Strangers with Candy

(USA 2006)

“Hello, I’m Jerri Blank and — and I’m an alcoholic. I’m also addicted to amphetamines as well as main line narcotics. Some people say I have a sex addiction, but I think all those years of prostitution was just a means to feed my ravenous hunger for heroin. It’s kinda like the chicken or the nugget. The point is, I’m addicted to gambling. Thank you. Oh, and my daddy’s in a coma.”

“Way to go, faglick.”

“I’m thinkin’ about pussy. The science fair’s for queers.”

“I want your spermies!”

“Why doesn’t anybody like me?”

— Jerri Blank

 

“Everybody! Eyes to the back of the room!”

— Chuck Noblet

Those offended by juvenile potty humor and crass jokes in very poor taste — as many no doubt are offended — well, they best steer clear of Strangers with Candy, a sort of prequel to Amy Sedaris’s twisted cable TV series about depraved boozer, user, and loser Jerri Blank (Sedaris).

Those who dig this shit — like me — well, they’ll love this tawdry little farce.

As in the series, 47 year old former alcoholic, junkie, dealer, petty thief, bisexual hooker Jerri is released from prison after 32 years. She returns home to find her mother in an urn, her father (Dan Hedaya) in a coma, and her new family — “mommie” Sara (Deborah Rush) and 17 year old half-brother Derrick (Joseph Cross) — in complete shock, awe, and horror at the sight of her. They want her out.

When Jerri’s presence induces a physical reaction from her father, his doctor (Ian Holm) posits that she could be key in pulling him out of his coma by taking him back to the days before she left. The good doctor suggests that she move in and do something to make him proud.

Jerri decides to pick up where she left off: she goes back to Flatpoint High, where the faces may have changed but the hassles are just the same, and enrolls. She’s getting the diploma she never earned.

A science fair is the perfect opportunity to make her daddy proud — if only she can muster the wherewithal to participate. New BFFs outcasts Tamela (Maria Thayer) and Megawatti (Carlo Alban) are trying to keep her focused but Jerri’s more concerned with bagging class hottie and star squat thruster Brason (Chris Pratt). So much is riding on winning, not just for her father and her teammates but also shamed “science” teacher Chuck Noblet (Stephen Colbert). Can Jerri rise to the occasion?

Directed by Paul Dinello, who does double duty as art teacher Geoffrey Jellineck, and written by Dinello, Colbert, Sedaris, and Mitch Rouse, Strangers with Candy is true to its roots. Loaded with silly lines and a surprising number of celebrity cameos, it doesn’t expand on the series; in fact, it plays out like a binge watch of a season. Still, it’s a damn good time — and healthier than crack or unprotected sex. Maybe.

Oh yeah: I dare you not to let “She’s a Fig Neutron” by Gordon Grody and D-Fonz get stuck in your head. Go ‘head. No? Well, then I guess we’ll never know.

With Stephen Colbert, Gregory Hollimon, Allison Janney, Matthew Broderick, Sarah Jessica Parker, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Justin Theroux, Delores Duffy, Kristen Johnston, David Pasquesi, David Rakoff, Elisabeth Harnois, Alexis Dziena, Thomas Guiry

Production: Comedy Central Films, Worldwide Pants, Roberts/David Films

Distribution: THINKFilm, Front Row Filmed Entertainment (United Arab Emirates)

97 minutes
Rated R

(DVD purchase) B-

http://www.strangerswithcandymovie.com

Madonna: Innocence Lost

(USA / Canada 1994)

“I take what I need and I move on. And if people can’t move with me, well then I’m sorry.”

— Madonna

Wow, I completely forgot about this tawdry exposé made for TV — American TV, which is even worse — chronicling Madonna’s early years in New York City. It aired on Fox in the mid-nineties, and it’s actually amazing only for how awful it is. All the stops are pulled out, and it’s a trainwreck: the overriding theme is that Madonna is an ambitious whore. OK, National Enquirer.

Based on Christopher Andersen’s 1991 biography — totally unauthorized, I add — Michael J. Murray’s script is just plain sad. Some of it is remarkably accurate, but some of it…not so much. I recognize every single interview where he culled material to tell the Material Girl’s story — in Time, Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair, Interview, and a few other magazines. He doesn’t just lift background, he lifts dialogue. Verbatim. That opening monologue is straight from a letter to Stephen Jon Lewicki in which she begs to appear in his softcore film A Certain Sacrifice. The characters are all real people even if their names are changed: her donut shop manager (Kenner Ames), Dan Gilroy (Jeff Yagher), Camille Barbone (Wendie Malick), Mark Kamins (Mitch Roth), Seymour Stein (Don Francks), frequent collaborator Steve Bray (Ephraim Hylton), and last but not least her father, Silvio Ciccone (Dean Stockwell).

I’m mildly impressed that her mother (Jenny Parsons), shown entirely in black and white flashbacks, even comes up. And the many guys she slept with, some of them with a purpose. And that gumcracking? Brilliant!

Terumi Matthews plays a young Madonna, and to her credit she nails the megastar’s ideosynchrocies perfectly! I’ll give her that. However, the vignettes and Catholic imagery stolen straight from the video for “Oh Father” are so lame that I feel like I should say a rosary after seeing this. So should you. Don’t even get me started on where this story starts — the first MTV Video Music Awards? Really? She was already on her second album by then.

Anyway…Madonna: Innocence Lost is not flattering, but it’s still a hoot. It plays on Madonna’s bad side, like “Blond Ambition” is a bad thing. The problem is, this approach fails when you’re dealing with someone who used that very name for one of her biggest tours. Shocking? Fuck no.

With Diana Leblanc, Nigel Bennett, Dominique Briand, Tom Melissis , Christian Vidosa, Dino Bellisario, Kelly Fiddick, Gil Filar, Maia Filar, Diego Fuentes, Matthew Godfrey, Evon Murphy, Stephane Scalia, Chandra West

Production: Fox Television Studios, Jaffe/Braunstein Films

Distribution: Fox Network, RTL Entertainment (Netherlands), True Entertainment (UK)

90 minutes
Rated TV-14

(YouTube) D+

Tokyo Vampire Hotel

(Japan 2017)

This theatrical cut of director Sion Sono’s Amazon Prime miniseries Tokyo Vampire Hotel [東京ヴァンパイアホテル] (http://www.indiewire.com/2017/04/tokyo-vampire-hotel-sion-sono-amazon-1201808369/) is a fast-paced stylish and colorful bloodbath, something that wouldn’t be out of place in Quentin Tarantino’s oeuvre.

Manami (Tomite Ami) is a nice girl who shares a tiny apartment with her boyfriend (Saito Takumi) in Tokyo. Just after she arrives for dinner with her friends on the evening of her 22nd birthday, a crazy gun-toting assassin (Shoko Nakagawa) in a fuzzy pink mink shows up and takes out everyone in the restaurant — except Manami, whom she came to kidnap.

Manami flees, only to be picked up by another kidnapper, the mysterious K (Kaho). K in not so may words explains that Manami is a pawn in a war between two vampire clans, the Draculas and the Corvins, who have been enemies for centuries. Unbeknownst to Manami, she’s the target of a worldwide vampire hunt. K takes her to the glamorous Tokyo Vampire Hotel, which is run by a creepy geisha empress (Adachi Yumi) who needs blood.

The end of civilization is coming, but the empress has a plan: use the hotel to trap a healthy supply of humans to serve as food. Things don’t pan out as planned when the humans figure out what’s happening and the Draculas show up to crash the party.

This photo sums up what you’re getting into here:

Tokyo still.jpg

Tokyo Vampire Hotel is quirky, sexy, lavish, and fun. Sono serves up an imaginative feast of dazzling eye candy and nonstop action. His use of Christian symbols adds a nice touch. The sets are fantastic, and the action moves from the streets of Tokyo at night to inside the hotel to Bran Castle in Transylvania, and back. The editing works to make nine episodes flow seamlessly into a feature length film. However, the story wears thin after a little while, and it can’t sustain the interest I started out with. The gore gets old, too. The length, nearly two and a half hours, is a problem. It demonstrates why Tokyo Vampire Hotel is probably better in smaller doses.

With Mitsushima Shinnosuke, Yokoyama Ayumu, Kagurazaka Megumi, Shibukawa Kiyohiko, Takatsuki Sara, Tsutsui Mariko, Sakurai Yuki

Production: Amazon, Django Film, Nikkatsu Pictures

Distribution: Nikkatsu International Sales

142 minutes
Not rated

(AMC River East) C+

Chicago International Film Festival

Quiz Show

(USA 1994)

“Cheating on a quiz show? That’s sort of like plagiarizing a comic strip.”

—Mark Van Doren

 

The quiz show scandal of the late 1950s doesn’t sound like a riveting topic for a film, but that’s exactly what it is in Quiz Show, Robert Redford’s fourth directing gig. Every aspect of this film is spectacularly elegant, starting with Bobby Darin crooning “Mack the Knife” as the opening credits roll over shots of armored security guards transferring sealed questions and answers from a bank vault to a studio. Quiz Show is a modern morality play with lots of style.

It’s 1958, and NBC’s Twenty-One is the biggest game show in America. Homely goofball Herbert Stempel (John Turturro) of Queens is a surprise celebrity after an unprecedented winning streak, but the show’s ratings have “plateaued.” The show’s sponsor, Geritol, is ready for a change. So are producers Dan Enright (David Paymer) and Albert Freedman (Hank Azaria), who decide that a charismatic, television-ready new contestant is what the show needs.

WASPy college professor Charles Van Doren (Ralph Fiennes) happens to audition for another NBC game show, the less popular Tic Tac Dough. Handsome, polished, and hailing from an eminent intellectual family, “Charlie” fits the bill for Enright and Freedman’s vision.

Enright takes Stempel out for a steak dinner and asks him to “take a dive,” or purposely lose to Van Doren, on an upcoming show. Predictably, this isn’t something Stempel wants to do—at least, not without something in return. Enright fails to deliver on purposely vague promises, and Stempel publicly calls Twenty-One a fraud, saying it’s rigged. A judge seals the findings of a grand jury investigation, which gets some very minor press: a blurb in the paper. It catches the attention of ladder climbing Richard “Dick” Goodwin (Rob Morrow), a lawyer with the House Legislative Oversight Subcommittee in Washington, D.C., who plans to “put TV on trial.”

Quiz Show didn’t set the box office on fire during its original run, which is really odd (http://www.boxofficemojo.com/yearly/chart/?yr=1994). No matter, because it’s a fine drama. Based on the book Remembering America: A Voice From the Sixties by the real Richard Goodwin, Paul Attanasio’s screenplay is meticulously calibrated and cerebral, rich with strong characters, intertwined dilemmas, a fascinating plot, and a plethora of Fifties pop cultural references without nostalgia. Redford’s pacing is excellent: he sets up the story slowly then knocks down each character one after another. He draws superb performances out of the actors, too. The literary repartee between Van Doren and his genteel father, Mark (Paul Scofield), is one of the best things about this film. A wry and subtle sense of humor keeps the story exuberant: Martin Scorsese is great as fast talking Geritol CEO Martin Rittenhome, and Christopher McDonald makes an awesome Jack Barry.

Sure, Quiz Show isn’t an “exact word” historical documentary; Redford and Attanasio took some license. However, the result is an excellent depiction of good versus evil, not just in the television industry but in corporate America altogether. There’s not a lull or a dull moment here. The only criticism I have is Morrow’s unconvincing Boston accent; that can go. Everything else, though, is brilliant. Enright’s son, Don, wrote a piece about Quiz Show for the L.A. Times (http://articles.latimes.com/1994-09-19/entertainment/ca-40429_1_quiz-show); it’s another view worth considering.

With Mira Sorvino, Johann Carlo, Elizabeth Wilson, Allan Rich, Griffin Dunne

Production: Hollywood Pictures

Distribution: Buena Vista Pictures

133 minutes
Rated PG-13

(DVD/iTunes purchase) A

TwentyOne Pic

The Brady Bunch Movie

(USA 1995)

“Marcia did it again! Marcia, Marcia, Marcia!”

—Jan Brady

After the announcement of Florence Henderson’s death on Thanksgiving, it seemed appropriate to honor her memory by spending some time with the character for whom she’ll always be remembered: Carol Brady. I chose not to watch episodes of the sitcom but something else she was in, and The Brady Bunch Movie fit the bill. Although she doesn’t play her iconic character here, Henderson still makes a cameo as Carol’s mother.

The Brady Bunch Movie has about as much depth as the show—less, actually. It doesn’t matter, though, because it’s a divinely groovy tribute to the series, tongue firmly in cheek. Set in the mid ’90s when it came out, the world has changed—but the Bradys, fixed in the ’70s, haven’t. The plot revolves around previously unseen shady next door neighbor Larry Dittmeyer (Michael McKean) and his underhanded plot to get the Bradys out of their home, which they don’t want to sell. Much of the humor comes from the anachronistic nature of the family, especially interesting to watch now that we’re as far in time from the movie as the movie is from the series. Again, the world has changed.

The Brady Bunch Movie captures everything lovably goofy about the series, and does so better than any other movie based on a television show. Deborah Aquila’s casting is genius; every single actor here nails his or her character’s idiosyncrasies. Shelley Long’s Carol is uncanny. Christine Taylor is a dead ringer for Maureen McCormick—it’s actually creepy. Jennifer Elise Cox is amazing as Jan, playing up Eve Plumb’s weird mannerisms and way of speaking as psychotic. Henriette Mantel acts exactly like Ann B. Davis as Alice, right down to her comic beat and the face she makes when she says her punchline. Indeed, casting other sitcom stars like McKean (Laverne & Shirley) and Jean Smart (Designing Women) as the Dittmeyers is a subtle yet wickedly snarky touch. RuPaul makes a bizarre appearance as a guidance counselor. Practically obligatory cameos by Barry Williams, Christopher Knight, and Davis are wacky and good-natured without coming off as desperate.

Director Betty Thomas keeps the pace quick and the lines flying, one right after another. The script is packed with references to quintessential episodes: Jan’s wig and glasses, Marcia’s nose, Greg’s “Johnny Bravo” song (“clowns never laughed before, beanstalks never grew”), Peter’s changing voice, Cindy’s tattling, even Davy Jones singing “Girl” with the Monkees. Fucking brilliant! The script crams an impressive number of lines from the series into an hour and a half.

The Brady Bunch Movie is a fun tribute to a show everyone knows—everyone born between the late 1950s and maybe early to mid 1980s, anyway. I laughed my ass off when I saw it during its original run, and I laughed my ass off again this time. Perhaps one day I’ll bring myself to see A Very Brady Sequel. Rest in peace, Ms. Henderson—I’ll always remember you fondly.

90 minutes
Rated PG-13

(Home via iTunes) B

Winter of the Witch

(USA 1970)

I never heard of this nifty gem of a short until I saw it, but it’s apparently quite big with Gen X. I can see why: a precursor to Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore and Scooby Doo with Bewitched and The Addams Family thrown in, it’s about a single mother (Anna Strasberg) who skips town (Manhattan) in her VW Bug with her young son, Nicky (Roger Morgan), and buys a dilapidated old Victorian mansion in the boonies for cheap. Real cheap: $400 cheap. Turns out, there’s a catch: the place is haunted by a gloomy and depressed 300-year old witch (Hermione Gingold) who’s given up on the world.

Adapted from the book Old Black Witch by Wende and Harry Devlin, screenwriter and director Gerald Herman turns in something unintentionally impressive. I can see why this is such a hit with members of my generation. Aside from a few nouveau social issues for the time (a single parent and a vaguely gay little boy) and the mysterious untold backstory of this mother-son team, Winter of the Witch is really fucking weird. What kid’s story mixes the occult and “magic pancakes” laced with something no one will identify? The damned pancakes make everyone who eats them happy, so… The quality of the film is cheap and eerie, adding to the mood. Plus, Burgess Meredith narrates.

Winter of the Witch is roughly the length of a sitcom episode, which makes me think it was a pilot that didn’t get picked up. Regardless, I love it! See for yourself below.

24 minutes
Not rated

(Music Box) B+

Music Box of Horrors

Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You

(USA 2016)

“Do you know how hard it is to make people laugh, to tackle big issues and get big ratings? It’s so hard that people don’t do it anymore.”

—Amy Poehler introducing Norman Lear at the PEN American Center Lifetime Achievement Awards

One commentator asserts that American television consists of two periods: before Norman Lear, and after. He’s got a point. It’s easy to spot Lear’s impact: simply go to All in the Family at the dawn of the ’70s, and look backward then forward. A marked shift to socioeconomic realism is undeniable. It isn’t fair to credit him alone with that pivotal movement—James L. Brooks and Allen Burns hit the air with The Mary Tyler Moore Show four months before All in the Family—but Lear definitely ran with the idea and pushed it farther than anyone else. As the creative force behind shows like the aforementioned All in the Family, Maude, Sanford and Son, Good Times, The Jeffersons, even One Day at a Time and the controversial subjects they tackled, he was prime time’s Martin Scorsese to, say, Gary Marshall’s Steven Spielberg. That’s a huge accomplishment when you stop to consider that the only TV show ever to deal with abortion head-on was one of Lear’s sitcoms, and that was more than 40 years ago.

With Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You, Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady assemble a captivating picture of the man behind the curtain through clips, behind-the-scenes footage, his own readings of excerpts from his memoir Even This I Get to Experience, and an interview just for this film. Lear, who recently turned 94, is fascinatingly open and candid about the highs and lows of his personal life, his career, and what inspired him. In the film’s most touching moments, he discusses his father, what it felt like to hear an anti-Semitic speech on the radio when he was a kid, his admiration for Carroll O’Connor, and a sad incident involving his strong-willed wife. He also sings a ditty with buddies Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner, which is priceless. In its most interesting moment, Good Times star Esther Rolle confronts him about his depiction of black Americans. It is, to say the least, dy-no-mite.

Comments from a number of celebrities like Jon Stewart, George Clooney, Rob Reiner, and John Amos add depth and demonstrate the reach of Lear’s work. The highlights, however, come from Lear himself. It would have been nice if the directors pushed things a little farther and did away with the dramatization of Lear as a young boy, but I can only hope I live to see the future like he does: clearly, these are the days.

91 minutes
Not rated

(Music Box) B

http://www.musicboxfilms.com/norman-lear–just-another-version-of-you-movies-137.php

http://www.normanlear.com

Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie

(UK/USA 2016)

Absolutely Fabulous, one of my fave TV shows, was fresh, edgy, and bloody hilarious in its day—the dog’s bollocks, if you will. Stateside, it’s proven to be too much for prime time network television: ABC and FOX both abandoned plans to adapt it, the latter as recently as 2009 (http://www.tvtonight.com.au/2009/05/fox-rejects-ab-fab-remake.html). As executive producer Jon Plowman noted, “[t]he trouble with doing Ab Fab in America is that it will have to end with Edina and Saffy hugging, Patsy giving up drink and drugs, and them all hugging mum. It won’t work. It’ll be too nice.” (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/celebritynews/3153677/US-remake-for-Absolutely-Fabulous.html). Hold that thought.

Since the end of its original BBC run in 1995, Ab Fab’s few revivals have consistently fallen short. I was skeptical about a full-length movie 25 years on. While not the disaster I feared it would be, Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie still isn’t the knees up full Monty I wanted.

Eddy (Jennifer Saunders), Patsy (Joanna Lumley), Saffy (Julia Sawalha), even Mrs. Monsoon (June Whitfield) are the same, which is great—who doesn’t love them? They each have some good lines and some bright moments. Pats hasn’t lost her signature deadpan snarl, and the animosity between her and Saffy is still very much alive. The problem, however, is that the world has changed, which is partly why Ab Fab doesn’t have the same impact. For one thing, Eddy and Patsy’s irrelevance is really irrelevant today. They’ve become anachronisms; their antics ring more tired and pathetic than funny after awhile. Worse, everything about their fashionable world is passé. A prominent figure in the plot is supermodel…Kate Moss? The many celebrity cameos—Jerry Hall, Jean Paul Gaultier, Dame Edna, and Joan Collins to name a few—are fun, but none of them are setting any fires these days. Aside from Jon Hamm and Rebel Wilson, the faded glory here is enough to book Hollywood Squares for a month solid.

The movie has as much substance as an episode, but it’s clearly stretched to fill the time; Ab Fab episodes were only 35 minutes for a good reason. Some of the character twists, particularly Bubble (Jane Horrocks) and Marshall (Christopher Ryan), don’t make sense. Eddy gets soft toward the end: she delivers a monologue about wanting to be loved all her life, telling Saffy she loves her. Ugh. Say that again, Mr. Plowman?

I didn’t hate Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie; I got some laughs out of it. I didn’t love it, though. I could have overlooked its shortcomings had it been funnier. As it stands, I prefer Ab Fab where it fits best: in the ’90s.

91 minutes
Rated R

(AMC River East) C

http://www.foxsearchlight.com/absolutelyfabulous/

http://www.absolutelyfabulousthemovie.co.uk/showtimes