Archive for June 2002

Cho Zen: I’m the One That I Want and Notorious C.H.O.

June 28, 2002

margaret-cho-im-the-one-that-i-wantIf you’re going on the Margaret Cho ride, go for the full immersion — rent I’m the One That I Want (2000) and Notorious C.H.O. (2002) and watch them back-to-back if you can. The two pieces click together organically: I’m the One is about Cho finding her footing as a comedian and a person, and Notorious finds her talking about how amusingly difficult it is to keep her footing. The only stand-up since Richard Pryor to film and theatrically release two concerts within as many years, Cho is obviously making up for lost time. Her short-lived sitcom All-American Girl, bitingly and sadly referenced at length in I’m the One, made her miserable, and its failure and cancellation even more so, but in retrospect that flame-out was the best thing that could’ve happened to her. She needed to fail, and burn through the shame and despair, before collecting herself and presenting the results. (Besides, I can think of no more dismal fate than Cho still plugging away on that show eight years later, had it been successful.) Like a lot of great comedy, I’m the One rises from the ashes of genuine pain while still being funny as fuck.

Cho, an openly bisexual woman (after her first same-sex tryst, she agonized over the “gay or straight” question before arriving at the conclusion that “I’m just slutty. Where’s my parade?”), enjoys perhaps the largest mixed-whatever group of avid fans any entertainer has ever claimed. Sure, divas like Cher and Bette Midler appeal to gay men, and there are the standbys Melissa Etheridge, k.d. lang and Ani Difranco for the lesbians; but Cho goes over big with both gay men and women, plus straight women, straight men, and transgendered of all stripes. Born in 1968, Cho may well be the perfect comedian for a generation of tentative adults who were toddlers when the sexual revolution was peaking and who had the spectre of AIDS to contend with once they finally got old enough to get jiggy. Cho’s take on sex can best be summed up as amiably befuddled inclusiveness. She’s done just about everything, and isn’t shy about talking about it to hundreds of strangers, yet even her rawest material somehow doesn’t come across as sleazy or raunchy — there’s an innocence to it, a sense of absurdist awe at the scenarios she (“Can you believe it’s me in this situation?” her expression always says) has found herself in.

In I’m the One, shot at a San Francisco theater she’d always wanted to play, Cho’s this-is-it comeback aura is palpable; the material has been honed, every squinchy-faced double-take polished for maximum effect. She knows her audience: she starts with a wicked riff on fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld, then wastes no time playing to her loving queer following. Cynics may say that Cho, who often says that her trials on her sitcom were based on her desperately wanting to be accepted, is angling for acceptance among the societally unaccepted; but Cho has been steeped in gay culture since childhood, when her parents ran a bookstore on Castro Street and two of her best friends from school were budding drag queens. If she’s playing to her audience a bit, it’s only because she’s relieved to have found one she can truly call her own. Besides, straight viewers can take comfort in the fact that after the first half hour or so, Cho moves on to more personal matters. (She satirizes this in Notorious when she riffs on her troubles with orgasms and depicts her gay male listeners as being imperiously uninterested.)

Quentin Tarantino, who once dated Cho and appeared on her show, makes a cameo of sorts in I’m the One: Cho does a reasonably accurate impression of him on the phone to her, bitching her out because she’s allowed the network to take her voice away. Typical: Hollywood hires you for the sound of your voice, then tries to get you to take voice lessons. Cho was told she wasn’t Asian enough, then that she was too Asian; she was told she was too fat for TV (“I’m a giant face taking over America!” she shrieks). It all led to a self-destructive spiral of drugs, booze, and promiscuity — the latter isn’t bad, she seems to say, as long as it doesn’t come out of self-hatred. After a particularly sordid night, Cho is moved to exclaim, “What the fuck kind of Mötley Crüe Behind the Music shit is this??” It took her a while, and months on the road here and abroad fine-tuning her act, but the result is its own revenge on Hollywood: Lines around the block, bright-eyed fans speaking of Cho as if she were some sort of self-actualizing queer guru (something I hope she doesn’t start to believe), and the acceptance she always wanted, on her terms.

If titles tell us anything, I’m the One That I Want is Cho learning to love herself, while Notorious C.H.O. is her learning to love her sluthood. A hefty portion of Notorious is devoted to Cho giving herself the Slut Pride parade she wished for in the first film. No matter what she says, though — whether talking about why gay men have great bodies (“You gotta suck cock to get those abs”) or the difficulties of cunnilingus (“Eating pussy is a mess; you need a Wet-Nap after”) — she has a way of taking the raunch out of it by cocking her head sweetly and grinning. Her sex material is more self-confident here, and now and then she gets herself up into a full roar (“If you don’t like the way I look when you’re fucking me,” she says, “MAYBE YOU SHOULDN’T BE FUCKING ME!”) that would do Courtney Love proud. Even her opening bit about Ground Zero (the concert was filmed in Seattle a couple of months after 9/11) segues into a riff on fellatio.

Cho is diabolically funny when she’s dirty (she has a fall-down-hilarious one-liner about S&M people, she discusses her one experience with fisting, and she comes up with a priceless bit on an overdue porn video), but many folks (myself included) eagerly look forward to the moments — she rations them sparingly, and wisely doesn’t overwork them — when she works completely clean; that is, when she brings her mom into the act. Cho’s impressions of her mom are legendary among fans, and for good reason: she becomes her mother, twisting her face into an expression of stern bemusement, braying out syllables in halting Korean English. It’s done with profound affection, of course, which is one reason that the subject of this parody finds it funny and enjoys the “fame” of being imitated on stage. (Judging from what we see of Cho’s parents, in interview segments at the beginning of Notorious and in the deleted scenes on the DVD, they’re the coolest parents alive.) Cho’s late-inning riff in I’m the One on her mom looking at gay porn books will go down in comedy history in some way, and Notorious ends with an account of her mom riding a camel on vacation in Israel (“since she’s such a Jew”) that has the momentum and building details of vintage Richard Pryor. The Mom parts of Cho’s act would appeal to anyone, even your grandma, yet retain every bit of Cho’s wit. By the end of the two films, you almost feel you know the senior Cho better than you know the performer. Cho herself is still in the process of getting to know the performer; let’s hope we get many more films and albums in which to learn along with her.

Dahmer

June 21, 2002

I’m still waiting¹ for Jeremy Renner to be given the chance to build on the promise he shows in Dahmer, a quietly incisive portrait of the notorious serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer. Looking at times uncannily like a young Kevin Spacey (and at others, particularly at his most mischievous, like Malcolm McDowell circa Clockwork Orange and O Lucky Man!), Renner gets inside Dahmer and, upsettingly, takes us with him. He’s as affecting as the teenage Dahmer furtively beginning his path to damnation as he is haunting as the older Dahmer beyond redemption (and knowing it). At all times, though, he also makes Dahmer smart enough to be hellishly manipulative — he may look dazed and passive, but the bastard thinks fast on his feet, the better to hoodwink those around him (as well as his unsuspecting victims). There’s a chilling scene wherein he fools some cops into releasing an escaped victim back into his custody (which really happened), while two black women who see Dahmer for what he is protest in vain. The scene speaks volumes about police racism (the victim is Asian, too) without ever preaching.

Dahmer has come in for some criticism because it barely shows the full horror of what Dahmer did. To some extent, that’s true. Writer-director David Jacobson most likely assumes we already know the ghastly details, and wants to come at the story from a different angle. Making it more difficult for himself, Jacobson doesn’t indulge in any blame-the-parents-for-the-psycho — indeed, Dahmer’s dad (Bruce Davison) is depicted as a decent man frustrated by being locked out of major parts of his son’s life. Jacobson doesn’t dabble in much analysis, either: Dahmer is what he is. But what he is, aside from the monster we know from the headlines, is a human being. And that’s not to excuse his actions remotely — we need to understand that people like Dahmer don’t land here from another planet; they are carbon-based life forms like the rest of us, and simply holding them at arm’s length as “monsters” won’t prevent the development (or aid the detection) of future Dahmers.

This isn’t a horror movie so much as a — sorry — psychodrama. There’s scarcely any bloodshed, and even the most grisly segment — Dahmer slitting open a victim’s belly and fishing around inside — is muted by unfolding in a red-lighted bedroom. Jacobson doesn’t want you to recoil; he wants you to see the loathsome acts in terms of the meaning they have for Dahmer. Perhaps also he wants you to see them as antiseptically as Dahmer possibly forced himself to see them.

What’s the point of soft-pedaling the acts of a monster? Well, showing it in full gorehound glory would be horribly insensitive to the friends and family of Dahmer’s real-life victims (even though the film admits upfront that it’s fictionalized) and carry the unpalatable side effect of being a gross-out fun video for sickos. It should be said that Jacobson humanizes the victims — especially “Rodney” (Artel Kayaru), the victim who got away — so that the focus of the film becomes Dahmer’s highly damaged mode of interaction with his prey. If you want a different take on Dahmer, there’s always 1993’s The Secret Life — Jeffrey Dahmer, written by and starring Carl Crew, and released on video not long before Dahmer was killed in prison.

Worth a look, if only for Renner’s complex performance, but also for Jacobson’s artful (yet never artsy) direction. It’s a fine addition to the small but growing subgenre of Serious Serial-Killer Movies. And as long as humanity is fascinated by such people (i.e., forever), there will be movies made about them, so they may as well be soberly intentioned and brilliantly acted.

¹Not any more, of course. It took a few years, but when Renner finally got his due for The Hurt Locker, I enjoyed knowing that I’d spotted his talent before most anyone else.

American Psycho 2

June 18, 2002

American Psycho 2 is an execrable, in-name-only “sequel” to the excellent 2000 adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’ controversial novel. “If they’re not careful,” Ellis sighed when the project was first announced, “they could end up with something like the Pink Panther movies.” Besides, Ellis had already written his own follow-up — an “email show” to coincide with the first film’s release. Curious parties may visit here to read the archived AmPsych2000. It’s pretty interesting for fans of the original book/movie — it includes Patrick Bateman’s email therapy sessions, and ends with Bateman watching a prankishly recognizable in-flight movie.

American Psycho 2 wasn’t even supposed to be an American Psycho sequel. Lions Gate noticed that the first film got critical acclaim and didn’t do too poorly in theaters, so they dusted off an unrelated script (The Girl Who Wouldn’t Die) and modified it to link it (tenuously) to the first film. Thus, a story about Rachael (Mila Kunis), a homicidally driven college student who eliminates her competition for a coveted teaching-assistant spot, now begins with a flashback to her childhood run-in with Patrick Bateman (played here by somebody named Michael Kremko, in a blue face-mask). As many commentators have pointed out, this neatly invalidates the reading of the original film’s being mostly the diseased fantasy of one P. Bateman, and not reality. Here, he is a killer and he does slice up Rachael’s babysitter and Rachael does (improbably) end his reign of terror. So Ellis’ unforgettable creation is rewarded by being ice-picked by an adolescent girl. Terrific.

Director Morgan J. Freeman — unrelated to the penguin-narrating actor, but the former indie director of Hurricane Streets and Desert Blue — had plenty of stupid stuff to say about his follow-up, as told to Sarah Kendzior in Fangoria #212. Among Freeman’s more inane remarks showing that he really didn’t understand Mary Harron’s film:

- “I didn’t hate the first movie, but I didn’t like it. It bugged the shit out of me, the way it drowned itself in ’80s pop culture.”

- “I didn’t see how the first movie was a feminist movie. It just seemed like it was Bateman’s wet dream.”

- “I think the people who really like the [first] movie seem to be those guys who are really into the fonts on their business cards.”

- On Ellis’ comments on the “sequel”: “If Ellis is drunk at parties and talks shit, that’s fine….But if I could fight him, I’d love to kick his ass.”

- On his own movie: “It’s not, like, a satire of American culture, and it’s not going to be a commentary on psychosis or anything. This is about a hot, sexy superhero who’s sort of the anti-Clarice Starling.”

Sounds like he didn’t really want to make a sequel at all. And he didn’t. Freeman was actually as exasperated as anyone that Lions Gate marketed this as a sequel instead of as its own movie. Still, he didn’t have to bash a markedly superior film in order to talk up his own film, and if he was going to play all holier-than-thou, it would’ve been nice if his film were any good either as a sequel or as its own movie.

Consciously cast against type, Mila Kunis (of That ’70s Show) comes off merely bratty and annoying. The only other readily recognizable name in the cast, William Shatner, embarrasses himself mightily as the professor whose approval Rachael seeks. For a while, the movie toys with the possibility that someone else is the killer, but then the script just matter-of-factly shows Rachael going to work on her next victim. The movie is neither frightening nor funny; in fact, it’s extremely boring — even considering its 88-minute length, I still had to get up for two or three pause breaks just to get through the damn thing. Ironically, when I first heard about this project, I thought, “This could either be terrible or brilliant.” A distaff American Psycho — if written and acted as sharply and perceptively as the original, it could rock the house. Unfortunately, this is quite literally just a slasher movie with the unearned American Psycho label slapped onto it to move more units.

Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood

June 7, 2002

I heard something in the audience for Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood I don’t hear often at the multiplex any more: the sound of middle-aged women laughing. In the summer of spider-men and Jedi knights, this movie strode in with a confident air of experience and estrogen. I may not have known it, but I was really ready for a movie like this one. It is determinedly not aimed at my segment of the audience, which made it all the more refreshing to me. Maybe, too, I usually don’t bother with material like this — which generally sinks to the level of “Lifetime, the Network for Women” — and here it’s done smartly and solidly for once.

The movie is taken from two cult-popular novels by Rebecca Wells, the same-named 1996 book and its 1992 predecessor Little Altars Everywhere. I’ve sampled enough of the former to know that the movie gets Wells’ life-is-crazy-but-what’s-the-alternative? tone of whimsy and forbearance. Callie Khouri, who won the hearts of many female moviegoers eleven summers ago with her Oscar-winning script for Thelma & Louise, has eased into her first directing job with material that seems to fit her perfectly. Khouri understands and loves Southern women, their particular madnesses and glories. Wells gives her the tools she needs to make a multi-generational women’s mini-epic that never lapses into victimology.

Sandra Bullock, alert and snappish, is Siddalee Walker, a New York theater director beginning to get recognition. Thus begins her trouble: In an interview with Time, Siddalee lets slip that her childhood with her mercurial mom — played in twilight by Ellen Burstyn and in early adulthood by Ashley Judd — was often bumpy enough to “help her creativity.” Vivi, the mother, goes ballistic when she reads the article; her best friends — Caro (Maggie Smith), Teensy (Fionnula Flanagan), and Necie (Shirley Knight), with whom Vivi formed the Ya-Ya Sisterhood in girlhood — come to the rescue. They spirit Siddalee away from New York and home to Louisiana, using a tactic insane enough to be almost plausible. Their plan is to fill Siddalee in on who her mother was and why she did what she did.

The revelations come at an unhurried pace. If you enjoy watching the veteran actresses — and Bullock flowering in their presence — as much as I did, you won’t want them to hurry. Khouri sets a comfortable stage for her performers and gets out of their way. She’s exceedingly gentle with the men in the cast — James Garner as Vivi’s long-suffering husband Shep, Angus Macfadyen as Siddalee’s equally patient fiancé — which should blow away any lingering perception of Khouri as a man-basher (everyone seems to forget that Harvey Keitel’s cop was the sanest character in Thelma & Louise). And Ashley Judd, for whom I’ve traditionally had little use as an actress — she usually comes off as too hard, glossy, actressy — comes through as the impetuous, gradually unstable younger Vivi. She nails a wordless, almost expressionless scene of self-loathing in front of a mirror; she makes us feel Vivi’s helpless rage when all three of her kids get sick at once.

Movies like this have to end with tearful mother-daughter reconciliations and a final scene where family and friends gather for a rip-roaring celebration. Divine Secrets earns the sniffles and laughs it gets at the end. In outline, this isn’t a lot different from what you might see on Lifetime. In execution, it’s a fine piece of work about women who go back decades and who know each other better than they know themselves, and about the unhappy younger woman whom three of the women embrace as if she were their own blood. Which, in a way, she is. Divine Secrets covers most of the women’s-weepie bases without pushing too much.


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