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Friday, Dec 22, 2006


You may be asking, how does the winner of the 1981 Oscar for Best Picture warrant classification as a Forgotten Gem? The answer is quite simple. When you’ve beaten both Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull and David Lynch’s Elephant Man for the accolade, you are destined to be diminished in the eyes of many angry film fans. Indeed, along with Dances with Wolves, American Beauty and Shakespeare in Love, Ordinary People regularly gets ridiculed as being one of the worst Academy Award winners of all time. It’s a title not borne out of reality – this fragile family drama is certainly a motion picture masterpiece – it’s just that, when placed up against an American maestro and a mainstream curio from one of our most gifted, idiosyncratic directors, being great is just not enough.


There was minor controversy surrounding the film when it first opened, almost all of it centering on America’s sitcom sweetheart, Mary Tyler Moore, being cast as the cold hearted, manipulative matriarch of the Jarrett household, Beth. Not known for playing characters that were distant, angry, bitter and inaccessible, audiences weren’t expecting much from her performance. And indeed, initial reviews were less than supportive of Moore’s attempt to break out of her goody two shoes stereotype. But thanks to the brilliant work of Donald Sutherland (who deserved an Oscar, though his competition – Robert DeNiro and his career defining turn as Jake LaMotta in Bull – made that all but impossible) and impressive debut of Jim Hutton’s son Timothy, Moore easily melded into the ensemble, eventually shining as a parent whose put all her emotion and love into her personal pride and joy – a now dead son named Buck.


For anyone living in the Midwest, especially in the Chicago suburbs where People is set, first time director Robert Redford gets all the white picket fence and wholesome details just right. The characters all live in dollhouse like mansions, rooms furnished in tactful, traditional styles. Dressed in plain sweaters and simple accessories, the dynamic is lifted almost directly from an episode of Leave it to Beaver – albeit, a very special installment of same. Within this backward bastion of wealth and security, Redford explores the chaotic underpinnings of Judith Guest’s amazing novel, showing how even the most seemingly functional clan can come apart over something as simple as death, guilt and forgiveness. Two decades ago, relatives didn’t discuss or disclose their interpersonal problems. People was one of the first films to explore the notion of familial disintegration within the closed context of an isolated, insular tragedy.


In the storyline, which deals with youngest son Conrad’s suicide attempt, hospitalization, and after care therapy, the Jarret’s attempt to reconfigure their life. But the two way street of devotion between Beth and Buck was such a major force in the household that its absence leaves an unavoidable deficiency. Sadly, it’s a chasm that no one can replenish. But instead of trying to make a new approach work, Mother turns on her troubled son, husband feels resentment toward the angry spouse, and all the boy can see is blame. One of the most moving moments in the entire film comes when Conrad, under the care of Judd Hirsch’s genial Dr. Tyrone Berger, confronts his lingering remorse. Burdened with taking both the death of his brother and the fragmenting of his family to heart, it’s a moment of catharsis that few films even attempt to achieve, let alone realize. Hutton’s performance at this point is so powerful, so overloaded with passion and purity that we can’t help but exhale and exalt right along with him.


Yet this revelation does not suture the scar in the Jarret household. Perhaps no other actress could convey the sense of normalcy knocked asunder as Moore does. Her Beth is not a bitch - she’s a cheerleader that’s lost her champion, a doting, devoted parent who didn’t plan on being stripped of the sole focus of her adult joy. Buck, seen in a couple of telling flashbacks, is a shining star, an obvious athletic BMOC who entertains his mother with extracurricular exploits that no normal kid would be allowed to discuss. But since he is the first born, the golden boy, he’s pardoned. Even when the truth of the sailing accident is revealed, and her hero is shown as mortal, more bluster than bravery, Beth cannot except it. During her final scene, Moore manages one of those rare acting moments that rocket right to the heart of her character’s problem. Allowing herself to slip, just momentarily, Beth unleashes a strangled sob so devastating, we’re glad she manages to pull it back in. Otherwise, the fallout could be lethal.


Told in a fashion that keeps all its divergent elements alive and important, Redford routinely discovers facts of the narrative that keep his insights up front and fresh. Conrad’s attempts to connect with friends – from the hospital (a mentally melting Dinah Manoff) and from school (an endearing Elizabeth McGovern) come back to play important parts in his journey, and a holiday visit with family finds Beth and her husband slowly breaking apart. This is not a splashy, stylistic turn behind the camera. Redford even keeps the film’s fatal flashback in a tight, telling two shot. One could easily envision Buck’s death as a major action sequence, especially in our CGI oriented idea of how such a spectacle is realized. But Redford realizes that it’s the individuals, not the event, that’s the most important. He devises a way of capturing the horror, and the humanity, concurrently.


In one of those unlucky happenstances that seem to befall certain films, Raging Bull didn’t get the accolade acknowledgement it deserved, and film fans pretend that People should be passed over for better early ‘80s efforts. Sadly, such thinking is incredibly narrow-minded. Scorcese’s ethical biopic may be the better artistic statement, but there is just as much beauty and grace in Ordinary People. Even a quarter century later, it’s power remains right on the surface, easily tapped into by even the most jaded cinephile. Usually, a domestic drama about dysfunctional relatives looses its edge after years, what with other efforts commenting on and challenging it. But this staggering statement of a nuclear family’s final freefall still holds up in all its painful, irreproachable sadness. Maybe it didn’t deserve the Oscar, but no one should forget what a fine, formidable film this really is. 


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Friday, Dec 15, 2006


Is there a more misunderstood, misused actor than poor Crispin “Hellion” Glover? From the moment he took the screen in Back to the Future, playing the ultimate social outcast George McFly, this lanky human walking stick with a stilted voice and unhinged persona became an ironic icon, a star wrapped in an insane, introverted skin. He then cemented his sensationalism with The River’s Edge, playing the “dude”-spewing valley psycho Layne. By all accounts, it appeared Master Crispin was poised to become his generations’ James Dean, a twisted mastermind so lost in his own world of performance that he couldn’t help but be compelling onscreen. Instead, he just left the planet Earth altogether and vanished into his own Milky Way of the peculiar.


So it’s strange that he has recently found a small amount of acceptance as a character bad guy, playing everything from a sword-wielding assassin in the Charlie’s Angels movies to an orphanage director in Like Mike. In the meanwhile, he recorded bleak and brazenly bizarre music (his album “The Big Problem =/= The Solution; the Solution = Let It Be” is a must own exploration of one man’s misguided musical brain) and worked on literature as performance art (he has been known to take old Victorian tomes on such strange subjects as rat catching and retrofit them with new art, added text and various other artistic accents). But his true calling has and will always be as an actor, and now, thankfully, he has been given a chance to shine again. 2001 saw him star in Bartleby as the famously inert file clerk (from the short story by Herman Melville, Bartleby the Scrivener). But it seems our cracked actor can never forget his true nature, which makes his appearance in the 2003 remake of Willard so karmic.


Willard is a darkly comic tour de force for its strange star. A cool, complex combination of classic horror film and deliriously campy craziness, it eschews standard monster movie moves for a more robust and black-hearted take on loneliness and friendship. This is not a film about killer rats as much as it is a tale of male empowerment via vermin. Indeed, the story is called Willard for good reason: the pests are secondary here. The real world surrounding our title character is far more chilling and evil. The original 1971 Willard, starring Bruce Davidson and Ernest Borgnine (and taken from Stephen Gilbert’s novel The Ratman’s Notebook) was a similar saga of a lonely young man against an antagonistic set of circumstances. But while Davidson’s troubled soul seemed the direct result of the social stigmas and battles he faced, Glover as Willard is a revelation of repression, a man whose mind has turned inside out from isolation and loss.


Glover makes the movie a constant source of cinematic joy, lending his expressive face and awkward angular frame and grin to grimace line-readings that explode across the screen in delirious, gothic goofiness. The fact that this film is also about a rogue rat with a sinister mind of his own and a few mouse-enhanced murders is merely ancillary icing on Glover’s acting cake. If you want a movie that will scare the droppings out of you, stick with the ‘70s version. If you want to see what makes a mental case tick like a tripwire, check out Glover’s groove.


Both movies are reflections of when they were made. The original Willard tapped into a generation gap protest ideal of revolution against the all powerful establishment patriarchy. Borgnine, the boorish businessman out to destroy Willard and his family one member at a time, is given his comeuppance as a metaphor for questioning and toppling corrupt authority. This new version taps into current philosophies, specifically the advent of the modern male, a socially mandated sensitive sod. Willard here is an emasculated weenie afraid of his own shadow and inner lack of outstanding virility. Challenged for living at home and still being single but also asked to perform the duties of “man about the house” (financially and emotionally), he is torn between the image society craves and the role liberation has chosen for him. Both movies are more character studies than horror films, with a strong premise of disaffection and retribution running through them.


But while Davidson’s Willard seemed determined to rid his immediate life of the obstacles and awfulness surrounding it, Glover is out to destroy the entire world, one asshole at a time. Davidson’s ratboy is reactionary, anger channeled through his pet horde of pests. Glover, on the other hand, is so passive aggressive that the moments when he explodes are shockingly volcanic, you feel the years of pain and anguish rushing out in burst of hot air and Munch’s “Scream” shrillness. Davidson may have essayed a perfect horror hybrid, a killer as misguided manchild, but Glover now owns the role of Willard. His ability to expose and exploit ennui as a means of menace and mercy is uncanny. Besides, we understand Glover’s love of his rats. There is a kinship between them, a give and take (which is manhandled and ultimately bungled by the original) that centers and streamlines the 2003 version. These mice aren’t just his unholy army; they are his true friends.


If one is looking for still deeper meaning to Willard, then it can be argued that our title hero is the ultimate victim, a desperate human null set put upon by every aspect of society. On the outside, Willard is a model of attention and dedication; he keeps his dead father’s memory preserved and present; he cares for his moldering corpse of a mother, a person so old and diseased that she seems made up mostly of tumors and infection; he’s committed to his home and its upkeep, even if its decaying façade has become more than he really can handle. He tries his best to be a model employee, a vital part in the dying machine his late father created for him. But buried beneath his bland façade is a seething core of rage so dark and black that demons avoid his glare. It’s a fury fueled with untold failures and faults. But it is also a passion born out of pain, a serial killer cravenness locked in without an outlet.


In the end, Willard is all about the raving insane ingenuity of its star. Glover is a savant of strangeness, an absolutely out of control living piece of performance art channeled inside a modernized meshing of Ichabod Crane and Charles Manson. The magical sprites that speak strange mysteries into his mid-brain are given vocal victory with every stammer and stutter in his innocent idiot performance inventory. He turns Willard into a part silent movie, part over-the-top pantomime ballet of body movements and position. If for no other reason, he is the reason to watch this movie. Glen Morgan, who along with partner/producer Wong worked on The X-Files and created Millennium and the Final Destination series, decide to amp up the arch qualities, turning Willard’s domain in to a doomed dimension of exaggeration and empathy. Thanks to their efforts, and the brilliant work of Glover, Willard becomes a rare example of cult classic as actual work of artistic integrity.


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Friday, Dec 8, 2006


Film has always been a visual medium. In the days before sound, the image was all we had. It told our story, established our characters, and accentuated the drama or comedy. Visual flair is as old as movies themselves, and yet so few directors today seem to rely on and relish in the imaginative or outrageous. Since the early ‘60s, Hollywood and its filmmakers have de-evolved style in a vicious cycle real world recreation for the hyper-stylized universe of the big screen, exploiting small events to find the hidden theatrics. Instead of broad canvases of color or rich, dense imagery, we witness the mundane or maudlin. Even those epic dreamscapes woven by complex computers and deranged art designers usually have one foot firmly planted in the easy to recognize and rationalize. But not The City of Lost Children. It harkens back to a more old-fashioned pictographic mindset. In many significant and indirect ways, the wild world of Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet is art come to life. As in their previous film together, 1991’s Delicatessen, it is a fairy tale presentation of pure unbridled, wonderfully wicked imagination. It’s the Brothers Grimm as envisioned by Salvador Dali and filmed by Fritz Lang.


This is a lost classic, a film not often discussed when visionary works of imaginative cinema are mentioned. Part of this may be due to its foreign film roots. Or perhaps, for many, the film is too dark, not your typical sweet Saturday morning matinee. There are very disturbing subtexts to City that do not exist in other flights of fancy. The children here are indeed lost, either captured and tormented by a character known as Krank, or forced into a life of juvenile crime by the manipulative twins who run an orphanage. We do not see mothers or fathers. There are no caregivers or guardians, nor do we see orphans or outcasts longing for them. This lack of unconditional love creates youths who are vastly more mature, discussing subjects like love and fear with ferocious intensity and sly maturity. The strongman known as One is the closest we have to any type of parental figure, and even he is not really the older, bigger brother. “No parents” does not equal “no worries” in City. This is also a film that wallows in the subtle beauty of the grotesque, amplifying ugliness to illustrate unbridled absurdity. From Jean Paul Gautier’s Marquis de Sade meets Moby Dick fashion statements to the walleyed, demon-like faces of the child-napping zealot Cyclops, the film takes the long lost look of the circus sideshow and melds it to a nightmarish world of technological and emotional freaks.


Jean-Pierre and Marc are obviously obsessed with the carnival. The entire color scheme seems lifted from a tattooed man’s body illustrations. Like Fellini’s La Strada, which sought to tell a simple tale of love and the human spirit within the unreal realm of the circus, the filmmakers use the fantastical festival setting as a means of expressing their themes. Within its pandemonium pallet are the purity of youth, the pain of age, the wickedness of greed, and the comfort of love. There are also religious philosophies at play, battles with God both figuratively and literally. Krank and his army of clones fight and argue amongst themselves, all in the hope that, one day, the Creator will return to right his genetic missteps. The twins lord over their orphan charges like devils at the seat of Satan’s cloven hoof, waiting for instruction and brimstone beatitudes. Even the Cyclops proclaim their undying faith by blinding themselves, hoping that God will see that through both their devotion and their evangelism how truly gifted with sight (both internal and external) they are. Just like the wistful notion of running off to join the traveling show, The City of Lost Children is a chance not taken, a place where the oppression of maturity, of the stark reality of mortality and responsibility turn adults into monsters, and children into commodities.


The viewer can see many divergent ideals and inspirations at work here. But the most interesting influence to wind its way throughout the entire film is American cartoonist and inventor Rube Goldberg. Goldberg’s ingenious drawings illustrated incredibly complicated and multi-stepped procedures to achieve the most basic of results. Several set pieces in the film apply his principles and influences, and there is a giddy joy when their cause and effect logic draws to its ultimate conclusion. One sequence, involving the animal kingdom and a call to arms, is as beautiful as it is ridiculously complex. Like all other special, unnerving aspects of this movie, from the twisted fable at the core of its narrative, to the subtle pronouncements on love and family, The City of Lost Children is indeed like one of Goldberg’s wildest inventions. It’s a film that hitches its humor to the stinger of a flea, rides it on the heads of circus strongmen, and brings its heartfelt conclusion to rest in the bubbling tank of a talking, sarcastic brain. Yet the movie never gets lost itself. There is a perverse logic in its over symbolic and stylized storytelling.


No discussion of City would be complete without a word or two about the film’s music and its wonderful performances. As he has done in so many other films for auteurs like David Lynch and Paul Schrader, Angelo Badalamenti creates the perfect score, adding the clarion call of the calliope and the lonesome moan of the strings to underscore the strangeness and the sadness. This is a town under fire from within (the gangs of mercenary urchins) and without (the abductions), and Badalamenti creates a theme and an aural presence for every ideal. Sonically, The City of Lost Children is a near seamless matching of music to moving image. As for the actors, Ron Perlman has always seemed like a stunt waiting to be cast. Usually unrecognizable in face altering or obliterating make-up, he normally essays roles as unreal as the location in this film. But interestingly enough, he is the very human core of the film, a strong, faithful muscleman whose basic needs match his simpleton intellect. His is a perfectly modulated, understated performance. Among the child actors, little Judith Vittet stands out as Miette, a child who carries an incredible amount of adult soul and beauty within her delicate, French bisque features. And as usual, Jeunet regular Dominique Pinon applies his elastic facial features to the creation of six distinct characters, all out of minimal dialogue and elegant pantomime.


A movie like The City of Lost Children doesn’t really want to show us where the secrets of youth are hidden. It buries its message of adulthood and its perils in elaborate sets and visually arresting images. It symbolizes the dead end of avarice, the importance of familial bonds, and the painful loss of innocence through dreams in wonderful, paint box strokes. But it still leaves us wondering if such a place actually exists. For some, the manufactured wonders of Disney World or Universal Studios theme parks offer a glimpse into the sacred village of eternal childhood. Still others find it in the magic of their offspring at play, in their riotous laughter. Many see it in the eyes of their son or daughter as they light up in loving response. And there are those who, no matter how hard they try or how long they look, will never find the City. It will pass them by, or they will look over or through it in pursuit of a more complicated, unimportant goal. Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro have at least provided a roadmap to the mythological place in their film La Cité des Enfants Perdus. Just turn right at your dreams, be on the lookout for your heartstrings, and ride your imagination all the way to where the sea meets the sky.


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Friday, Dec 1, 2006


There is no more miserable a miser than Ebenezer Scrooge. Proprietor of Scrooge and Marley moneylenders, practically every merchant in London owes a debt—not of gratitude but of usury—to this horrible old goat. While Scrooge seems to hate all of life in general, there is no more wretched a time for him than Christmas, a season of good cheer and generosity. Owning neither of those aforementioned emotions, but imbued with a substantial wealth of wickedness, the terrible tyrant dismisses his nephew’s holiday invitation, bullies those collecting for charity, and hollers at his hapless employee, the humble Bob Cratchit. Indeed, Scrooge considers the entire celebration a load of “humbug,” and can’t be bothered with its benevolence.


However, things will not be quite so normal this Christmas Eve. Scrooge is shocked to find himself visited by the ghost of his old partner, Jacob Marley, who warns the villain of his vainglorious ways. Marley further condemns Scrooge to be visited by three other spirits—the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Yet To Be—to show Ebenezer that only by allowing the festiveness of the feast into his soul will he be able to avoid a horrible fate, both in this world and in the hereafter. It will be a journey both enlightening and frightening as a standard Christmas carol turns into the portents of doom for one Ebenezer Scrooge.


Perhaps better at capturing the spirit of Dickens’s beloved Christmas classic than the exact particulars of the plot, Scrooge is still a potent, powerful Yuletide treat. Made in 1970 near the end of the musical’s prominence at, and dominance of, the box office (Oliver! was a universal smash—and Oscar winner—just two years before), this recasting of A Christmas Carol and the tightfisted Ebenezer Scrooge was the brainchild of legendary lyricist Leslie Bricusse. Famed for his partnership with Anthony Newley (the two were responsible for such time-honored favorites as Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and Stop the World! I Want to Get Off, as well as some well-remembered duds like the original Doctor Doolittle), Bricusse decided to go it on his own in this, his second solo outing providing both words and music. The results are something splendid indeed, a mix of Old World Victorian sentiment with traditional big-budget musical splendor, creating a sumptuous figgy pudding of a film.


Granted, Bricusse is not blessed with Newley’s gift for instantly hummable melody (only the rousing “Thank You Very Much” and “I Like Life” tend to stay with you after the final credits roll). But thanks to the daring, dynamic direction of Roland Neame (The Poseidon Adventure, Hopscotch), the superficial tenets of the tunes are replaced by a real feeling of lushness and depth. Neame gives us a London circa 1860 that we can really sense and experience.


There is an amazing sequence toward the beginning of the film—as Bob Cratchit buys his family’s Christmas feast—where the class system in English society is clearly and cleverly delineated (Cratchit buys the same items as the rich patrons do, with either side of the street representing the chasm in financial standing and means). From the gloomy expanse of Scrooge’s creepy mansion to the iconic elements that we expect from A Christmas Carol (the boisterous Spirit of Christmas Present, the cadaverous Spirit of Christmas Yet To Be), Neame’s eye for detail and design land us squarely in the time and place of this striking, sensational vista.


One of the main reasons why this version of Dickens’s classic is so potent is that Scrooge does a very nice job of rounding out the title character. Usually portrayed as a strange, psychotic skinflint who needs to be bombarded by glad tidings and fear factors before he repents, there is almost always a kind of whiplash schizophrenia to the character as he’s been personified over the years. But in Albert Finney’s case (with additional thanks to Michael Medwin’s wonderful script), this Scrooge is a bastard to be sure, yet one with a heart once much softer, but now hardened by the hardships of life in general. Allowing us a chance, through vignette and song, to learn how Ebenezer Scrooge was abandoned as a boy, unloved as a child, and confused as an adolescent youth, the buildup of personality layers make the parsimonious prig more pitiable than vile. Surely, he says things that stink of sadism and scorn, but there is also a hint of sadness and sorrow in those terrible tirades.


At only 34 years of age, Albert Finney is absolutely brilliant in this film, giving perhaps one of his best Method performances. Some could confuse the occasional theatrics and desire to be even more direct with the role as over-the-top histrionics. But remember what was just said before—Finney was only thirty-four at the time he made this movie, and never once do we doubt Scrooge’s position, age, or resentment. Indeed, when we see the older and younger Ebenezer together during a Christmas Past flashback, we are taken aback for a moment by how startling the actor’s transformation is. Hunchbacked, barking his orders in bitter bon mots, and contorting his face in an attempt to hide all the hidden pain he is feeling, Finney is fabulous, the main reason why any fan of A Christmas Carol would want to visit this song-filled retelling. With a remaining cast that is equally adept at playing both the seriousness and the celebration of the story, you will probably not find a better performed version of this tale anywhere.


Another plus for Scrooge is its attention to terror. Other versions of the Dickens tale forget that it is supposed to be a ghost story, a spook show in which ethereal elements conspire to convert a penny-pinching soul. Instead of serving the spiritual aspects to heighten the horror, many of these miscues downplay the phantasms for a more syrupy, saccharine take. Thankfully, Scrooge avoids this silly soft soap to give their take on A Christmas Carol some spectral teeth. As the ghost of Jacob Marley, Alec Guinness is brilliant, bringing a resigned evil to the role of the messenger of the macabre. His Marley even manages to survive a forgettable song to guide the scared but surly grouch through a whirlwind of creepy spooks (the effects are very good for pre-CGI creations). Though the last act journey to Hell seems a tad out of place (obviously used to really get the message across about Scrooge’s afterlife fate), it is this decision to heighten, not hide, the horror that makes Scrooge such a sweet, substantive seasonal treat.


And don’t be put off by thoughts that this is a musical; indeed, it plays more like an operetta than a song and dance production. Finney is in fine voice (perfectly matching his character’s crotchety conceits), and the compositions all have a mostly downbeat tone, lending the sentiments that much more seriousness. Certainly, the penultimate number “Thank You Very Much” is carved out of the same West End wood as, say, “Consider Yourself,” “I’ve Never Seen Anything Like It,” or “Every Sperm is Sacred” (with the Pythons’ lifting some of Scrooge‘s staging for this wacky Meaning of Life sing-along), but when Scrooge and his lady love Isabel share their romantic intentions, it is with a little set of sonnets, each intermingling into the other to perfectly capture the mood and melancholy of their doomed relationship. Too bad Bricusse couldn’t find the same sort of salient melodic cue for his other heart-tugging number, Tiny Tim’s “The Beautiful Day.” Though achingly rendered by boy soprano surprise Richard Beaumont, the tune is so minor, so tossed off and over with before it can settle in and have an impact, that we almost forget it is supposed to be Tim’s signature internal joy.


Indeed, most of the music in Scrooge is equally evasive. Bricusse’s desire to downplay the showstopper for a more muted, emotional scoring leaves the audience a little bewildered as to why the harmonious moments need to be included at all. The “Christmas Children” number gets annoying by the 15th or 16th inclusion of the word “Christmas,” and “December the 25th” is just an excuse to run the “-ith” rhymes into the ground. While the finale, in which Scrooge experiences his change of heart and gives presents to everyone in town, does a nice job of wrapping up the aural attractions by reprising almost every song sung, what Scrooge really needed was a sonorous end number, something like “Make Our Garden Grow” from Candide, or “Being Alive” from Company. Though it’s rather nitpicky to intone the lack of dynamics in the soundtrack, the truth is that for any and all of its minor flaws, Scrooge simply “feels” right, presenting the Dickens favorite in a totally fresh and yet completely familiar light


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Friday, Nov 24, 2006


Jack Peterson is a pretty great guy. He has a job that he loves (he builds birdhouses), a best friend (a larger-than-life lothario named Alan) who thinks the world of him, and a nice little townhouse in a sleepy North Carolina city. The only thing Jack doesn’t have is…a wiener. A nurse accidentally cut off his woody when he was an infant, and ever since then, Jack has had to live sans schlong. And boy, oh boy, does Jack long for a replacement skin flute. He dreams about it, fantasies regularly over stroking and fondling his newfound noodle. He has tried plastic surgeons and every possible medical professional, but the best they can offer is a faux phallus made out of fat from his arm and stomach. But Jack doesn’t want a belly-based boner. He wants a real life lizard of his very own, and has more or less given up on ever having one.


Then, Alan gives him some good advice. A private doctor in town offers the chance at a new, experimental tool transplant. When a perfect donor is found, Jack will be reconstructed, made more or less normal above the nutsack. Naturally, the anticipation of a new lease on life, thanks to someone else’s surgically grafted groinage, becomes overwhelming. Jack is giddy for some girth. He is hyper for a hard-on. He even starts to date, hooking up with his nice neighbor Jenny. But as he waits for his new knob and starts to consider all the problems and possibilities, Jack starts to have second thoughts. Maybe he doesn’t want a pubic pole after all. Maybe life is just fine the way it is. After all, aside from sex, Jack’s existence has been pretty sweet, even if it has also been Ding-a-ling-Less.


Sounding like a dirty joke taken to a tacky extreme, but actually ending up rather resplendent and very funny, Ding-a-ling-Less marks a substantial turn of events for its writer-director Onur Tukel. Having previously helmed the horrible Drawing Blood (a vampire horror-comedy that was really none of the aforementioned) and the less than successful House of Pancakes (a tired tale of some housemates from Hell), Tukel finally hits a homerun with his third feature film offering, this slightly skewed romantic comedy about a dude in search of his missing manhood. Initially, it takes a little time to get into Tukel’s mannerisms and mindset here. The filmmaker loads his script with dozens of disgusting and dirty ways to describe a dong and the actions that such an appendage can be used for. Indeed, everyone in this fable-like fantasyland of a small town seems to sympathize with Jack and gives him equally course and vulgar advice. These crudity-laced sentiments are a little off-putting at first, but once you get used to their existence, Ding-a-ling-Less begins to fulfill its promise.


Ding-a-ling-Less also marks a turn in the acting fortunes for its lead, Kirk Wilson. Having been unfortunate enough to star in Tukel’s other failures, this film signifies the perfect role for Wilson’s usually forced forlorn wistfulness. Wilson is very adept at playing pathetic, and during the first half of the film, he really gets us sympathizing with Jack’s dilemma. Then, as the narrative continues and issues arise with the upcoming surgery, Wilson makes the change of heart seem natural and viable. There is never an awkward or arch moment in his performance, and it is excellent in its subtlety and sensitivity. Equally impressive in a far less friendly role is Robert Longstreet, as Jack’s womanizing pal Alan. Kind of like a combination of Hank Azaria and Chris Cooper, Longstreet gets the chance to chew a little scenery as he puts on the boyish bravado and tries to walk his buddy through the world of wang. We also get to see a different side of Alan when he describes to Jack what it’s like to have sex with a woman. Longstreet also gets an excellent speech in the final sequence before the surgery. Along with an ensemble of actors that really believes in this project and its premise, Ding-a-ling-Less turns from a juvenile joke into a thoughtful, complicated comedy right before our delighted eyes.


As he has done before, Tukel experiments with the film medium, augmenting his story with asides, blackouts, visual cleverness, and a style that recalls both vintage Woody Allen and modern indie cinema. Though working with a shoestring budget and limited resources, Tukel makes the most of his North Carolina setting, giving us a real feel for the small town location of his film. The director has also cleaned up his compositional act, framing his scenes in artistically interesting fashion. When Alan and Jack have a conversation in the middle of an alley, the actors are perfectly positioned in a long shot that takes in both the buildings in the background and the somber horizon above, creating an interesting canvas in which to have a conversation. Along with a serious message about meaningless sex and the value of human interaction, Ding-a-ling-Less gives us an unusual, unique take on the malady of the modern male. Indeed, most men at one time or another have felt unfulfilled, and wonder what life would be like if they were better endowed. Using this concept to craft a combination of “Jokes from the John” and insightful allegory, this movie marks Onur Tukel’s arrival as an effective filmmaker. All his other films aside, Ding-a-ling-Less is a wonderful, witty movie with good heart buried inside all the dick quips.


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