Friday, November 29, 2013

THE BABY (1973)

The Cult Film That Isn’t a Cult Film is Ready For its Close Up

Ted Post's The Baby came  at a time when  children in movies were possessed by devils; dabbled in drugs; had multiple personalities;  ran away from home; became teen prostitutes or teen alcoholics; fell in with gurus (of the Charles Manson variety); and in some cases, as in It's Alive, were born with fangs and claws.  The Baby brings us a lucky mother  who never has to face much defiance from her beloved son, for he is a young man who remains in his infancy, a lanky six-footer crawling around on his blanket with a drip of spittle on his chin.  

The title character might have been a nice alternative to all of the outlandish youth of the early 1970s. Instead, the character of "Baby" remains a legend, the sort you learn about the way I did many years ago, when a friend of mine slipped a VHS tape into his machine and said, “You’ve never seen this? You’re in for a treat.”  I envy the ticket buyers at Lincoln Center, for they will be seeing The Baby as part of a tribute to the late Ted Post (shown Dec. 17 on a double bill with Post’s Magnum Force).  To them I would say what my friend said: They are in for a treat. 

It’s wrong to call The Baby a “cult film.”   For one thing, there would have to be a cult of fans who knew about it, and aside from my friend who showed it to me, I've never met anyone who has seen it.  Cult film? No.  It would be more accurately described as an “oddity.”  It’s the bearded lady of films, something that belongs on a long forgotten midway somewhere in the Corn Belt, next to the two headed chicken and the dog-faced boy. Is it even a horror film? Not really. There are some murders, and a few crazy ladies wielding axes,  but I don't think anyone has ever been troubled by nightmares after seeing it. My general rule is, if you have to define a movie by one genre or another, then you're missing out on a lot of movies that defy easy labeling.

Where to start? Perhaps with the story, a strange one about a grown man who still sleeps in a crib and crawls around like, well, like a baby.  He’s over-protected by a shrewish mother (played by a raspy Ruth Roman), until a well-meaning case worker learns about him.  The case worker wants to liberate  the unfortunate young man and help him mature. But Roman and her two weird daughters are determined to protect “Baby,” which leads to the sort of catfights and whippings that are usually reserved for films by Russ Meyer.  A monstrous mother and her unfortunate son is not so unusual in movies (or real life), but a grown man in a crib is disturbing. The creepiest touch of all is when Baby cries. What we hear is not an actor, but the recorded sound of an actual baby crying. It's one of the film's many unsettling touches.
The film nods to many other titles, from What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? to  Psycho. Adding to the grand guignol atmosphere is  Roman, who seems happy to borrow from Joan Crawford's wacko period. Roman's career had run the gamut from  jungle queens to noir sirens, and she'd  worked with some of the top directors of the 1940s and '50s, including Alfred Hitchcock, Anthony Mann, and Mark Robson. She'd also starred opposite such leading men as Kirk Douglas and James Stewart, yet here she was ate age 50, in a seedy little film opposite a drooling man-child. She's brave, though, mugging like she was born to play whackjob mothers.
The film also touches on lesbianism, child abuse, and the erotic implications of breast feeding. In other words, it's a fine family picture. The most horrific implication comes when we see  Baby being worked over with an electric cattle prod, his mind being shunted by negative reinforcement: "Baby doesn't stand! (Zap!) Baby doesn't talk! (Zap) Baby doesn't walk!(Zap! Zap!)" This is how the family has kept their baby from reaching adulthood.  Roman hates men, refers to them as weak and spineless, and there's even a slight suggestion that she may have killed her previous husbands, just to get them out of the way.  
This warped family tale was written by Abe Polsky, a writer whose claim to fame prior to The Baby was The Rebel Rousers, a Jack Nicholson biker flick that sat in the can for two years but was released in 1970 to cash in on Nicholson’s sudden popularity after Easy Rider.  Polsky allegedly begged Post for more than a year to film The Baby 

Post, 55 at the time, was primarily a television director, but he’d made inroads into a career directing features with Hang ‘em High (1968) and Beneath The Planet of the Apes (1970). What drew him to The Baby is anyone’s guess. The Baby  has the feel of an early ‘70s television movie (and has erroneously been labeled as such by some folks) but at times it achieves something almost psychedelic, with many scenes shot from high above, or far below, as if we're seeing the action from a bug's perspective - just as well, because you wouldn't to get too close to these characters, anyway.

Cinematographer Michael D. Margulies was known for shooting TV shows, everything from George Plimpton documentaries to The Waltons ( he also shot John Cassevetes’  Minnie and Moskowitz a year before The Baby). He gives The Baby a beautiful 1970s sheen; at times it looks like an explosion in an old Sears catalog. The house where Baby lives looks lifeless and unkempt from the outside, but the interiors have a lurid, lava lamp glow, especially during a birthday party scene for Baby.  The music, which veers from wistful to weird, was by Gerald Fried, a television veteran who began his career scoring films for Stanley Kubrick (The Killing; Killers Kiss; Paths of Glory).

Scotia International, a short-lived theatrical distributor of exploitation films, released The Baby in March 1973 on a limited  number of screens, but The Baby was overshadowed by various things. At the time of its release, Post was hired to direct Clint Eastwood as Dirty Harry Callahan in Magnum Force.  The announcement that Post was working again with the world's biggest star received more press than The Baby did.  Roman, too, was in very popular projects at the time, particularly the TV adaptation of Go Ask Alice, the controversial best seller about teen drug use. With its own director and star involved in more high profile projects,   The Baby seemed to vanish in shadows cast by its own creators.   Polsky’s pursuit of Post may have backfired in that regard, but one can’t say Post didn’t give The Baby his best shot.  He took Polski's E.C. comic style script and created a strange, dissonant, masterpiece. The emphasis, of course, is on dissonant. Post may have been a journeymen director of mainstream fare, but he knew exactly how to handle oddball material.


As the film's title character, James Mooney (aka James Manzy) gives an all out bizarre performance.  He never seems like a baby so much as a dazed adult, looking dreamily at his objects of affection. The first few times I watched this film, though, he was such a showstopper that I barely noticed how good the rest of the cast is. Along with Roman's scenery chewing performance, there's a nice turn from Anjanette Comer as the social worker who has mysterious designs on Baby. Roman's two daughters are played by Marianna Hill and  Susanne Zenor, who add to the film's incongruous atmosphere. Hill was the sort of sultry '60s actress who appeared in everything from the Batman TV series to High Plains Drifter and Medium Cool.  As Germaine, she gives off a campy lesbian vibe, even asking Comer if she'd like to go away for a weekend, just to get to know each other.  Zenor, who was nearly cast in Suzanne Somers' role in Three's Company,  spends most of the movie in a cheerleader's outfit. She may look like Lolita, but she's hell with a cattle prod.
The film came and went quickly, barely making a blip on the radar back in '73. It occasionally surfaced on network television at odd hours, and in 1980 was treated to a showing at New York’s  Thalia  Theater, a 299-seat neighborhood movie house on Manhattan’s Upper West Side (if you’ve seen Annie Hall, it’s where Annie and Alvie go to see The Sorrow and The Pity).  Richard F. Shepard, a Times writer dispatched to review the film's 1980 showing,  described it as “a good story” but added that it was “too obvious, except in its surprise ending, to be first-rate, so we'll have to fall back on that bland non-chiller of an adjective, ‘interesting.’" Former Village Voice columnist Michael Musto was known for his twice monthly parties where friends would come over to watch campy old B-movies, of which The Baby was allegedly a favorite.

Can The Baby, which turned 40 this year, ever develop into a full blown cult object? Probably not. A true cult film has to stand up over repeated viewings.  This film seems to exist solely for Polsky's twist ending, which is amusing, something out of Tales from the Crypt, or The Twilight Zone.  The first time I saw it, I thought, ah, ya got me. It left me with a good feeling in my gut, the sort I get when I've seen an offbeat gem, and am better for having seen it. But films with trick endings tend to be viewable only once.  Does The Baby hold up once you know the ending? That will depend on how you feel about watching a grown man in a crib. And if you haven't seen it at all? You're in for a treat.


Tuesday, November 26, 2013


We used to come out of Woody Allen movies smiling to ourselves. There was always a satisfied feeling, as if we'd just had a nice meal, or heard a favorite piece of music. You might catch the eye of another fan in the lobby, and you'd both grin. You both knew that if nothing else was right in the world, you could count on Woody.  This sense that he was our one reliable comic genius was especially true during the early to mid 1980s, when  he moved away from his sophisticated romantic style of Annie Hall and Manhattan and made a string of compact, witty comedies. Back then there was a feeling among critics that, while these movies were fine, Allen was just spinning his wheels until his next great idea came along. But now, looking back, I think this was actually a golden period for him. I remember Broadway Danny Rose, and how I argued with friends that Danny was a slightly different character for Allen, a tougher, less neurotic character than he'd played in the past. My friends couldn't see what I meant, but we all agreed it was a good little comedy and that he could do no wrong. 
Mention Woody Allen now and you're likely to get a snort of derision. His biggest hits in recent years - Match Point, Midnight in Paris, Blue Jasmine - were done without him in the lead role, as if people still enjoy his stories but not his face.  People either hold his personal life against him, or they complain that he's too concerned with New York's upper crust, or that he's too Jewish, or that he doesn't cast enough African-Americans in his movies. Others are so consumed by the latest 3-D Marvel Comics adventure that the idea of a small, intelligent comedy is beyond them.   I can't say if audiences of the 1980s were more intelligent than they are now, but  the audiences of today have certainly relaxed their standards.  Fortunately, there  will always be a discerning few who tire of the rabble's taste. For them, Woody Allen will be there.

As Thanksgiving approaches, I decided to look back at Broadway Danny Rose, which has a few Thanksgiving motifs, including a beautiful scene in a warehouse filled with floats for the Macy's parade. It's a good film, part of his early 1980s period, when he appeared to replace his old 1970s cynicism with a kind of warmth. Danny Rose actually says at one point that his philosophy is "acceptance, forgiveness, and love," a jarring note in the midst of one of the most greed ridden decades in American history, a notion that critic Patrick Taggart called "positively daring," and moved the Associated Press' Bob Thomas to dub Allen "the most original and daring comedy artist in films today."
It tells the tale of Danny Rose, a Broadway agent to a lot of third rate performers, including parrot acts, and a fellow who makes balloon animals. Allen plays Danny as a loyal mensch, always encouraging his clients, even if their talents don't warrant it. He doesn't greet one without saying, "You look beautiful dahlink!" Allen has been around showbiz since the 1950s, so he knew the type, and plays him with some affection, I think. Danny's future rides on a faded Italian crooner named  Lou Canova  (Nick Apollo Forte). There's a nostalgia boom going on; Danny thinks Lou is ripe to be rediscovered. The only problem is that Lou's girlfriend Tina (Mia Farrow) has been telling him to dump Danny in favor of a more connected manager.  The film is told in flashbacks by a group of older showbiz veterans sitting at the Carnegie Deli, each trying to top the other with their own Danny Rose story.
The cinematography is by Gordon Willis, a frequent Allen collaborator who also shot the Godfather trilogy. He gives the New York of Danny Rose a damp look, as if the fog of memory is constantly rolling in from the Atlantic, or as The New York Times' A.O. Scott wrote recently, “He gives every frame the kind of mysterious smokiness of dusty old photographs."  There's one dreamy shot of a mist shrouded boat that Danny and Tina have jumped aboard that feels like something from Val Lewton's Ghost Ship.  There's also a wedding scene with a lot of odd close-ups that recalls Willis' work in Stardust Memories, which many chided for being Allen's attempt at a Fellini film. And the nightclub scenes where Lou sings feel a bit like something out of Raging Bull. For a movie that many consider a simple comedy, it's a visual stunner.

Perhaps borrowing a page from Born Yesterday, Lou asks Danny to keep an eye on Tina and bring her to his big gig (singing for Milton Berle!).  Tina ends up dragging Danny to a Mafia party,  where her previous boyfriend has poisoned himself because Tina left him for Lou. A couple of gangster types assume that Danny is Lou, and the chase is on. As Danny and Tina try to escape, they get on each other's nerves, but while they don't exactly fall in love, they seem to like each other. They have very different outlooks on life, though. She wants to hurt people before they can hurt her. He thinks kindness is the way to go. Finally, Danny gets Tina to the gig in time to see Lou, but he eventually learns that Lou has taken her advice to get a new agent. Danny is flattened by the news, but he soldiers on. The next time we see him, it's Thanksgiving and he's invited his various one legged tap dancers and balloon benders to his tiny apartment; they celebrate the holiday by eating TV dinners. It's not as pathetic as it sounds. It actually feels kind of cozy. There's love in the room.
If Allen is playing slightly against type as a fast-talking New York agent, Mia Farrow was virtually unrecognizable as Tina. For most of her early career, she was known for playing fragile, mealy mouthed characters. According to legend, she and Allen went to dinner one night and saw a loud  waitress with big hair and sunglasses. Farrow told Allen that she wished to one day play such a character, which was the genesis of Tina. Farrow's wonderful here, working a slight Jersey accent, her delicate features hidden under a wig and oversized shades. Her scenes with Danny are excellent, especially when she reveals her interest in decorating. "I'd fill your apartment with bamboo, and big purple pillows," she says. After agreeing that bamboo would be nice, Danny turns into an agent. "I don't see you just decorating joints like this one," he says. "I can see you decorating really big places." He shows Tina the same love he shows his clients - he's probably been buried in showbiz for so long that he can only speak in a kind of old Broadway jargon. For Danny, recognizing potential is as good as saying I love you.

Allen cast Farrow in several movies, but they were rarely a romantic couple onscreen. In their first collaboration, A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy, she played a woman he loved from afar. He bathed her in a glowing light, a director in love with his star. In Zelig, she played a psychiatrist who was caring for Allen. From there, in various movies, she played his ex-wife, or his longtime wife who wanted a divorce. In Crimes and Misdemeanors, she dumped him for Alan Alda. Still, for all of the films they made together, I can't recall an actual love scene between the two. The closest may have been in Broadway Danny Rose.  For a generation of Allen fans, Farrow was always a sorry second to Allen's original muse, Diane Keaton. And some still feel that way. But looking at Broadway Danny Rose again reminds me that Farrow and Allen had their own chemistry. It was unique - she played the strong character who was soft at heart, he played the weakling who actually had some integrity. Allen and Keaton had cuteness and better comic timing, but the older I get, the more I see Allen and Farrow  as one of Hollywood's great forgotten screen couples.
After their adventure, Tina's haunted by Danny.  She drops in during his Thanksgiving party, but he's still angry that she turned Lou away from him. Her voice cracking with emotion, she reminds Danny of his credo, "Acceptance, forgiveness, love." He's unbending. She leaves. He returns to having dinner with his clients. Then, like Isaac running down the street in Manhattan to stop Tracy from going to London, we then see Danny running down the street to find Tina. He catches up with her. The scene is in long shot, so we don't hear what they say, but we are relieved to see them walk together back to his place. We don't know if they stay together. The characters at the deli don't know, either. They're not even sure what became of Danny Rose, just that he has a sandwich named after him.

The film isn't hysterically funny, although there are some excellent bits. When Danny and Tina are held at gunpoint by a gangster, Danny gives them the name of a local ventriloquist. The mugs promptly put the guy in the hospital. It's a cruel, slapstick moment that provides a good belly laugh in an otherwise subtle, quiet film. The mob angle, incidentally, drew the ire of various Italian groups, and Woody came under criticism for stereotyping Italians as violent, over-emotional, and superstitious. One scene involves the two hitmen chasing Danny and Tina, only to stop mid-chase at a pizza place for a couple of slices. I understand the point made by the Italian groups, but I also find the joke funny. There were also some who found the movie too mild, as if a Woody Allen who wasn't hostile and neurotic wasn't worth watching. He'd be back to his old neurotic self two years later for Hannah and Her Sisters, his biggest hit of the decade, and another film, by the way, that used Thanksgiving as a gimmick. Danny Rose, though, is one of his most lovable characters, precisely because he's less cynical than the usual Allen character.

There's a beautiful scene where the deli coterie recall Danny's old days as a comic in the Catskills. We see Danny in a tux, entertaining what looks like a nursing home crowd. He's telling old jokes and getting only modest results. Was Danny a terrible comic? Is that why he left performing to become an agent? And why did he choose to represent such paltry acts?   Did he not want a client who might be better than he was? Did he like to maintain some control, hence a bunch of acts that desperately needed his guidance? He may not have been obviously neurotic, but there's a lot to Danny Rose if you want to look for it.

Nick Apollo Forte is memorable as Lou Canova. He performs a couple of songs in the movie, tunes he wrote himself, and one of them, Keep Italian in Your Heart,  is actually quite beautiful. Forte makes Lou an interesting character, full of charisma onstage, but a bundle of nerves and hypochondria in his personal life (perhaps he, rather than Allen, is the neurotic of the film). Forte didn't act in any more movies, but he enjoyed a modestly successful singing career, much like the one enjoyed by Lou Canova.

Broadway Danny Rose is also notable because it's one of the rare Allen films with a sense of male camaraderie. The men at the deli telling the story spend the first few minutes of the film amusing each other with bad jokes and impressions, and as I watched it recently, it seemed odd to see so many males together in one Woody Allen movie.  The scenes with Danny and Lou are also strong, making Forte one of the few male actors, along with Tony Roberts, who served as a good sidekick for Allen. According to Stephen Spignesi's excellent The Woody Allen Companion, the Lou Canova role almost went to Robert DeNiro. I don't know if he would've been any better than Forte. I'm certain he couldn't sing as well.
 Mia Farrow was asked once if it was difficult to watch the movies she made with Allen, in the wake of their controversial breakup. She replied that it wasn't an issue, because despite the problems she eventually had with Allen, the films were good and she was proud of her work. I was happy to hear her say that. Their artistic collaboration was actually the longest that Allen had with anyone, and under his direction, Farrow played a greater variety of characters than she had previously. He allowed her to show different sides of herself, at times beautiful, at times frumpy, at times touching. Tina was her brassiest role. She was a whirlwind, but nervous and vulnerable underneath. Woody and Mia couldn't last together. Perhaps Danny and Tina found a way.


Saturday, November 23, 2013


Every day is worse than the day before. So every time you see me, it's the worst day of my life. That's what Peter Gibbons says early in Office Space,    a movie that perfectly captures the absolute boredom and horror of the American workplace.  He says these words at a session with an "occupational hypnotist."  He's gone there because his dreary job has left him in a state that borders on clinical depression.  The hypnotist puts Peter into a calm state, but then falls over dead of a heart attack. Peter stays in this semi-hypnotized state for a while, which makes his job bearable. He even gets an unlikely promotion. When the hypnosis wears off, though, he's faced with a choice: stay in a job he despises, or do something about it.
There are details in this movie that are so correct that we'll never need another film about office life again.    Peter's situation is played for laughs, but there's something mildly tragic under the comedy, for Peter is just one of millions of Americans who are too smart for their jobs, yet not smart enough to do anything else.
I don't know how much time director/writer Mike Judge spent working in an office, but in between his classic animated shows (Beevis and Butt-Head; King of the Hill) he concocted this movie about industrial parks, theme restaurants, employee ennui, and the modern day frustration of corporate life. Office Space began as a simple cartoon snippet on Saturday Night Live, and as the late Roger Ebert pointed out in his initial review of the film, Judge treats the characters in Office Space "a little like cartoon creatures. That works. Nuances of behavior are not necessary, because in the cubicle world every personality trait is magnified, and the captives stagger forth like grotesques."
I know the place where Peter works. I know it so well that just thinking about it makes me want to punch somebody. The memory (and hate) is still so strong that I feel like I just swiped my access badge to enter the building. I remember the way the carpets smelled, and the night watchman who was waking up as the morning crew was coming to work, and how dull the work was, and how reams of computer printouts would be stacked on your desk, and how you were supposed to take a red highlighter and mark off "discrepancies," and how the only place we could go during our lunchbreak was to a dank restaurant up the road called The Ground Round, which I vaguely remember some comedian (Rosie O'Donnell?) describing as a Burger King with waitresses. It was either go to the Ground Round, or sit in the non-smoker's lounge, where fat old ladies gathered to eat cottage cheese.
Peter's spirit has been destroyed by working in such a place. I remember not even enjoying my weekends or holidays, because of the nagging sensation that I'd have to return to the office, and someone, as we see in Office Space, we'll say "It looks like someone has a case of the Mondays." Peter's neighbor (Diedrich Bader) works outdoors at a construction site. Peter asks if anyone has ever asked him if he has a case of the Mondays. "No man," Bader says. "I believe someone would get his ass kicked."
The movie is not only about the modern workplace. It's about trying to find yourself in an atmosphere that doesn't promote anything but robotic behaviour. How do you make the best of it? How do you maintain an ounce of your dignity when all around you are people without sense, happily carrying out their mundane tasks?  And how much of this frustration is brought on by our own egos and sense of self-importance? As one co-worker tells him, "I hate my job as much as you do, I just don't whine about it so much." Some of Peter's co-workers are dreamers. One wants to design board games. Another wants to create a software program that will rip off the company. Peter simply dreams of doing nothing. He asks the hypnotist, "Can you do something to  me so I think I've been fishing all day?" It's not that Peter is dumb or lazy; he's been exposed to so many stupid people in his daily life that he wishes only to hide in a cocoon. I'm also reminded of something Leo Tolstoy didn't quite say, that all jobs are horrible, but everyone hates their job in their own way.
Office Space was released in Feb. 1999, and despite positive reviews, barely made back it's 10-million dollar budget. By those numbers, it was a flop. It made a ton of money when it was released in Europe, where they must have loved seeing how us Americans drove ourselves mad by working so much. It also developed a cultish following through rentals and subsequent showings on cable television. At this point, it occupies a place in our memory somewhere between Uncle Buck and A Christmas Story.  It's one of those movies. Everyone I know has seen it. When a copy machine doesn't work, we instantly think of Peter and his friends taking their machine out and killing it with a baseball bat. People who came of age in the 1960s often claim The Graduate summed up life for them; for me, it's Office Space.
Peter is played by Ron Livingston, a good actor who shows the perfect mix of charisma and disdain. He might've have played a dashing TV detective in another era. When he talks two of his buddies into screwing the company, we believe they'd follow him. Also, not many actors could make staying in bed with the covers pulled up over his ears seem like a triumph, which he does in one scene as his answering machine loads up with messages from his boss. He rises, scratches himself, listens to a few messages, and then returns to bed. Rocky Balboa never had a victory so inspiring.(The sleepy Hawaiian music on the soundtrack helps.)
The movie is so good that even its villains seem likable, including Gary Cole as "Lumbergh," the drab boss ("Yeahhhhh...why don't we just say you'll be coming in this weekend...."). John C. McGinley and Paul Wilson are also great as "the two Bobs," a pair of charmless beancounters from corporate who have been sent to lay people off.  The scene where they meet Peter's buddy (David Herman), who happens to  have the same name as the singer Michael Bolton, is priceless. "You must really love his music!" gushes McGinley.  And then there's Drew (Gregg Pitts), the office dink. He's the one who makes "The Oh face." You know what I'm talking about. And don't forget the dreadful restaurant next door, which requires employees to wear "pieces of flair." Judge has directed other movies (Idiocracy, 2006; Extract, 2009), but he's never quite nailed the zeitgeist the way he did in Office Space. In his later movies, he seems to be more angry than funny, hitting his targets with a hammer. In Office Space, he's using a joy buzzer. There's not a single slack moment in the film, and not a single character you wish wasn't there.
Many of the film's best bits are classic, such as when Peter, who is still in a relaxed state after visiting the hypnotist, effortlessly asks out the lovely waitresses at Chotchkies, the local burger place (Jennifer Aniston). Or when Peter shows up at the office and uses a power drill to dismantle his cubicle. Or when Peter and his two pals, suddenly as slick as characters from Oceans 11, pull off their plot to screw the company. That the plan backfires is secondary, for it's enjoyable to see them go from being lowly office drones to steely-eyed conmen.
There's also Stephen Root as Milton, perhaps the film's most beloved character. There's a Milton in every office, the feeble older fellow who clings to his job even though he's clueless. Milton had actually been layed off years earlier, but because of clerical error he never got the memo. He continues coming in and continues to collect a paycheck. Lumbergh puts him in smaller and smaller cubicles, until there's barely enough room for Milton, his radio, and his favorite Swingline stapler. Yet, it's Milton, not Peter, who strikes the final blow against the company, freeing everyone from their shackles and allowing Peter to finally seek work elsewhere. Peter ends up working construction with his neighbor. Is he happier?  I'd like to think he is.
Office Space records a world that still exists, although some aspects of it belong to an earlier era. Peter and his co-workers stress over a job that involves preparing computer programs for the year 2000, when many feared the impending Y2K phenomenon. The hip hop music on the soundtrack, although still effective while watching the movie, seems to belong to the past, too. And fifteen years after the film was made, office life has become more Orwellian, with your every move recorded by a video camera or your computer. But otherwise, the drill is the same. Computers may be smaller and sleeker now, but most office jobs are still slow death sentences.  The people you work with are still assholes.

Friday, November 22, 2013

THE CANDIDATE (1964) is back!!!

Long lost political drama is now available on DVD...

Mamie Van Doren is hot, but Ted Knight steals the show...


 The Candidate is a film thought to be lost for decades. Even its star, Mamie Van Doren, claimed she'd never seen it.

Van Doren's fans and biographers have often speculated that a 1964 movie about a blond bombshell and a presidential candidate might have something to do with the alleged affair involving Marilyn Monroe and John F. Kennedy. Actually, the film was based on a seedy story involving Secretary of the Senate Bobby Baker, an advisor to Lyndon Johnson who was investigated in 1963 for claims of arranging sexual favors in exchange for votes and government contracts.

The film came at the right time for Van Doren, for by 1964 her career was entirely overshadowed by her well-publicized love life, especially her high profile romance and breakup with Los Angeles pitcher Bo Bolinsky. Another story from that year involved Van Doren dropping in at L.A.'s Whiskey a Go-Go  only to be doused by a drink thrown by Beatle George Harrison. The act wasn't malicious; the skinny moptop had been  aiming at a pesky reporter when Van Doren was caught in the crossfire. But if ever there was needed a sad symbol of the changing times, one couldn't do better than a soaked Van Doren. She was in her 30s, strictly a 1950s phenom; The Beatles were  giving a new generation tips on how to have fun.

Still, Van Doren was making a valiant effort to keep her career going. She’d been in three films that year, the third of which was The Candidate. In her 1987 autobiography she wrote, “It was a good script and I was excited about doing a role that was a departure for me. I played a senator’s secretary who was a Washington party girl working her way up, rather than the all-too typical dumb blond.”

Schlockmeister Maurice Duke was producing. A notorious promoter of grade Z fare, Duke began his career at Monogram in the 1940s, helming a series of high school comedies usually starring the lovely Noel Neill (who later went on to play Lois Lane in the 1950s Superman TV show). Duke's lowpoint may have been Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla (1952), which was just as dumb as it sounds. (Some would argue that Duke's worst was The Atomic Kid, where Mickey Rooney became radioactive and helped the FBI break an enemy spy ring, but schlock is in the eye of the beholder, eh?) After producing films for over-the-hill stars Sabu and Louis Prima, Duke set his sights on Van Doren for The Candidate. She was just Duke's type - like Lugosi, Rooney, Sabu, and Prima, her popularity was fading and she was looking for work.

The directing task was given to Robert Angus, a 44-year-old whose claim to fame was producing 25 episodes of The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet a decade earlier. He hadn't worked much since. Script duties were given to first time screenwriters Joyce Ann Miller and Quentin Vale. Duke was assembling his typical team: the has-been star; the out of work TV journeyman; the neophyte writers.  Yet, Stanley Cortez was brought in as cinematographer, a man with an astounding list of credits including Night of the Hunter (1955), The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) and Shock Corridor (1963).  The film was also given an impressive be-bopping score by Steve Karmen, who had scored a handful of teen gang films and would later write the famous beer jingle, "When You Say Budweiser, You've Said it All." If nothing else, the movie was going to look and sound good. 

Duke, of course, was going to make sure everyone knew The Candidate was coming, announcing it with the aplomb of a forecaster predicting a hurricane. Duke doubled up on the sex appeal by casting former Playboy model June Wilkinson in a role, and titillated the press with talk of nude scenes and champagne baths being shot for the film's European distribution.

"The Europeans are far more advanced than we are when it comes to watching films," Duke said. "But I predict in a few years the American audience will be more accepting of this type of material."
Van Doren and Wilkinson also gave interviews talking about nudity in films, and topless beaches. They were playing their part in Duke's plan. Since both had posed in Playboy, speculation grew that they would be showing some skin in The Candidate.
Another rush of publicity involved a kissing scene between Van Doren and Eric Mason, the actor playing Baker's stand-in, "Buddy Parker." Duke boasted it was the longest screen kiss in history. Van Doren did stick her tongue in Mason’s ear, which may have been a Hollywood first.

Despite Van Doren's adventurous tongue, The Candidate didn’t stand a chance upon its Oct. 1964 release. Competing with Goldfinger, A Fistful of Dollars, and The Longest Day, a melodramatic tale about a Washington scandal was doomed.  What little press it received was mostly negative. The Boston Globe mentioned the prolonged kissing scene and deemed the film "tasteless," warning readers that The Candidate was appearing at the local Capri theater, where Russ Meyer's Lorna, a  scandalous film with plenty of sex and nudity, had just played.

Ironically, The Candidate comes off now as a mild, at times solemn courtroom drama. Told in flashback, we learn about Buddy Parker and his ruthless climb to the top of the Washington ladder. With the help of his secretary/girlfriend (Van Doren), Parker secures beautiful young women to "entertain" D.C. bigshots. As played by Mason, Parker is a cynical go-getter. But the film never feels like a '60s film. Somehow, Mason scowls his lines like a character from a 1930s Clifford Odetts drama, constantly talking about how a person has to kick and punch his way to success, and not care about who he hurts. The story doesn't kick in until we meet Frank Carlton (Ted Knight), a shy senator who falls hard for one of the girls (Wilkinson). A rather stiff and conservative sort, Carlton           comes undone by Wilkinson's charms.

Ted Knight is The Candidate (1964)

Knight, who had only been in a handful of movies, walks away with The Candidate. As the other actors chew the scenery, he underplays his character. He's charming enough to be a politician, but also believable as a man who has never been close to anything resembling love. He's earnest as a schoolboy when he laments to Parker that he'd always been clumsy around women. He  seems to be thinking all the time, carefully weighing his actions, but for all of his thought and consideration, he continuously makes the wrong choices. We watch in sympathy as he walks directly into this doomed relationship.  Parker is eventually punished for his actions - the real Bobby Baker resigned from his post the month The Candidate was released - but it's Knight we remember. It's almost impossible to fathom that the Knight of The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Caddyshack is the same Knight playing Senator Carlton.
The Candidate spent a few years as a part of drive-in double features, billed alternately as Party Girls for The Candidate, and Playmates for the Candidate, usually matched with something far more risqué.  There was an explosion of fleshy films in the next few years, and by the time The Candidate hit the screens, it was tame enough to serve as an opening act, but not a main feature.

Duke made news briefly in 1973 when he announced his plans to rerelease his movie on the heals of a new Warner Bros. film bearing the same name starring Robert Redford.  Duke backed off when Warner Bros. threatened him with legal action, including a half-million dollar lawsuit.
The Candidate, now available from Vinegar Syndrome  (on a double bill with a little known noir Johnny Gunman) and shown on various video streaming services such as,   has a few good things going for it, including: reasonably good dramatic performances from Van Doren, Wilkinson, and Mason; a bizarro party scene where Washington insiders dance while wearing vintage horror movie masks ("See the wild sex parties that rocked the nation's capital!" roared the trailer, although the scene feels more like Laugh-In meets Famous Monsters of Filmland); and of course, a surprisingly moving performance from Ted Knight.

Ultimately, though, the film might best be remembered as Maurice Duke's attempt to go legitimate. He was a scrapper, a survivor of childhood polio who entered show business and found a niche for himself. His career was one of flops and misfires -- he once produced a TV series for Mickey Rooney where the Mick played a teenager working in an office building. That Rooney was in his late 30s and had already been through several ugly divorces didn't seem to phase Duke -- the show was canceled quickly, and Duke soldiered on, knowing that all he needed was a has-been willing to work cheap and a story he could exploit. He was a typical small-time producer of the era, a fast-talker who never  found the right idea that would put him into the big time. The Candidate was his swing for the fences. He missed.


Monday, November 18, 2013


Spellbinding new documentary tells tragic story of iconic model...

Graphic details told in her own voice...

Many years after her reign as the most popular pin up model of the 1950s, Bettie Page grabbed a kitchen knife and marched her husband and her three step-children into the living room of their home where a large portrait of Jesus was hanging.  With a glazed look in her eye, she told the family that they'd better believe in God, or else she was going to "cut their guts out." Her husband managed to slip away and call the police; Bettie went away peacefully.

A short time later, she attacked her landlady with a knife. They grappled; blood was drawn. This time Bettie was taken away in a squad car.

It's a great credit to director Mark Mori that these sinister events are not the centerpiece of his  excellent documentary Bettie Page Reveals All. Instead, the darker aspects of Page's life are told in an almost melancholy way, as if the great unhappiness in her past would inevitably lead to violence.   The irony of Page's story is that while her personal life crumbled, her old photos began making a comeback. Comic book artist Dave Stevens began using her likeness in his magazine, The Rocketeer, and suddenly, decades after she'd been Playboy's Miss January of 1955, she was hot again. Meanwhile, unknown to her new fans, she was undergoing shock treatments and taking large doses of Thorazine to stop the voices in her head.

When Page was released after eight years at Patton State Hospital, she lived quietly on the outskirts of LA. She had a vague idea that a  new cult of fans were interested in  her, but having grown older and heavier, she preferred to remain in the shadows. The details of her life remained hazy, although there were a couple of books published, a 1998 E! True Hollywood Story episode, and Mary Harron's 2005 unsatisfying feature The Notorious Bettie Page. After viewing Bettie Page Reveals All  tonight as part of the Cape Ann Film Festival, I can't imagine a more definitive statement on Bettie Page.
Mori's coup is that Page herself agreed to take part in the project, not onscreen, but as the narrator. While an endless loop of her best cheesecake poses flood the screen, Page's tired old voice tells a painful story of childhood molestation, rape, beatings, bad marriages, and her eventual nervous breakdown. That she giggles through much of it takes some of the edge off. (Who would imagine that Page's laugh would be a high pitched, hillbilly cackle?) Her life was difficult, but she had fun when she could, and she loved being sexy; she tells her story in such a matter of fact manner that you can't help but like her, even if she does sound like an old Southern spinster.

Page, who died in 2008, was a beautiful woman with jet black hair and a gorgeous figure. Her eyes suggested mischief, and danger; in some photos she looks to be the embodiment of female carnality, as if she might eat a man whole and spit the hair out. In others, she's playful and joyous, not far removed from the little Tennessee girl who used to pose in her front yard like the movie stars she saw in magazines. Mori does a smart thing early in the film, immediately having Page  talk about her father molesting her and her sisters. I heard some people in the audience gasp at her frankness, but Mori was wise to quickly establish that his movie isn't a fun nostalgia piece, and that the skeletons in Bettie's closet are going to rattle.

 There are plenty of talking heads in the movie, ranging from Hugh Hefner to Mamie Van Doren, to the photographers who used to shoot pictures of Bettie as part of an underground camera club. For all of their talk, we don't learn much, just that Bettie was easy to work with, and friendly to the photographers. Some ex-husbands and boyfriends are interviewed, too, but all we learn from them is that she was a fun, sexy woman who got a little weird when it came to religion.

Page's modern fandom is well represented, but sometimes the adoration of Page gets a bit gross, particularly when middle aged drag queens get in on the act. Mori brings us into one event where nearly everyone is in some sort of Bettie Page costume, paying tribute to their idol. She gave them plenty of styles to borrow from, everything from her refreshing country girl look, to her high-booted dominatrix look. As far as I know, though, none  come dressed as Bettie the knife wielding religious nut. Still, the admirers prove only that a lot of women wish they looked like her. None of them do.

Fortunately, Page's narrative is strong enough to give us the clear picture that no one else has been able to capture. In her voice I heard occasional sadness, humor, and anger. She regretted a series of nudes she posed for (while drunk on blackberry brandy), but she never minded her bondage photo sessions, shot discreetly in the attic of Irving Klaw's Movie Star News store in New York. Some of the more controversial photos landed Klaw in court, and Page was called to testify for Senator Estes Kefauver's war on pornography.  "No one was getting hurt," she says, sounding a bit naive, "so I couldn't see what was wrong with it."

Her infamous bondage photos seem playful in retrospect, but there is still a jolt upon seeing them. There's one where she's suspended in the air with a ball-gag in her mouth that is genuinely unsettling, as are her horrified expressions in photos where she's being "punished." Irving Klaw's sister  Paula describes how Page "acted" in these shots, giving her poses a sense of realism beyond the usual stag shots of the day. This is why Page's photos sold so well to customers and earned her the nickname "The Dark Angel." Still, it's jarring to see the terror in her eyes, especially in light of what we've learned about her childhood. We also learn of a case where a young man died, allegedly trying to imitate something he'd seen in one of her bondage photos, proof that pervs in the 1950s were just as dumb as they are now.

Page laughs at the idea of  being "the queen of bondage," and seems more impressed that the clientele for her S&M photos included doctors and lawyers. One of the scenes was so ridiculous that she still laughs about it decades later: a customer wanted her to dress as a horse. "How," she says, "would he even know it's me in the costume?"

Some people in the movie try to paint Page as an influence on women's liberation and the sexual revolution of the 1960s. That's a bit of a stretch, although one of her outfits - a pair of rotary phone dials placed over her nipples - reminded me of something  Lady Gaga might wear. But as Page prattled on about how much she loved sex, I could hear people in the audience, particularly women, groaning as if to say enough is enough.  Either they were tired of hearing this 83-year-old woman talk about her lovers, or they objected to her taste in men. Aside from a brief affair with a famous watch designer, her romantic partners were surprisingly lowbrow. "The one part of my life where I was stupid was in my relationships with men," she says. Agreed.

As difficult as it is to reconcile the gorgeous woman on the screen with the little old hillbilly voice doing the narration, it works to crush our notions about image versus reality.There has always been an otherworldly quality about "Bettie Page" that made it difficult to imagine her  working as a secretary (which she did for a while) or handing out leaflets for Billy Graham's crusade (which she also did) or getting married to some palooka (see above). It's always tempting to think of her as a cartoon character, like Sheena the Jungle Girl or Wonder Woman.  Now, when I see those  old pictures of Bettie Page, I'll  know that this girl  had wanted to be valedictorian of her high school class, and that 65 years later she still lamented coming in second place. 

I'll also remember how sad she sounded when she thought back to when she decided to retire from modeling. She'd been happiest in front of a camera, "playing to it like it was my boyfriend." She refused to be photographed in her old age, preferring to be remembered as she was in her photos. Her wish has been granted. For most of us, she remains an image, rather than a person.

Sunday, November 17, 2013


Bill Watterson's Calvin and Hobbes comic strip came along at just the right time. Doonesbury was beginning to feel like a relic from the 1970s, while bizarre '80s strips like The Far Side were already wearing thin. What the country needed was a new version of Peanuts, and Watterson's lovable little strip, which debuted in 1985, fit the bill perfectly. Joel Allen Schroeder's Dear Mr Watterson  makes it clear that the strip was not only timely, but has transcended its era.

For a decade this deceptively simple saga of a rambunctious boy and his loyal tiger friend won a worldwide audience and enough awards to make the strip feel like a rarity: it was both critically acclaimed and commercially viable. It was funny, smart, beautifully drawn, and occasionally, when Watterson clued you in that Hobbes was really just a stuffed toy, poignant. (I remember feeling quite down the first time I read a strip where Hobbes' true state was revealed, and then sort of giddy every time thereafter, as if I was the only one in on the secret.)  Watterson closed shop unexpectedly in 1995, putting an end to the strip and going into a JD Salinger type of seclusion. The "funnies" have never been the same.
Schroeder's film is a labor of love that had to be made eventually, and after seeing it I can only wonder why it took so long for someone to try it. Schroeder, a lifelong fan of the strip, approaches this documentary as only a beginner with a ton of enthusiasm would: he gets as many people as possible to praise the great strip, visits Watterson's hometown of Chagrin Falls, Ohio, to point out that the scenery resembles some of what we saw in Watterson's drawings, and even visits a cartoon museum where Watterson's original artwork is stored.  Schroeder fawns over certain old panels as if he's cherishing the Holy Grail.

He rounds up several other cartoon artists, such as Berk Breathed of Bloom County fame, to pay their own tributes to Watterson. Schroeder isn't a historian, but he's smart enough to link Calvin and Hobbes to earlier strips, such as Pogo and Little Nemo,  and it's to his credit that he gives the older strips plenty of coverage. It's also kind of bittersweet to realize how much the comic strip genre has changed, and how Calvin and Hobbes may well be remembered as the last of the great ones, the final link in a chain going back a century to Krazy Kat
Still, there is bit too much glowing in these tributes. Schroeder had the chutzpah to make the film, but lacks the journalistic nature to make it a good one. After 10 or 12 minutes, a monotony sets in. Rather than having different people explain different aspects of Watterson's art, Schroeder just films one person after another saying basically the same thing; that Watterson was awesome, that he was beloved, and that he raised the bar for other comic strip artists. There's also the tired old argument about whether comic strips should be considered "art" or not.  Instead of wasting time with that banal old saw, he should have found something else to focus on. For instance, very little attention, if any, is paid to Watterson as a person. What made him tick? Wasn't there a single old friend or teacher around who could have shed some light on the subject? All we learn is that Watterson was a great talent who stuck to his principals. We knew that going in.
Although Watterson refuses to give autographs or be photographed, and wasn't likely to take part in this documentary, he's not quite the Howard Hughes character Schroeder would lead you to believe. Watterson occasionally grants an interview,  and as recently as this month he spoke with Mental Floss magazine, saying the strip "created a level of attention and expectation that I don't know how to process."
He didn't license his work for commercial endeavours, which is why you've never seen a Calvin and Hobbes lunchbox or plush toy. As Schroeder's film suggests, this avoidance of commercialism could very well be why the strip maintains such a powerful grip among its followers. Watterson instinctively knew that an influx of toys and games would water down his product. His message may be, Pay attention to the comic strip, because all you need to know is in the panels, not in a toy.

Dear Mr Watterson may not be the ultimate word on a  late 20th century phenom, but it does have a quiet charm, and Schroeder's reverence for the subject is admirable. As the movie rolled on, it became apparent that nearly every comic strip artist working today owes a little something to Watterson. They know it, too, and don't hide it. Look at any comics page, if you can find one. You'll see an explosion of Watterson wannabes. The impression I get is that they're all sort of hoping Watterson comes out of seclusion someday, just to acknowledge them, as if he's an absentee father who has sired dozens of ink stained imitators.
If you wondered what Jason Sudeikis would do once he left Saturday Night Live, the answer can be found in We're The Millers. He's taking the roles that once would've been Dane Cook's.

Sudeikis plays David Clark, an underachieving pot dealer who gets involved in smuggling "a smidge" of marijuana over the Mexican border. To avoid suspicion, he creates a makeshift family out of the aging stripper next door (Jennifer Aniston), a nerdy kid (Kenny Rossmore) and a mouthy runaway (Emma Roberts).  The bad news first: it took four writers to put this one together, and it shows in the meandering script. What starts out as an amusing situation comedy involving this oddball family arrangement turns into a generic modern "action- comedy" involving drug dealers. In the old days, it would've been the mafia, you see, but that's given way to a new stereotype: Mexican drug lords.

Still, the unwieldy story provides some genuine laughs. Sudeikis and Aniston can't help but be funny and likable, and they have some surprisingly strong chemistry onscreen, while Nick Offerman and Kathryn Hahn are excellent as a couple of would-be swingers the "family" meets on the road. The real scene stealer, though, is Kenny Rossmore as Sudeikis' oblivious "son."  Not only does he overcome a grotesque spider bite, he enjoys a scene with his fake mom and fake sister that would have pleased Sigmund Freud.

Although We're The Millers is a pleasant enough way to kill an evening, here's hoping Sudeikis doesn't get too comfortable in these formula comedies. He's already been in a few, including Hall Pass, Horrible Bosses, and The Campaign. I think he's better than these movies. He exudes an intelligence that needs to be tapped into by directors and screenwriters. There are probably a dozen more screenplays drifting around Hollywood that have been turned down by the likes of Steve Carell, Vince Vaughn, and Owen Wilson. Sudeikis doesn't need their sloppy rejects. Give them to Ashton Kutcher. On the other hand, it's probably good that I'm not Sudeikis' agent. Horrible Bosses II is already in production, and We're The Millers was an even bigger box office hit than that one. We'll probably get a repeat of the Miller "clan" before we see Sudeikis in a film worthy of his talents. In the meantime, I'll be patient, because I like the guy.



Thursday, November 14, 2013


Greta Gerwig: Frances Ha

There was something about the trailers last spring that made Frances Ha seem an obvious favorite to become this year's indy gorilla. It looked vibrant, idiosyncratic, yet mysterious enough for people to wonder what the hell it was all about. Plus, Greta Gerwig has been on the brink of a type of stardom for a while.

While Frances Ha didn't score to the degree of a Little Miss Sunshine or Juno, it indeed turned out to be the year's indy darling, with Gerwig proving that she's the text message era's Parker Posey (minus the mischievous spark). Director Noah Baumbach wanted to ape the techniques of French New Wave films of the 1960s, but with modern New York characters. Fair enough - the broke and the beautiful have always been popular subjects -  but in the end, despite the artsy flourishes, despite that memorable scene of Frances running down the street as if being propelled by the David Bowie music on the soundtrack,  and despite the occasional crumb of wit, Frances Ha was just another story of arrested development. The key crisis of the current generation appears to be a fear of growing up.
Frances (Gerwig) is 27, and enjoying a non-romantic love affair with her roommate, Sophie (Mickey Sumner). They live an idyllic life of doing nothing,  play-fighting in the park,  reading to each other, nuzzling on each other's shoulders. They're slightly delusional, too; Sophie doesn't read, but imagines herself becoming a famous publisher; Frances falls down a lot and walks like a man, but thinks she has a future as a dancer. Their little life together is sort of cute, but annoying, like a Lhasa Apso.
Sophie eventually crushes their dream world by accepting another friend's offer to live together in an upscale Tribeca apartment. Frances is destroyed by Sophie's moving out, and the rest of the film follows poor Frances as she tries to carry on without her best friend.
She tries various things: she moves in with some hipster boys who mean well, but can never replace Sophie; she visits her parents in Sacramento; she takes an impulsive trip to Paris (if Baumbach had aped Italian movies, would she have gone to Rome?); she takes odd jobs; she makes new friends; she gets drunk; she wanders and flails. Sophie, meanwhile, gets married and moves to Japan. Sophie and Frances will eventually reunite, but not in the way Frances had hoped. The film meanders to a conclusion of sorts, with Frances finally taking a step towards maturity, and I'll admit, the final scene where the title of the movie is explained is rather pretty.

Gerwig, who co-wrote the script with Baumbach, saves the film. She has a clumsy cuteness about her, and through her we sense that Frances has a big heart. The scene where she waves goodbye to her parents on an airport escalator is touching, and far more meaningful than all of the cheesy declarations of love she dumps on Sophie. Still, her constant self-pity is hard to take, and she isn't someone I'd always want to be around. As Sophie, Sumner is rather prickly, and for the life of me I can't see why Frances adores her. Frances likes to say,"We're the same person with different hair," but Sophie never displays any of the redeeming qualities that we see in Frances. Sophie is the sort of twit who enters an apartment, looks at the furniture, and says, "This apartment is too aware of itself." Fortunately, the movie is only 90 minutes long, as if Baumbach and Gerwig know such pompous airheads couldn't sustain a longer film.

There are some interesting touches, though. When running to a restaurant to meet one of her friends, Frances takes a nasty tumble on the sidewalk. We don't see the actual impact, but when she arrives at the restaurant, her friend notices she's bleeding. Frances hadn't even noticed. The city, you see, is beating the hell out of her and she's too self-absorbed to realize it. It's a nice touch. The film has a few of these. But not enough to make a meal. Once it ended, I was barely able to remember how it began. I had to consult another review to refresh my memory, and then, yes, I remembered that Frances had a boyfriend at the film's beginning, a petulant wimp who was angry with her because she wouldn't buy him a cat, or something. 

Frances Ha is also a poor argument for shooting in black and white,  at times resembling a child's black crayon drawing, smudged into blurs. I don't have to list the great black and white films of the past, and it's not fair to compare Baumbach to the great directors who used black and white, but he's the one who entered the arena.  Baumbach may also have accomplished a first: he made Paris look boring. Also, the New York shown in Frances Ha comes off as a dull, very expensive place that drains one while giving nothing in return. Not only did I not see why Frances loved Sophie, I didn't see why she loved New York.

In a fawning essay that accompanies the Criterion disc, playwright Annie Baker notes that the film has finally captured how young people talk these days. I don't know if this is true or not, but if it is, then young people these days don't sound like much of anything, The actors here, both male and female, all look like puppies at the dog pound, all self-consciously cute, hoping you'll be impressed enough by one of their acerbic comments to take one of them home.  They also seem terribly frightened of everything, particularly Frances, whose tunnel vision is such that the worst thing she can imagine is a future without Sophie to cuddle with. The others cling to dreams involving some small corner of show business. One of Frances' male roommates dreams of writing for Saturday Night Live, then talks himself out of it because the show isn't as good as it used to be. Instead, he resolves to write Gremlins III. This is funny, I guess, but such character quirks might better suit a short story, not a feature film. 
At least Frances seems comfortable at the film's end. As she guides a bunch of young dancers through her own choreography, she appears to grow more wise before our eyes, relieved that maturity was not as painful or difficult as she may have believed, and proving there may still be hope for the insipid.

Another recent movie where a woman loses everything and has to figure out where she belongs is Girl Most Likely. Kristen Wiig plays Imogene, a failed New york writer  who attempts suicide after losing her job and her boyfriend. The punchline is that the hospital  leaves her in the care of her mother, a rather tough looking New Jersyite played by Annette Bening.  Imogene hates the idea so much that the doctors have to give her tranquilizers to calm her down. When she comes to, she's in a casino parking lot while her mother is inside gambling.  The two of them trying to get along would be enough for a movie, but Girl Most Likely has at least three or four more plots to come, as if the filmmakers didn't trust any of them enough on their own.

Imogene is taken back to her hometown of Ocean City NJ, which she abhors, and learns that her mother has rented her old room to a boarder, which means she'll have to sleep in the basement. Imogene strikes up a romance with the boarder, even though he's a lot younger than she is and performs in a Backstreet Boys cover band. Mom also has a boyfriend, a weird character known as "The Bouche," (played by Matt Dillon as if he's reviving his role from Something About Mary). Imogene also has a brother who is a bit of a simpleton, and to top things off, she learns that the father she always thought was dead is actually still alive. Is this too much? You bet it is. The movie feels like an overstuffed Italian sub with everything on it.

Quite a bit of Girl Most Likely feels like recycled bits from other movies. Dillon is the sort of guy who tells what seem like lies about being in the CIA, but turns out to be an actual CIA operative. Bening is the usual mother with a heart of gold, despite her gambling. Wiig, not as animated as usual, seems to redo her shtick from Bridesmaids, including a stint in a jail cell, and an obligatory drunk scene. Still, Wiig is a likable actress, and even though you can see the punches long before they're thrown, it's a likable movie. You know it will end up with Wiig learning to love her wacky family, and that no one is going to get hurt.

The directing team of Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini has brought us some very good movies in the past, including   American Splendor (2003) and HBO's Cinema Verite (2011). I don't know how their partnership works, but they're one of Hollywood's unheralded talents. Even a slight misfire like Girl Most Likely is watchable.  Plus, Blondie is on the soundtrack, which always makes me happy.