Two Comedies, One Doc: Film Reviews
Director & Writer: Shannon Plumb There was Charlie Chaplin. Harold Lloyd. Lucille Ball and her super-stuffed-mouth. Fanny Brice is in there. And now there is a new and surprisingly irresistible Shannon Plumb, whose expression is a mix of heroin exhaustion (she is not on drugs, however), perplexed child, and mystified almost-adult.
Director & Writer: Shannon Plumb
There was Charlie Chaplin. Harold Lloyd. Lucille Ball and her super-stuffed-mouth. Fanny Brice is in there. And now there is a new and surprisingly irresistible Shannon Plumb, whose expression is a mix of heroin exhaustion (she is not on drugs, however), perplexed child, and mystified almost-adult.
Adventurous, inchoate and unfulfilled mother of two, Penelope struggles to strike the balance between her unidentifiable artistic aspirations and wifely-motherly responsibilities in this whimsical (and latterly dark) look at modern-day femalehood, and the difficulties mothers and wives of important men face.
Because husband Derek (Derek Cianfriance, her real husband) is a directional arrow toward Penelope's self-development in all manner of loopy exploits and unfruitful efforts (pole-dancing, ice hockey), his face is never seen full-on through the entire 91 minutes. The effect is somewhat like a semi-porn reveal: You are constantly trying to conjure up the husband's face throughout partial shots, bushy fern-hidings, quarter-views. Why is his wife so nutty? But the husband is not really important in the film, save for the effect his absences and obliviousness have on his pretty, dissatisfied toy-wife. At one point, unhappy with her lot, she asks Derek plaintively, "Am I beautiful?" He: "Sure." He leaves. Penelope: "Okay." End of scene.
Hilarious as done by the clueless Shannon.
Her haunted hangdog expression never changes, whether it is at her kids' school, where the principal tells Shannon that the boys are, you know, too old for strollers, to interviews where her lack of any skills makes the interviewer wonder what to do with this candidate. She dons male attire for one job -- skinny as she is -- and a fake moustache that constantly droops off in front of startled beefy men more fit for the role. Her "Ho, ho, ho!" is so gosh-awful she lands the store Santa job out of pity and convulsions. For a few minutes, she cavorts like Gene Kelly in An American in Paris, transforming from coo-coo-bird to Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins. At another point, Penelope goes into a shop, manages to wreak innocent mayhem on the clothing, but buys a wholly weird hoop-dress that she can barely manage to wear. At the opera, Derek goes into the opera hall, entirely forgetting to usher his wife in the confederate get-up in.
Her two ash-blonde tykes (the title's eponymous towheads), Cody and Walker (Plumb's real kids), are perfect stand-ins for viewers, foils for the astonishment they feel at their mother's running through a litany of impromptu meals, clownish get-ups, klutzy prats, occasional sober weirdness and nutty encounters with startled neighbors and workmen. She is trying on lives, personae and work endeavors. She is a flop in all. Even when Derek says, after thinking hard for a moment about her plaintive, "Am I good at anything?" he can dredge up only, "...You're a good mother." But she isn't, though she loves her kids. She probably loves her husband, too, but that is not the crux of her dilemma with life.
Shannon Plumb, personable (and apparently, for all her sweetness and approachability, just as crazed in real life as she appears in the movie), tall and quite pretty, has written and directed a modern gem evocative of her forebears in physical comedy.
We laughed throughout, giggling first, then laughing louder, and kept it up throughout -- at least until the rather darker dénouement, which is not altogether unexpected, but hardly a laughing matter.
The Museum of Modern Art is so taken with Towheads that they announced it is now part of their permanent film collection, a high enough honor to validate our feeling that Shannon Plumb is someone to watch. And more important, someone to enjoy.
LOVE and AIR SEX
Directed by Bryan Poyser
If, on the other hand, you hanker for a "comedy" that involves millennials in plenty of snarky hip banter, raunch, and excessive lack of caution in an up-and-coming burg in Texas, this is your meat.
Two sets of broken couples, hailing from LA and NYC, are in Austin for a weekend. They engage in tons of dirty talk, painful memories of their just-finished relationships (hardly worthy of the name, if the characters of these guys are to be considered), plot to meet people for lightning-fast hook-ups, break up, and act like the sumum bonum of life is fast meets, fast sex, boozing, and drugging, until whatever random work they do calls.
The only vague interest comes from the "air sex" World Championship contest held in a disreputable but rockin' Austin den. This consists of crude and moistly suggestive scenarios of solo sex in front of raucous under-30s. It is analogous to air-guitar, except that produces no annoying hurt feelings by those parodied. There is heavy emphasis on genitalia size and cavernousness.
There are, oh, zero laughs, except if you're tickled by insults and gratuitous nastiness to people who merely aren't dating you any longer. One of the males, Jeff (played by Zach Cregger), looks a lot like Josh Brolin a few years ago. What makes this a comedy is that it is not a tragedy (except for the tragic waste of 2 hours of your life, and a few million by backers), nor a science fiction, nor a suspenser -- except you wonder when it will mercifully end.
This is well shot, probably well-directed, but the evident product of a young male's fantasy of what a comedy might look like. It features tons of crude language and the latest jargon, cell phones feature heavily in 90% of the film, and you can be grateful there is no actual nudity or sex, though that hardly matters in the bigger scheme of things.
THE UNKNOWN KNOWN
Directed by Errol Morris
Former United States Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld talks at length of his career in Washington DC from his earliest days as a congressman in the early 1960s to examining the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and his many tenures in between.
One of the best documentaries this decade, the title comes from Donald Rumsfeld's famous observation: "We know of the known knowns involved in war. We know there are known unknowns. And we also know there are things we don't know about, the unknown unknowns." What this exceptional doc adds is what Rumsfeld develops through the film: There were things the U.S. "knew" that turned out to be, in fact, unknowns: The unknown known -- in other words, things they thought they knew but did not. Wrong, in other words.
The charming, thoughtful, and articulate Rumsfeld is shown in news clips, newspaper reports and a one on one interview with the director in what turns out to be a refreshingly neutral and not archly negative smear a la Oliver Stone films. The photography is immaculate and latest-word; the music is affecting (Danny Elfman the great), and the direction up-tempo and never-flagging.
We see Cheney as a young man working for Rumsfeld, later to become VP. We see Rumsfeld refuse various jobs that would have certainly resulted in his becoming first VP under Reagan, then possibly a president. We see Haldeman, Ehrlichman, Nixon, Kissinger, Rockefeller, Ford -- all through a decency prism of honest assessment and reminiscence. We see blessedly little of Carter or Clinton.
He is fascinating to hear as he goes into the Vietnam War, and the wars that followed. Never less than modest and self-effacing, he is also bracingly brisk and sharp in response to impertinent or sardonic questions. He is clearly in command of his tactical procession of jobs.
The documentary is intriguing for its own value as a history backgrounder, and amazing in terms of a close-up of a man of parts we have seen all our lives in various posts. His disarming admission that he married as an unformed person but made "the right choice" is touching and also refreshing in a world where sardonicism is the rule, divorce quite common, and disrespect for one's spouse not exceptional. Rumsfeld is clearly still in love with his wife, and proud of his part in the ongoing river of history of the United States.