Getting Californicated

Posted in Uncategorized on July 7, 2011 by Caitlin Graham


I’ll admit it: ever since LOST ended, I’ve sort of been in mourning.  Once Jack Shepard’s cry baby eye closed for the last time, I no longer had a show to cling to, one in which I was truly invested, one that actually moved me.  (You know where this is going.)

…Then I found Californication.

The print ads for the Showtime hit put me off of it for the first three seasons.  You want me to watch Duchovny get paid to indulge in his sex addiction?  With that virtual conveyor belt of vapid, faux-quirky young actresses who are basically like paper dolls with tits (usually fake) and perfectly curled hair down to their naked asses?

I may have had preconceived notions.

But for the most part, they were quickly proven wrong.  I wanted to hate Californication for its gratuitous nudity, its ubiquitous string of useless women, but most of the time, I was laughing so hard that I couldn’t.  I’m not naive; I’m sure there are tons of viewers who use the show as spank material (when I was ten, I probably would have been one of them).  But the show that I’m watching isn’t about that, not at all.

The heart of Californication is, as many astute fans (and Double-D himself) have pointed out, in Hank Moody’s relationship with his friends and his disintegrating family, and his sheer inability to get out of his own way.  For those of you not familiar with the show, Hank is a New York writer trying to cope with rejection from his girlfriend Karen (the wonderful Natascha McElhone) and their teenage daughter Becca–not to mention trying to cope with living in L.A.

Hank is completely displaced and miraculously managing to keep his career and his agent, rarely if ever showing the well of pain he’s carrying around all the while.  On the surface, he’s wry, hilarious, and seemingly cool and uncaring.  He’s insanely charming, and women fall for it over and over, even and especially when they recognize that he’s not good for them.  Inside, Hank’s a fucking child, with a mildly serious drinking problem.

I think it’s safe to say that we’ve all known versions of this guy.  I certainly have, and that’s what’s so compelling about the show to me.  There’s real honesty in a character that simply can’t be saved from himself, all of his bad habits, no matter how glamorous they seem at the time, building and erupting in a horrible, heartbreaking conclusion.

The character of Hank wouldn’t work at all without David Duchovny.  While most other actors would make his super-hip, super-self-aware and self-deprecating demeanor insufferable, Duchovny’s trademark sleepy, understated drawl makes all those qualities real and charming.

If I knew Hank in real life, I would probably hate him.  (Actually, I’d probably make out with him a little, then hate him for not calling me.)  On TV, I sympathize with him to an alarming degree.  In the finale of season 3, a season widely criticized for its over-reliance on the show’s more crude humor, Hank ends up in serious trouble as a result of his indulgences.  When the credits rolled, I. fucking. lost it.  Nothing that serious happened, at least as far as dramatic television goes, but I was weeping as if it had–for ten minutes straight.  No exaggeration.

I think that ultimately there is a point to all the meaningless sex in Californication: it’s what makes the rest of it so meaningful.  That’s precisely why the formula of season 1 worked so well, with each episode a series of unemotional (unlikely) fucks capped by a dose of Hank’s depressing reality, whether it was Karen moving on with another man or Becca pulling away and growing up.

And the sex isn’t even always titillating; in fact, it’s often slapstick and sometimes grotesque.  Which brings me to the best part about this show: it’s painfully hilarious.

Exhibit A:

I could seriously watch that on a loop all day and not get tired of it.  But really, my laughs belong to the Runkles, Charlie (Evan Handler), Hank’s strange, neurotic, sex-crazed agent, and Marcy (Pamela Adlon), his brash, irreverent wife, who, for her diminutive nature, Hank lovingly refers to by different variations of Smurf.

Charlie and Marcy: Coke & Lobster

If that doesn’t convert you, I don’t know what will.  Pamela Adlon alone is reason enough to watch this show religiously.

It’s almost too good to be true: the show that makes me laugh the hardest also makes me cry the hardest.  It is completely unexpected and might just help to fill the void that LOST left behind.

Bridesmaids: Better Late Than Never

Posted in Uncategorized on June 26, 2011 by Caitlin Graham

Bridesmaids poster

Ever since I first saw the trailer for Bridesmaids, it hasn’t just been a priority for me to see it–it’s been a mission.  And if the criticism surrounding it is any indication, I’m not the only one.  The “first” raunchy female comedy, supposedly the game-changer for women of comedy and women in general, the film that promises to finally wipe out the old adage that women “just aren’t funny”: is it my social responsibility to pay money to see it?  Well, that all depends on whether or not the film actually lives up to its own hype.

To call it the first raunchy female comedy may not be accurate, as any of us who are (un)fortunate enough to have seen the mishmash of weirdly juvenile nonsensical scenes known as The Sweetest Thing can attest (I still love you, Christina Applegate).  But to call it the first commercially successful one?  Absolutely.  And I’m both happy and relieved to say that, for the most part, Bridesmaids was successful with this bitchy viewer, too–and my expectations were astronomical.

I say “for the most part” because, like most commercially successful movies, Bridesmaids has its faults, its tropes, cliches, and stereotypical bullshit.  As always, the mark of any woman getting her life together is whether or not she has a steady man, a man who happens to be… an Irish cop? (Is it 1936?  Is James Cagney going to pop out with a gun?)  Still, the lead’s relationship with said cop is so well-written and well-played that I had to forgive the film even that.  And at least getting the man isn’t the endgame.

What is the endgame of Bridesmaids is the lead patching things up with her (female) best friend.  The film focuses on Annie (Kristen Wiig), a good-hearted if anxious woman in her 30s whose life is falling apart like it’s its job, all while her best friend since childhood, Lillian (Maya Rudolph) is planning her own fabulous wedding.  Annie is forced to take on the duties of Maid of Honor all while being unemployed, repeatedly rejected by her casual, caustic tool of a lover (Jon Hamm), and booted from her apartment by the worst roommates in the entire world.  At Lillian’s engagement party, Annie is introduced to Lillian’s fiancee’s boss’ wife, the impossibly rich, beautiful, and together Helen (Rose Byrne), and quickly realizes that Helen is, well, trying to woo Lillian away from her.  And the rivalry of a lifetime begins.

As much as Bridesmaids derives its comedy from women tearing each other down, the movie is much more focused on women holding each other up, caring really intensely about each other, and relying on each other.  While the competition between women is something too often sourced for laughs, female friendship is rarely even shown in mainstream comedies let alone the source of the comedy itself.  Female friendship is on a freaking pedestal in this movie, and rightfully so.  At least in my experience, women are completely ridiculous and possessive when it comes to our relationships with one another, definitely more so than in our romantic relationships.  And when our best friend starts spending a little too much time with another woman, even starts changing as a result, we all just want to stomp our feet and whine, “But she’s MY friend!”  I so empathized with Annie’s situation that about a quarter into the movie, I turned to my friend (who’d already seen it), and whispered, “Please tell me Helen dies before the end of this.”

This is due, in no small part, to the thoroughly real performances given by not just Wiig, Rudolph, and Byrne, but by the entire female ensemble.  Wiig turns out to be a really strong dramatic actor too, which I should have expected, since she obviously takes her comedy very seriously.  She treats the collapse of Annie’s personal and professional life alternately with ferocious desperation and a quiet hopelessness.  What’s hilarious on the surface is really quite sad.

Still, the supporting cast ensures that Bridesmaids doesn’t linger too long in the serious.  Even before the film was released, people would not stop talking about Melissa McCarthy’s performance.  From the trailer, I was worried that her character would fall victim to the overweight, “unattractive” woman stereotype so thoroughly entrenched in comedy, whose grotesque behavior inspires an appalled brand of laughter.  That aspect is certainly there, but McCarthy’s Megan surprised me with both her confidence and her sweetness.  The scene after Annie’s been forced to move back in with her mother, where Megan shows up at the house to give her a dose of tough love, is a true testament to the care taken with the script and by McCarthy herself.

For me, though, the unsung heroes of the film, were the other two bridesmaids, Rita (Wendi McLendon-Covey), bitter mother of three boys, and innocent newlywed Becca (Ellie Kemper), who are utterly perfect in the little time that they’re used.  Their moment of drunken bonding is the best part of the entire plane scene, probably for how unexpected it is.

And that’s why Bridesmaids succeeded with me overall: its comedy took me completely by surprise.  Even though I had prior knowledge of the food poisoning scene, the way it was done literally had me in tears (McCarthy’s repeated “Don’t look at me!” was probably where I broke).  Even though they totally stole the Wilson Phillips homage from Harold and Kumar go to White Castle, I was still happy to be there, because women finally have a comedy that proves what we’ve known all along, that we can be funny.

It’s about goddamn time.

I Spit On Your Grave (2010)

Posted in Uncategorized on September 30, 2010 by Caitlin Graham

There’s very little chance of spoiling anyone with this review. The original I Spit On Your Grave is notorious, if not for its legend then for its lingering controversy, especially amongst feminists. Meir Zarchi, writer and director of the 1978 film, apparently based his simple rape-revenge story on his own experience finding a woman who had been brutally beaten and raped near a park in New York City. Zarchi’s vision, a tale where the victim would get bloody revenge on her attackers, may not have been an act of feminism, but it was certainly intended as one of sympathy. How it managed to end up the most infamous exploitation film of all time—complete with ads featuring a half-naked heroine shot from behind, her rear-end prominent and her hand clutching a butcher knife—was probably mostly the result of marketing (Zarchi’s original title for the film, the one that he still prefers, was Day of the Woman).

Still, Zarchi’s film is extremely misguided, even within its own context. There is little to no character development, for the attackers or the attacked, making the rape scenes implausible, and Jennifer, the film’s “heroine,” uses her sexuality to lure her rapists in for her revenge, even going so far as to have consensual sex with one of them. For this and many other reasons, I do think I Spit On Your Grave was begging to be remade, if not for Zarchi’s redemption then for those of us who were left deeply uncomfortable (and dissatisfied) by it.

Steven Monroe’s revamp may tell the same story, but it’s a different film altogether. The actors are much more relatable and likeable, even Jennifer’s attackers (including a charming Jeff Branson and Daniel Franzese of Mean Girls fame), and though we aren’t given too much of anyone’s history, every character comes off as thoroughly real, many with both dark urges and childlike insecurity. Jennifer (Sarah Butler) is written as much more skeptical than her predecessor, a young but smart, feisty, modern update.

The motive behind the boys’ invasion of Jennifer’s lakeside cabin, though disturbing in its implications for the dynamics among young men, is made clear, and appropriately, their torment of her starts off as much more psychological than physical. In fact, it’s not until Jennifer escapes from them and stumbles upon the town sheriff (Andrew Howard) in the woods that the attack begins in earnest. It becomes unclear whether or not the boys would have gone so far as to rape Jennifer if the sheriff hadn’t gotten involved, as he becomes a despicable sort of ringleader for the entire incident. Considering Zarchi’s overseeing of Monroe’s remake, this choice could very well have been a nod to his personal experience taking the young rape victim he encountered to an unsympathetic police station.

Monroe’s rendering of Jennifer’s rape is frantic and horrible, shot not unlike a battle scene in a war film. He never empathizes with her attackers, though Jennifer is certainly not made out to be completely helpless; we see her fighting or seeking escape at every given opportunity, creating an interesting harbinger of the ruthlessness she’ll later inflict on them. There is an eerie strength in the way she walks away from them afterward, bloodied and beaten, and lets herself fall off a bridge, disappearing into the water below like a ghost.

The revenge portion of the film is gratuitous in its violence and, for that very reason, incredibly satisfying. The original’s seduction is taken out of the torment, Jennifer subjecting her attackers to a long, torturous death that is somewhat symbolic for each of them. Though I’m more squeamish than most, I actually found myself laughing out loud at these horribly gruesome scenes—and I wasn’t the only one. So long as Jennifer’s rapists were getting theirs, the entire audience wasn’t anything less than thrilled.

Unlike with Zarchi’s film, I never found any of Jennifer’s nudity gratuitous or even vaguely sexual in the remake. Even so, I Spit On Your Grave Redux reprises the exploitative marketing of the original, the film’s poster nearly identical to the first. Whether this is a ploy to attract exploitation buffs or simply homage to Zarchi’s film is irrelevant to Monroe’s intentions. I suppose sex sells, even if it’s non-consensual.

Still, I think it’s important to realize that the new I Spit On Your Grave is not meant to be a political statement on rape or a realistic portrayal of a rape victim coming to terms with trauma. It’s meant as a catharsis, pure and simple. Is it a feminist one? To answer that would require answering the question of what feminism is, which, these days, is more dangerous than some of the acts committed by the film’s heroine. When political debate fails, I have to go with my gut (or guts, as the case may be) for a verdict: I Spit on Your Grave is a refreshing and deeply gratifying film that left me feeling somehow vindicated.

*Originally posted at Elevate Difference

Enough is Enough: A Campaign to End Marilyn Monroe Biopics

Posted in Uncategorized on May 20, 2010 by Caitlin Graham

In case it isn’t obvious from my iconographic nod to Niagara, I am a Marilyn Monroe devotee. I’ll be the first to admit that we MM worshippers are a particular brand of crazy, with at least 90% of us believing we are reincarnations of the legend herself. Marilyn fans aren’t just fans; we believe Marilyn lives in each and every one of us, much like Jesus.

The truth is, though, Marilyn is perhaps the most ephemeral personality in our cultural history, certainly in our brief film history. And I’m not just referring to the murky circumstances of her death. Even when I pop Gentlemen Prefer Blondes or The Seven Year Itch in my DVD player and watch her big blue eyes and radiant smile envelop my TV screen, I’m still left wanting—needing—more. Her emotional presence onscreen is so vulnerable, so honest, so real, but also fleeting; it’s gone even before we can let it unhinge us.

Brief interview with Marilyn before production began on Bus Stop, 1956

Even in the above interview, she is accessible and then dodgy, so completely there and then instantly not. At the risk of sounding cheesy, she was taken from us in much the same way: too soon. And fans, writers, actors, and filmmakers alike have gone to great lengths to resurrect her, usually with trashy, exploitative results (and intentions). Thousands of books have been written about Monroe’s life and death, in some vain attempt to create an outlet for the crippling empathy we all have for her. (In fact, none of the words I’m saying haven’t been said before.) And yet, the “deeper” we dig, the more dissatisfied we become.

But for some reason, we keep right on trying. I actually wrote my master’s thesis on Marilyn, devoting my final chapter to this very compulsion. In my research, I had the offensive and often hilarious task of watching all of the Monroe biopics I could: features, made-for-TV movies, softcore porn, what have you. And let me assure you: though we’ve certainly made strides since the 70s (Goodbye, Norma Jean), Jesus fucking Christ we need to stop. No filmmaker or actor has managed to get it right. And let’s be real: they never will.

That’s why when this heinous bit of news appeared the other day, I let out a shriek that would have rivaled Marilyn’s in that final scene in The Misfits.

Okay. Let’s look at the projects themselves before we start talking shit about actor choices.

My Week with Marilyn: The fact that this is getting made at all leaves a horrible taste in my mouth (and in the mouths of every other Marilyn fan, I’m sure). Olivier’s disdain and disrespect for Monroe was notorious, thus totally nullifying the validity of his bullshit book. Having said that, who wants to see a movie about Marilyn where Marilyn isn’t the lead character? Seriously?

Blonde: Okay, Joyce Carol Oates is my favorite author, and this is my favorite book by her (of course). So I’ve been craving an adaptation of Blonde that would redeem the Poppy Montgomery made-for-TV monstrosity. (Alright, it really wasn’t that bad, but the book is just so dark and fucked up that you simply can’t translate that shit to the small screen. I’m sorry.) The project has a great filmmaker on its side, and if the script sticks to the voice of the novel, it may have some serious potential.

But unfortunately, now it’s time to bash the actors.

I like Naomi Watts and Michelle Williams. I think they’re both very talented actors, and I almost always love the work they do. But really, neither of them can play Marilyn. And that’s not an insult to their acting ability; it just goes back to my opinion that Marilyn can’t be captured by anyone but Marilyn. And even Marilyn herself had serious fucking issues doing just that.

An image from Bert Stern’s The Last Sitting, exed out by Monroe in disapproval

I’d be ecstatic if either of them proved me wrong. But I doubt that’s going to happen. Even when an interpretation of Monroe goes beyond drag or impersonation, it falls short. I’ll hold out hope that either Watts or Williams can stymie this trend, but I won’t hold my breath.

**If you’re interested in seeing any of the older, more laughable Marilyn biopics, I recommend Marilyn: The Untold Story, which stars none other than Catherine Hicks, a.k.a. Crazy Annie Camden from “7th Heaven.” OMG.

And much as I hate the movie, Norma Jean & Marilyn is worth seeing for Mira Sorvino’s dead-on impression of Marilyn’s voice.

Farewell, FlashForward.

Posted in Uncategorized on May 14, 2010 by Caitlin Graham

It is rare that I will religiously watch a show that isn’t very good. In the case of “FlashForward,” I fully blame my two pretend boyfriends, John Cho and, of course, Dominic Monaghan. Yes, I’ve had massive crushes on the both of them for years, so the second it was officially confirmed that they’d be on a show together, I was practically already outlining the fan fiction. When the show finally premiered in all its cheesy, over-expository, totally disorganized and implausible glory, I just shrugged; I was in, anyway. Seeing Cho and Monaghan on screen in the same hour was enough to keep me there, let alone the possibility that they might (gasp) actually speak to each other at some point during the season. And hey, it wasn’t just hormones at work—they both happen to be fucking fantastic actors.

I won’t lie, though: my hormones were more than satiated, crappy as the show often was. Cho had a gun and a short fuse, and Monaghan had three-piece suits and a lot of sex. You had me at hello, ABC. And with the late season addition of Michael Ealy, I became convinced that the producers were doing extensive research on how to make my panties burst into flames.

Too much sexy in one frame

Unfortunately though, the sexy wasn’t enough to save it—it’s just been announced that “FlashForward” won’t be renewed for a second season. One of the biggest casualties of this cancellation, also included in the above photo, is Christine Woods and her ever-compelling FBI agent Janis Hawk. By far the best episode of the entire series, in my opinion, was “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” in which Janis is finally revealed to be a double agent.

Christine Woods as Agent Janis Hawk

Women with secrets are a dime a dozen in movies and on TV, but Woods’ Janis managed to also be fiercely intelligent, sardonic, good-hearted, and relatable, forcing us to love her even while we questioned her allegiance to our heroes. She is no small loss, and she’ll certainly be missed by this here gal.

The casting of “FlashForward” was not perfect by any means, though. Apart from Sonya Walger, Gabrielle Union, and maybe some of the child actors, the rest of the large ensemble was either helplessly “meh” or completely unwatchable. Courtney B. Vance and Joseph Fiennes, both actors I’ve really enjoyed in the past, fell into the latter category, Vance the result of not being able to move past the tradition of a stock character type and Fiennes the result of not being able to move past the challenge of an American accent.

Fiennes as Agent Mark Benford, looking just as confused as he did in every scene throughout the entire season

You know something’s wrong when you’re rooting for the hero’s wife to cheat on him.

To add insult to injury, “FlashForward” just had way too much going on at one time. In ABC’s effort to mold it into a replacement for “Lost,” the show’s writers had to keep their thumbs in a million different characters and plot points at once, most of which you couldn’t have paid me to give a shit about. The result was the retelling of the same facts over and over again, the writers assuming that Losties, the ultimate jugglers, wouldn’t get it. It was as if they were pandering to a 1999 audience instead of a 2009 one. Even those of us who can’t keep up have mastered the art of DVR and rewinding until we know the deal.

Still, I am sad to see it go. Dom and John, I hope you both find greener pastures—and better writing. And if not, you both have a standing invitation to my pants party.

Waking Sleeping Beauty

Posted in Uncategorized on April 20, 2010 by Caitlin Graham

We all know the Disney Renaissance well. From the late ’80s to early ’90s, we were blessed with a group of films that rejuvenated and redefined the animated feature: The Little Mermaid, Beauty & the Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King. These stories forever bonded those of us who grew up during that time, especially young women who looked up to their wide-eyed but still fiery princesses as our ideals. (I remember gathering with friends in the back of the bus to sing “Part of That World” in unison on our way to school trips.)

Long-time Disney producer Don Hahn’s documentary provides a nostalgic trip for my generation, as well as an unprecedented behind-the-scenes look at the special set of circumstances, or “the perfect storm of people,” that led to the creation of these classic films. As hard as it is to believe now, Disney’s animated division was in serious trouble in the early ’80s, the company relying prominently on its live-action features like Splash for its profits. Disney even went so far as to evict its stable of artists from the animation building, which eventually led to the management turnover that brought in Michael Eisner, Frank Wells, and Jeffrey Katzenberg, who made it his personal mission to “wake up Sleeping Beauty.”

In the following years, upper management brought in a slew of new artists, many from the musical theatre world, and put animators to work round the clock on what would become their most successful feature in decades, The Little Mermaid. Collaborators like composer Howard Ashman injected that epic sensibility into Disney’s developing tales, but Hahn’s treatment of the creative process in his documentary is anything but epic. Hahn takes great joy in poking fun at the clash of personalities behind the scenes, with caricatures of execs and animators alike sprinkled throughout. He makes the tensest of decisions playful, earning laughs even when (or especially when) things turn ugly.

Hahn’s approach is fitting for Disney’s animators during this era, a group of people who played just as hard as they worked. At one point early in the film, when they’re all still fearing for their jobs, Hahn shows them keeping their spirits up by reenacting Apocalypse Now in the office. It’s not all fun and games, though; Hahn also gives us an interesting albeit brief look at their difficult working conditions. Huge prices were paid by the artists for such a prolific period, mainly personal, many animators working too many hours to spend time with family and friends.

Waking Sleeping Beauty does a commendable job of exposing the dark underbelly of such an innocent source of joy in my own life. Still, the film’s most interesting scenes are the ones that are more creative, like Ashman pitching “Under the Sea” to a room full of animators or he and Alan Menken working out the kinks of “Be Our Guest.” But these moments of epiphany are few and far between, at least in Hahn’s film, and thus its title is a bit misleading. As I suspect many of Disney’s animators felt about this period, I wish it’d been less about ego and more about the creative process.

*Originally posted at Elevate Difference

The Death of the Made-for-TV Movie

Posted in Uncategorized on March 29, 2010 by Caitlin Graham


I have a confession to make: I love made-for-TV movies. Golddiggers, babynappers, child molesters (oh my!)… whatever the flavor, I can’t get enough. And growing up in the 90s, I was like a kid in a candy store. It seemed like every week there was a new story of teen pregnancy or sexual harassment, usually featuring one or more of my favorite cast members from “Saved by the Bell” or “90210.” Here’s just a sample of a few clips from some old favorites:

“For the Love of Nancy,” starring Tracey Gold

“She Fought Alone,” starring Tiffani Thiessen

“She Cried No,” starring Candace Cameron

I mean, the titles alone are genius.

Lifetime, the mother of all made-for-TV networks, has made a valiant effort to keep the legacy going, but as with kids’ movies, I still have to turn to the 90s to truly get my fix. For some reason, most of the latest ones try to somehow involve technology, presumably in some lame effort to keep up with the times and attract a teen audience. Whenever I give a new MFTVM a chance, it always ends up being about internet porn addiction or a student sex tape gone live over the high school network.

The stories of women in peril that I so love are quickly becoming a dying breed. So some advice to the proud few who are trying to keep them alive: keep it old-school. Don’t be afraid to recycle the same formulas—there’s a reason they worked. Cougar bangs the pool boy. Girl gets dragged into the woods and tortured by the football team. A good old-fashioned eating disorder. These are the fairy tales that we never tire of seeing, no matter how similar the next one is to the last.

Believe it or not, someone’s actually starting to get it right, and it’s not Lifetime: it’s the advertising team over at Broadview Security. Their new commercials are like minute-long made-for-TV melodramas of the highest order.

Bravo, Broadview. Bravo.