convincingly) while mentioning multiple times that Jennifer Hudson (in the role that made another like named performer – the fabulous Ms. Holliday – a certifiable diva) is guaranteed to win a statuette, no matter what category she ends up in.


Even Drew McWeeny – a.k.a. Moriarty over at Ain’t It Cool News – finds himself dumbstruck by Dreamgirls prize potential. Pointing to Poland and his “astute analysis”, he comments that, while he doesn’t “do” the whole pre-award season buzz thing, a film like this more or less mandates such a discussion. After arguing for Eddie Murphy as a potential Best Supporting Actor candidate, the rest of the review (or preview, as it were) is an unabashed love letter to Condon and everyone involved. And he is not alone. The Daily Mail recently put up a piece proclaiming Dreamgirls “brilliant” and figuring prominently in Britain’s own Bafta Awards, while The New York Times feels that the film has all the “hardware” locked up.


Now there is nothing wrong with such strong prognostications. After all, ever since the Oscars stopped being a self-congratulatory exercise by the controlling old school studio system, the race toward Academy Gold has always been a vicarious cinephile thrill. Who among us hasn’t cheered on a personal favorite (All That Jazz, Pulp Fiction) only to see a lesser effort (Kramer vs. Kramer, Forrest Gump) pick up the eventual trophy. We all back our long shots and pray that an overlooked acting or directing effort gets the recognition it so richly deserves. So picking favorites and laying odds is all part of the Oscar game. Heck, office pools and Las Vegas betting parlors enjoy the whole handicapping process, separating the winter awards season wheat from the also-ran chaff.


But in this new ghost-modern Internet driven experience, where information is instantly accessible 24 hours a day, endlessly streaming from keyboards to webpages worldwide, the desire to be first – and then, hopefully, right – is driving film scholarship right out of the year end debate. Granted, no amount of online criticism or complimenting can thwart the efforts of someone like Harvey Weinstein when he has a film he wants to win (the less than exceptional Shakespeare in Love), and there will always be instances where an obvious frontrunner (Saving Private Ryan) falls under the weight of a well-positioned publicity campaign (see above). Yet how fair is it to declare a winner before the race is even over? And better yet, haven’t the so-called experts learned their lesson from previous preemptive predictions.


Take 2005, for example. When Crash came out in May, no one was chatting up its Oscar potential. Oh sure, a few critics saw through its cloying racial realities to argue for its excellence as a social statement, but very few were featuring it as an Academy front runner. Then September arrived, and with it, the much beloved Brokeback Mountain. Instantly, the awards season race was over. The sobering story of gay cowboys in love was declared the preemptive favorite, and as the various ancillary organizations (The Golden Globes, various critics groups) bestowed it with numerous additional accolades, the competition was more or less over. Forget all the other films coming out between October and December – no one was going to eclipse Brokeback.


Except, it didn’t win. And it wasn’t even late season offerings like Good Night and Good Luck or Munich that unseated the supposed victor. Instead, that lamented long shot from the start of the Summer known as Crash claimed the top prize (much to the dismay of the celebrity audience, one might add). It was a shocking turn of events, a situation so unpredictable that it led to a series of lawsuits among the many producers, all of whom now wanted a taste of Oscar’s heady broth. It’s an aesthetic division that still stings, even eight months after the fact. Yet it appears that the critical community, so anxious to label a winner in advance, still hasn’t learned their gun-jumping lesson. 


While backlash is a harsh term – and no great piece of art deserves to be purposefully taken down because of its perceived or real popularity – there is something to be said for the concept of tripping the frontrunner. Declaring a preemptive favorite is just asking for a last act comeuppance. Granted, some years the pickings are so slim (1990, for example) that almost anything can win (as in the dismal Driving Miss Daisy). But in an era where independents challenge the major studios for artistic supremacy, each contest can be far too close to call. This year alone, films like The Departed, The Prestige and The Queen have garnered major award oriented buzz. But by giving the nod to Dreamgirls, said entries become non-entities in a race they’ve really yet to run.


Very few writers have the power of their convictions. When Gene Siskel stuck his neck out in 1996, declaring that he would not see a better film that year than March’s release of the Coen Brothers’ Fargo, his end of the year assessment stayed the course. The difference of course is that the late, great Chicago Tribune critic wasn’t picking the potential Oscar winner. He was giving his opinion, and much to his credit, he held fast to his convictions. Today, a messageboard mentality tends to lead most online thinkers. They are swayed by the vocal outcries of groups unrecognized and geeks unsupervised. Granted, groundswell and grass roots support are much easier to achieve when you’ve got millions of potential minions reading your words, but there is always a possibility that such a connection can be abused. Declaring a winner this early smacks of such a soap box stance.


Dreamgirls may indeed deserve to be the favorite. Bill Condon is a talented professional (already an Oscar winner for his Gods and Monsters script) and if Ms. Hudson is half the performer of the original Effie, she’ll be dynamite. But having been anointed the de facto champions accomplishes two very destructive things – it sets everyone up for a potentially mighty fall, and displaces dozens of films and/or actors who haven’t had their moment in the limelight yet. Instead of a legitimate determination between like positioned pictures, what we end up with is a comparative exercise where a predetermined benchmark sets the tone for all others to meet, or miss.


In the case of Brokeback Mountain, the early declaration of its Oscar worthiness set up a scenario by which all that came afterward was compared. If it couldn’t hold up to Ang Lee’s wistful western, it was instantly placed behind such a so-called standard. In addition, a film like Crash found itself doubly dismissed. Since it had already been released, and failed to measure up to Brokeback‘s level of Best Picture praise, it was seen as a mere nominal unknown. Smart scribes took note that its eventual nomination was sending a signal to all those self-serving predictions. But its eventual win provided another, more troubling trend. By declaring a winner before all the votes were cast, the election was rendered more or less an afterthought. While it may work in politics, the players in motion pictures don’t appreciate it. And, obviously, they rebelled.


What this means overall is that Dreamgirls becomes a target, the unintentional king of the hill that all other films will be gunning to unseat. Campaigns will be built around the notion of playing catch-up to a critically called victor, and those who make their living undermining the positions of populists – i.e. bloggers – will plant the plentiful seeds of discontent. You can already see it starting. Quoting the Times article, Roger Moore of the Orlando Sentinel takes great pride in pointing out that two websites (Hollywood Elsewhere, The Envelope.com) have lowered the musical’s Oscar prospects post-preview, and he himself argues that the film, and its participants are more of “Golden Globes winner(s)” than Academy triumphs.


So while the rest of the year’s fine films jockey to reposition, and Condon and company put on their amiable armor for the coming barrage of backseat prognostication, such a situation begs the question – why make such early predictions? Wouldn’t it be more aesthetically apropos to wait until all the possibilities are presented before securing your selection? Dreamgirls probably deserves better than being the envisaged prom queen before all the attendees arrive. And if it doesn’t claim the award, what does that say for those who declared its victory months before? There is a big difference between “Oscar Worthy” and Oscar won. Apparently, in today’s hype-driven hubris, that lesson’s long been forgotten. 


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Saturday, Nov 18, 2006


Doris Day is an actress of rhythms. She has differing modes of performance operation, and depending on the starring (or occasionally, supporting role) vehicle, she can crank it up or tone it way, way down. She uses her inherent wholesomeness as a shield, a way of hiding her substantial sensuality and beaming inner light. She’s often mislabeled as the world’s oldest virgin, mainly because her movie roles had her equal, not underneath, the leading men. In many ways, she is the role model for future actresses, trading femininity for friendliness while never losing the intelligence and spark that made her a star. She herself gave up her celebrity at the start of the 1970s, concentrating her efforts instead on charity work—especially animal rights and advocacy. As a result, she remains a part of a certain time, a relic reminding us of a period when paternalism still dictated the way in which married people performed their roles.


So when one thinks about it, Please Don’t Eat the Daisies is the perfect Doris Day picture. It’s light and airy, like a sitcom made spectacular by the setting and the circumstances (it’s no surprise the film—derived from a best-selling book by Jean Kern—eventually became a short lived TV series). It employs formula elements like uncontrollable bratling children; decrepit, money pit style country homes; and eccentric cab drivers/playwrights who want to derive entertainment out of the most bizarre subject matter (a musical version of The Bible, for one) to pad its pleasantries. It lets Day take the lead, but only in service to her spouse David Niven, and never allows the possible unpleasantness of the real world (adultery, antagonism, sex) to step into the picture. From the beginning, this is a movie about rediscovering your center, about remembering what is important in life. And like all good old-fashioned Hollywood films from the time period, home and hearth are where your true loyalties should lie.


Our story starts in Manhattan, 1960. Larry Mackay (Niven) is about to become the talk of the town. The failed playwright and drama teacher has just been hired as a critic for the biggest paper in the city. And wouldn’t you know it, his first assignment is a doozy. He must review old friend Alfred North’s new show, starring the high-strung diva Deborah Vaughn. The show is a bomb. Of course, things at home aren’t much better. Wife Kate wants the family to move to the country, a situation better suited for the four young boys that make up the rest of the Mackay brood. This means a major commute for Larry, and when he spends more time in the city (especially in the occasional company of Ms. Vaughn), Kate gets suspicious. Can she save her marriage, or will she be too busy screaming “Please Don’t Eat the Daisies” to the children?


While it may be hard to see it, you can actually witness the birth of the high concept motion picture comedy here. It may not be as obvious as the far-reaching films of the ‘80s, but you still can see how name performers are being placed in outrageous positions to twist contrivance into conviction. Of course, Niven has to become an egomaniac—how else will he learn humility? Of course the children must be city spoiled urchins—how else will they learn the magic of the country? Deborah Vaughn must be an extreme. The same with Alfred. Otherwise, the eventual leveling of their characters wouldn’t mean as much to the narrative. Similar to Day’s predetermined pitch (read: manic and perky), Please Don’t Eat the Daisies is tuned to a plane of preposterousness that can only exist in the movies. Larry would never allow himself to be humiliated with his own poor play in real life (a true plot contrivance if ever there was one), nor would any right-thinking adult buy a Gothic dump like the one the Mackays purchase in the country. Indeed, what Daisies wants to do is set up outrageous situations, hoping the humanity will seep through. Thanks to the terrific acting all around, it does—but not without some bumps along the way.


Perhaps the best storyline in the film doesn’t involve Day, the children, or the move to the country. Instead, David Niven gets the award-winning arc as he moves from theater professor to high-powered media critic for a major New York paper. Slowly, over the course of Daises, Niven’s Larry goes from meek moralist with integrity to maintain, to sanctimonious fourth estate dictator with a sense of self-importance larger than any actor he’s critiquing. Naturally, this leads to a fine dramatic double whammy as old friends try to get back at him while starlet Janet Paige (as Vaughn) tries to seduce him. Basically, while Doris is home playing with the wee ones, David is being wined and dined for his praise and positive reviews.


The rest, sadly, is pure Hollywood artifice. It’s bad enough trying to envision Day married to Niven (a similar situation occurs in her pairing with Rex Harrison in Midnight Lace). Day is just too American, too crafted out of Kansas corn, California sun, and Bible Belt basics to warrant such a steak-and-kidney stiff upper lip. Also, the kids are a central casting nightmare (though it is fun to see future My Three Sons sibling Stanley Livingston as one of the manic Mackays), biology playing no part in their look or their personalities (how Niven and Day raised such delinquents is a question for cinematic psychiatrists to ponder). Yet, somehow, Please Don’t Eat the Daisies manages to make its points with humor and heart. This is neither a laugh-out-loud farce, nor is it really a pointed study in character. It is the melodrama version of comedy—not quite farce, but close enough in tone to warrant a mild comparison. Instead, this is urbanity taken to tired extremes, with only the expert cast and journeyman direction of Charles Walters saving the silliness.


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Friday, Nov 17, 2006


In places like California and Florida they dot the landscape like thousands of artificial lakes. They sparkle with chlorinated cleanness and dapple a billion beams of rainbow light across the trimmed lawns and aluminum sided cells of suburbia. When they thrive, they are bastions of relaxation and exultation, a sign of wealth, privilege, and the endless summer. But when they expire, they become stagnant and brackish. They crack and decay, crumbling into themselves under the burden of a thousand vacations and a million screams of joy. Occasionally, they become garbage reservoirs, refuse piles conveniently located in your own backyard. And just as quickly as they were craved they are forgotten, resigned to a death as a smelly sinkhole in the midst of an overall gentrification of a nation. But every once in a while, they are resurrected. They are given a new charter on being, cleaned and appreciated by a fresh assemblage who still find kinship in their kidney shapes and delirium in their deep ends. For these are the bowl riders, the shredders who grind the coping and defy the deathbox as they maneuver through their own individualized skatepark sunk into the ground. They are men who live on the buzz of the bank. They are people who make it their goal to keep a skateboarding tradition vital and vibrant in these modern times of wooden ramps and video games. They exist for risk and thrive on the fleeting, fading smell of Chlorine.


Chlorine is a companion piece to 2002’s stellar skateboarding documentary Dogtown And Z-Boys. Actually, it’s more like a footnote to a single facet of that film, i.e. pool skating or as those in the know call it, “bowl carving.” Utilizing interview footage, archival material, and a Cops-style follow-along technique, we witness firsthand how a ragtag group of fanatics find ways (and abandoned pools) to get their much-needed gnarlies out. It’s joyful expression of athletic artistry. It’s a beautiful and brutal look at how time and age have ravaged and reinvigorated the first generation of skate legends. There are five featured “stars” in this film, old school riders who still find the sublime in the shred: the physical and mature Steve Alba, the cocky and confident Dave Reul, the rocker in search of a band swagger of Steve Olson, the manic screech preacher Dave Hackett, and the teen trapped in an adult’s body known as Lance Mountain. They, along with various other famous faces from the world of boarding, leave an indelible mark on this movie. They recall the foundation of one of skating’s traditions while reflecting on how, in some ways, the sport has moved on, laughing under its breath at the last remaining riders of the concrete curves.


There is something wistful about a movie like this. Perhaps it’s the lazy, lonely California setting, the abandoned pools and rundown homes baking in the warm sun, in stark contrast to the over-glamorized LaLa Land we’ve come to expect in the media. Maybe it’s the men themselves, seasoned skaters who’ve avoided the Tony Hawk spotlight and corporate sellout ideal for the true rush of riding the cement surf. Or it could be the outright blood brother companionship these people feel for each other, a tribal mentality of being inside an elite cult of crazy, crafty clowns that only want to push their bodies and their experiences to the limit. For this group, every new aquatic discovery is an inverted mountain to climb, a chance to take one more endorphin-pumping pass inside the prototypical symbol of class and luxury. For the riders in Chlorine, there is a quest for the perfect pool and the perfect pool ride. And it’s never ending.


The important part to note here is that most of the men featured in this film (some of whom made appearances in Dogtown) are all now in their late 30s and early 40s, a time when a label of “middle age” is stamped on a human’s head and their daredevil days of shredding and cutting are supposed to be far behind them. Yet what we see is the exact opposite. These are men chasing age away through the timeless nature of their sport, their hobby…their obsession. They are true characters, icons in a closed culture of specialty speak, shared exciting episodes, and, most importantly, depression over the bastardization of their passion by the media and the mainstream. These hardcore warriors are out to fight for the internal ethos of skateboarding, to deliver it from the malls and the parking garages and re-establish it within the empty pools and patios of a decaying suburbia, where it belongs. Chlorine instills this kind of metaphysical reality to the mostly skate-rat ideal of modern step jumping and railing riding.


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