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Sunday, March 29, 2015

Movie Penguin Monday: A Couple of Weirdos Edition: #27 & #28. Lars and the Real Girl (2007) & Dummy (2002)

The indie film landscape of the 2000's is lousy with lovable oddballs, huggable weirdos, cuddly undiagnosed autistic menchildren and pitiable quirk blobs mashed into human form.  Manic pixie dreamgirls get all the press, but these goofy, unassuming, frustrating-but-worth-it sad sacks deserve recognition as well, at least in the sense that independent filmmakers need to learn from the mistakes of the past, and realize that watching this character-type bumble around for two hours is about as fun as being forced to sit through an elderly co-worker's daily barrage of abysmal dad jokes.  And allowing them to perform the aforementioned bumbling for two hours of plot-free quirk is even worse, and might, in fact, be criminal.  I'm not an attorney, I don't know the law, but I work with attorneys, so I can find out if I need to.

I recently watched two indie quirk-fests featuring two awkward, mumbly weirdos from the 2000's back-to-back for reasons I'm still not entirely sure of, but were probably related to some kind of self-punishment I subconsciously felt I deserved: 2007's Lars and the Real Girl, starring Ryan Gosling with a mustache, and 2002's Dummy, starring Adrien Brody.  Both films' protagonists are "charming" oddballs who form an attachment to a human-shaped inanimate object--Lars with a life-sized love doll manufactured specifically to make masturbation a little creepier; and Steven with, well, a dummy--that somehow makes said oddball a better, less awkward person worthy of a female human's love and affection.  These non-traditional relationships also make the community in which the oddball and his object of desire exist, a better place, filled with "normal" individuals who have been made better for being forced to accept said oddball's quirkiness.  Both films are pretty bad, but great examples of what came to be known, for a time, as the very definition of independent cinema.

Let's start with the better of the two, Lars and the Real Girl, a film I liked and hated in almost equal amounts.  It tells the story of a sad, shy weirdo who purchases a realistic sex doll, which he names Bianca and introduces to everybody in town as his girlfriend from Brazil.  There is the usual hemming and/or hawing that one would expect when a mustachioed goofball expresses a desire to, say, bring his life-sized sex device to church, but in the end, everyone in town falls in love with Bianca, hiring her to work weekends at the mall or, in the film's most "we-thought-this-would-be-funny-but-oops-it-really-really-is-not-in-fact-it's-gross-and-almost-certainly-criminal" scene, reading to school children.  When Bianca eventually dies--that's right, Bianca dies--all the citizens of Quirkville, USA, attend her funeral, in a scene that I initially mistook as poignant, until I remembered that they had just buried a rubber sex doll in a legitimate grave in an actual graveyard surrounded by the remains of people's actual loved ones.

If I were to give Lars and the Real Girl a letter grade, I'd give it a C+; a star rating out of 5, 2-and-a-half stars; and snarky verbal rating, a "meh."  The actors are fine, the cinematography is OK and the plot, while nothing I've really seen before but still feels hackneyed somehow, exists, which is more than I can say for other quirky weirdo indies from The Aughts, for example 2002's Dummy.  Lars' relationship with Bianca helps him work through some pretty heavy shit, and Lars is a nice guy--even though 20 minutes into the movie, I felt compelled to tweet out to whoever would listen, "Is Lars Lindstrom the biggest asshole in cinematic history?" as I was convinced he had purchased Bianca simply to fuck with people who wouldn't leave him alone about being single and quirky and mustached--so, I fully understand why everybody in his small town plays along.  And, honestly, the "+" part of the "C+" is because of Emily Mortimer, who is a delight in everything.  

My biggest problem with Lars and the Real Girl?  I'll get to that in just a minute, because it is also my major problem with Dummy.

Here are the things I liked about Dummy: 1) The scene where Steven invites Lorena over for a romantic evening, but fails to set the mood when he plays a CD of John Phillip Sousa's greatest marches; and 2) Jessica Walter.  That's it.

Now I don't like to come online and bad mouth things like everybody else, but, c'mon, nobody in this movie looks back on Dummy fondly.  How could they?  You can't tell me that Milla Jovovich is proud of her work in this movie?  Her character is awful and unnecessary.  And Jared Harris!  Wonderful Jared Harris--look what they have you doing!!!  And Adrien Brody's Steven makes Lars look like the life of the party.  What a sad sack piece of shit.

Look, everyone in Dummy has done vastly better things--I watched Grand Budapest Hotel two weeks ago, and Adrien Brody was great!--so I'm not going to waste my afternoon and your precious reading time actor-bashing.  An actor is only as good as his/her words, and the words these fine actors were forced to recite in this thing are shit.  This is sub-sitcom nonsense, with way too many characters given their own subplots, when all we really care about is the relationship between Steven and Lorena, played by Vera Farmiga.  If you want a plot summary for Dummy, read the Wikipedia page, because I want to talk about Lorena and Margo, the love interests in Dummy and Lars and the Real Girl respectively.

Lorena and Margo do not make sense, and this is why I reject them.  This is not a manic pixie dreamgirl situation, but, rather, an awkward, oddball manchild one.  In these movies, two quirk-crammed weird-balls turn two perfectly nice and normal females into, I don't know.  I guess they don't turn into anything, it's just the fact that they find anything interesting about Steven and Lars at all.  Especially Margo.  Lars rejects her up until the final scene of the movie, Bianca's unholy funeral, at which time, after Margo gives her condolences on the death of a female-shaped sperm collection device, Lars asks her if she'd like to take a walk.  

Lorena's interest in Steven is also troubling, chiefly because she has a young daughter, and Steven is a directionless geek who lives at home with his parents and spends most of his free time hanging out in Target with crazy person who dresses like a 14-year-old girl, but is definitely in her early-30's.  I'm not saying there is anything wrong with living with your parents or shopping at Target, I just don't know many woman of Lorena's age, level of employment and emotional maturity that is actively seeking someone like Steven.  Hey, I'm what you might consider a weirdo, and I found love and happiness with a wonderful woman, but I was also actively employed, out from under my parents' iron fist and wasn't known around town as "that guy who used to tell everyone a sex doll was his girlfriend."  For a weirdo, I'm relatively normal.

In the end, in Lars and the Real Girl, I liked that no one had sex with Bianca.  In Dummy, I liked nothing.  

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Tuesday, March 10, 2015

The Highs and Lows of 2015: So Far

As you may have noticed, I really enjoyed Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.  I tried to make that clear in my previous post, but I'm not entirely sure I was successful, after all, I did only use three exclamation points when I called it the best program of all-time, by which I meant all the times since TV has existed.  If I failed at selling the show to you, dear reader, then I sincerely apologize.  I will do my best in the future to more succinctly express my love for things when recommending them to you.  I'm thinking of adding a fourth exclamation point to the roster.  I'm currently in talks with my legal team about it, so I'll keep you posted.

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt hasn't been the only high point of 2015 so far though, in fact,  I've bumped up against plenty of other top-notch entertainments-n-such this year.  And it's only March!  Who knows how many more dizzying highs I will have personally experienced by May!  July!  Um, ever heard of a little month called October?!?  I'll be flying so high you might mistake me for popular stand-up comedian and podcast host Doug Benson.  We're talking high!  Am I right?

Of course, with peaks there are always valleys, and, man, have I found myself in some bummer valleys this year.  So, I thought it might be amusing to take a look at some of the highs and lows of the current year so far.  In the spirit of honesty, I feel I should admit that this post was originally planned to be a comparison of two recently released stand-up specials, but I started to feel crummy about pitting comedians against each other, especially when one of them is a well-documented favorite of mine and the other is someone I don't think I've ever laughed at once.  That didn't seem fair or cool, but I wasn't going to have watched one of the specials for nothing (the horror, the horror), so, you know, this thing.  All right, let's have some fun or something.

Aziz Ansari: Live at Madison Square Garden (High):  I'm a guy who makes lists; not to-do lists or grocery lists or any other helpful kind of list you can name, but pointless lists that do nothing more than help me keep track of the ultimately useless information floating around in my pop-culture-addled brain.  Lists like Top 10 All-Time Favorite Movies (a list that is reviewed every couple years or so to see if any readjustments need to be made), Top 5 Favorite Chili's Entrees (I'm super into the Bacon Ranch Chicken Quesadilla right now) and Top 10 Animated Female Characters I'd Have Sex With (N/A).  I also have a list of Top 10 Favorite Stand-Up Comedians, a list on which Aziz Ansari appears (along with Patton Oswalt, Sarah Silverman, Brian Regan, Dave Attel, the aforementioned Doug Benson, and at least 4 others), so naturally, I am inclined to like Live at Madison Square Garden.  But I don't like it simply because it is my sworn duty as a fan of Ansari to enjoy everything he does, but I like it because it's fucking funny, and it is so fucking funny.  It's also kind of moving--and I'm not just talking about the fact that he brings his parents up at the end or dedicates the special to the memory of Harris Wittels.  He does a bit near the end in which he imagines married life as a graph that is so emotionally moving and funny it makes the first ten minutes of the Pixar film UP look like a hunk of flaming garbage (that's not accurate or true).  And I'm not the first, second or third person to write this about Live at Madison Square Garden, but this show feels really intimate.  It doesn't feel like a comedy show in a sports arena, and that's what makes it so special, I think.  Sure, there's a confetti cannon, but what club show couldn't benefit from one of those?  Exactly.

Ralphie May: Unruly (Low): I'm going to say something nice about Ralphie May: I think he was robbed on the first season of Last Comic Standing.  I didn't find him particularly funny then either, but I thought he had a lot more going for him then that season's winner, um, you know, uh, that guy with the, er, jokes or something (I know it was Dat Phan!  Geez, I'm just making a point.).  Ralphie May has turned his television debut into a successful career--he mentions in Unruly that he has been doing comedy for 25 years!--and for that he should be very proud.  The thing is, I don't find Ralphie May funny, and I think that's OK.  Hacky jokes about Asian stereotypes, excessive marijuana use (Apparently, May once go to high he sat in a Chick-fil-A drive-thru line for 3 hours...on a Sunday!  Can you believe it?!?!?) and pubic hair aren't my idea of a fun night out, but again, that's OK.  Other people eat that stuff up, and that doesn't make them bad people, it just means they find different things funnier than I do, and luckily for Ralphie May's bank account, that's Ralphie May.  My main issue with May--and it could very well just be this special, I haven't seen any of his other ones--is that his act kind of makes me physically ill.  I like vaginas as much as the next guy--maybe more!--but listening to a man refer to them as "pussy meat" or, worse, "'giner meat" for an hour-and-twenty-three minutes, is nauseating.  Why does he have to keep adding meat to the end of it?  And why is this special over an hour?!?  Live at Madison Square Garden is 58 minutes long, 58 tight minutes of insightful, expertly-crafted humor.  Ralphie May spends the last 30-minutes-but-it-feels-like-4-hours berating a 21-year-old in the front row about how he's less-than-a-man because he's never "fingerblasted" a girl.  Kudos to May for presenting a routine devoid of fat jokes, but, dude, we get it, you've touched a lot of different vaginas.  You win, OK.  Shut up already!

The return of the Best Show (High): Tom Scharpling and Jon Wurster brought back the Best Show this year, and while Tom's life was completely upended only two episodes in (his father died suddenly), he has soldiered onward, proving that even in the difficult times he is still capable of steamrolling any chump that gets in his way.

It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Season 10 (High): Still the most consistently funny show on TV right now.  I recently re-watched every single episode on Neflix--a worthy endeavor that I encourage you to undertake if you have not already--and there simply isn't a low-point, a lull, a broken toilet (to borrow a phrase from Mr. Scharpling) of a season.  It's as close to perfect as you can get.  And this season has been no exception.

Chappie (Low): The trailer for Chappie made me cry...all three times I watched it.  I'm not embarrassed to admit that.  I'm a sensitive male in touch with his emotions, comfortable with the feel and taste of tears on my cheeks (I have an absurdly long tongue, ant-eater-esque even). I was up for Chappie, ready to get in there and cheer and cry and let whatever else wanted to spray out of my body, um, spray out of my body.  But then the lukewarm reviews started rolling in (It's currently sporting a 28% on Rotten Tomatoes!) and my tear valves dried right up.  "This is Elysium all over again," I tearlessly wept.  I don't usually let reviews dictate what movies I see or music I download (I am quick to trust television critics however), but there is just too much negativity surrounding poor lil Chappie, so I think I'm going to wait until this one comes to DVD or Netflix and then I forget about it and never see it, i.e. Elysium all over again.
Marvel Contest of Champions (High): I don't let my 3-year-old daughter watch violent TV shows or watch scary movies or read Highlights for children (I feel like she might confuse Goofus for Gallant--maybe in another year she'll be ready), but I do let her watch me play Contest of Champions, much to the chagrin of my wife.  It's not the colorful characters or the emphasis on teamwork the game promotes that she is opposed to, but more the violence, some of which involves giant space-swords and guns, both laser and bullet-filled.  I mean, the game consists of two Marvel superheroes engaging in hand-to-hand combat, until one is knocked unconscious, so I kind of see her point.  Also, my daughter likes to play Contest of Champions with me even when my iPhone is not around.  "I'll be Gamora and you be Spider-Man," she says, gleefully, before making sounds with her mouth that sound a bit like punching.  Then, at some point, she'll raise her arm and bring it down in a mighty karate chop saying, "Whoopsie, sword!" a phrase my wife and I repeat constantly because it is so cute to hear a 3-year-old say.  Also, it refers to Gamora's special movie, in which she removes a previously unnoticed sword from out of thin air and slices her opponent with it mercilessly.  Fun!  Anyway, this game is the reason you should get an iPhone.  'Nuff said.

Whoopsie, hook!
Disney cruise (HIGH): I went on a Disney cruise with my wife, my daughter and my parents the last week in February, and I haven't been the same since my return.  I'm my best self on a Disney cruise, my happiest self.  Also, my fattest self, but we don't need to talk about that right now.  Anyway, it was more fun than I can describe in a short blurb.  Above, please see myself and my daughter dressed up for Friday night's pirate party.  Yeah, that's a parrot on my shoulder, and at least one little kid at the pirate party thought it was real and asked to touch it.  I told him it was dead.  He gave me a horrified look, and disappeared back into the crowd of pirates.
The death of Harris Wittels (LOW): I didn't know Harris Wittels personally, but I am a huge fan.  I fell in love with his comedy through his many appearances on the Comedy Bang Bang podcast, as well as other podcasts to which I listen regularly.  If Harris was in an episode of something, I was excited.  I am still devastated by his loss, so I can only imagine how his friends and family feel.  I can't remember who said it, but someone funny postulated, and I'm paraphrasing here, that the loss of Harris will be felt more and more as time goes by, as he was a singular voice in the world of modern comedy, and his death is not only tragic because of how young he was, but because of how amazingly talented he was.  There will never be another Harris Wittels.  I'd just be happy to have the old Harris Wittels back at this point.

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Monday, March 9, 2015

Watch This Immediately, You Idiot!: Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt

I've been racking my brain for the past 48 hours trying to come up with a way to describe my feelings about Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, the new Tina Fey-created comedy that debuted on Netflix last Friday, in a single, direct statement that doesn't sound like an incredible exaggeration, and therefore, open to the scoffing and eye-rolling of the general public.  But then I remembered that Giant Electric Penguin is nothing if not one man's hyperbolic ramblings regarding the pop culture he adores, so here's what I came up with.  You can tell me in the comments if you think I've gone too far.

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is the funniest half-hour, single-camera situation comedy to ever exist in the history of TV and/or subscription-based entertainment-streaming services.  In fact, it may the greatest comedy program of ALL TIME!!!
In Time's Square--where New Yorkers shop!

I'm willing to agree that perhaps that third exclamation point is a bit "much," but I stand by the rest of my statement.  Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is a consistently hilarious endeavor from top (by which I mean the Gregory Brothers-created theme song that has been stuck in my head all weekend) to bottom (the credits, in which the names of all the people responsible for this genius comedy are contained), and I for one am glad I devoted six-and-a-half hours to watching the first season on Friday.  Feels like time well spent, and I mean that.

If the fact that Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt was created by Tina Fey and that I was compelled to use three exclamation points earlier--something that I've now decided was not a bit "much" but maybe not "enough"--then maybe I should tell you that it stars Ellie Kemper (of "being hilarious" fame), Tituss Burgess, Carol Kane and Jane Krakowski doing some of the best work of their careers, as well as some amazing guest turns from Richard Kind, Tim Blake Nelson, Martin Short and Jon Hamm as charismatic cult leader/wannabe Apprentice cast member, Richard Wayne Gary Wayne.

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is a joke machine in the 30 Rock tradition, but I think it tells a more readily identifiable story, even though it revolves around a young woman (the titular Schmidt, played to perfection by Ellie Kemper) who has just been freed from 15 years captivity in an underground bunker located in a local weirdo's backyard.  After being interviewed on the Today show with her fellow cult captives, Kimmy decides she doesn't want to be defined by her past, isn't content to simply live out the rest of her days known as one of the "Indiana Mole Women," and chooses to remain in New York City and make a go at a normal life, even though she sports an eighth grade education, can fit her all of her earthly possessions in a purple backpack, has no place to live and says things like "what the ham sandwich?!?" on a regular basis.  Through the magic of positivity and pure dumb luck, Kimmy finds an affordable basement apartment, which she shares with Titus, an out-of-work actor, and a job keeping house (kinda-sorta) for an eccentric family run by Jane Krakowski, who is never not funny, and while in some ways as strange as 30 Rock's Jenna, is less off-putting and seemingly capable of change--also the handful of flashbacks to her life before moving to the Big Apple and marrying a neglectful millionaire, are some of my favorite moments of the first season.

I don't want to write much more, not for any dumb spoilery reason, but because you need to watch Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt for yourself.  It's funny, strange, sweet and emotionally satisfying.  And it's got the most sophisticated robot character since Screech Powers' Kevin.

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