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"Can we talk?"

The needle on the Jewometer just broke.

Joan Rivers and Friends Salute Heidi Abromowitz (1985) ****

Joan Molinsky (alias Rivers) appears as herself in this Showtime comedy special about a star-studded Las Vegas tribute to notorious (fictional) nymphomaniac Heidi Abromowitz. A veritable constellation of A-and B-level celebrities is in attendance to toast this tart, “the biggest tramp since Charlie Chaplin”. The only problem is that nobody can find her, so that cantankerous hostess Joan is reduced to rushing around a hotel trying to find out where Heidi is holed up probably getting gang-shagged.

This incredibly raunchy campfest mostly consists of hit-and-miss one-liners (Heidi is alleged to have invented “eightplay”, or simultaneous foreplay with two guys) and nostalgia-tickling cameos from the likes of Kris Kristofferson, New York City Mayor Ed Koch, Anthony Perkins, Brooke Shields, Selma Diamond, Robin Leach (who of course gets to spoof Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous), Joyce Brothers, Ruth Westheimer, Willie Nelson, Tony Randall, Erma Bombeck, Little Richard, Betty White, Suzanne Somers, Ali McGraw, Howie Mandel, Elvira, Garry Shandling, Vincent Price, Morgan Fairchild, Father Guido Sarducci – and more! The Solid Gold Dancers even put in an appearance, taking the stage to the tune of Olivia Newton John’s hit “Physical”.

80s buffs will be thrilled by the totally retro references to Mother Theresa, Mr. T, and Boy George (“Just what England needs,” Joan kvetches, “another queen who can’t dress!”). The highlight of this extravaganza, however, is not a celebrity, but a hilarious troupe of trained orangutans, one of which specializes in flipping the bird. The only real drawback to this trash treasure is its off-putting Talmudic attitude in promoting juvenile sexuality. “Harder! Harder!” Heidi is supposed to have exclaimed as a newborn when the doctor slapped her bottom, and she is also supposed to have enjoyed an outdoor orgy with several boys as a girl. The best line in Joan Rivers and Friends Salute Heidi Abromowitz definitely comes from negro janitor Vernon Washington: “Joan Rivers? Sheeeit. I thought you was Tony Orlando.”

4 out of 5 possible stars

Post-op cyborg

“We’ll say United 93 went down in this trench here in Shanksville . . .”

How to Murder a Millionaire (1990) ***1/2

Joan Molinsky, the grotesque diva to out-bitch them all, gets to display her sensitive side in this tacky TV comedy feature about a privileged, rich housewife whose life revolves around shopping, hoarsely kvetching to best friend Morgan Fairchild, and watching interviews with transvestites on Monique in the Morning followed by Monique in the Afternoon. Unfortunately, Joan’s idle idylls are thrown into chaos when she begins to suspect that husband Alex Rocco may be trying to murder her – and, even worse, that he may be having an affair! (“What possible motive could he have?” her friend hilariously consoles her. “You look great.”) Desperate for refuge, Joan hides out in a ghetto rat’s nest (“This place just screams for a decorator”) with Fairchild’s thieving black maid (Telma Hopkins) and even goes to work with her as a housecleaner.

All of this, of course, is just an excuse for such fish-out-of-water scenes as Joan cleaning a toilet and trying to make herself comfortable on a disgusting black person’s couch – but not before covering it with sanitary tissues. How to Murder a Millionaire is something of a rarity in Molinsky’s list of movie credits in that it is a genuine starring vehicle for her as opposed to a cameo. For that reason alone, Molinsky admirers (i.e. homos) will probably want to check it out and treat themselves to such TV candy as Joan slumming in her expensive fur coat, washing a window with her rump, and self-pityingly crying while treating her eyes with cucumber slices. Nostalgiacs, furthermore, should enjoy the chintzy early 90s muzak and period cultural references to Leona Helmsley, Arsenio Hall, and the forbidden dance of lambada. What other movie, pray tell, has the sass to ask the question, “Does a bear shop in the woods?”

3.5 of 5 possible stars.

Rainer Chlodwig von Kook

All Is Bright

Paul Giamatti daringly essays his umpteenth grumpy, disgruntled crumb-bum role in the sarcastically titled seasonal feature All Is Bright, a film which might more descriptively, memorably, and profitably be retitled The Grouch Who Stole Christmas.

Giamatti stars as Dennis Girard, a Canadian thief released from prison only to find that his wife, Therese (Amy Landecker), has given him up for an old friend, reformed crook Rene, played by Paul Rudd. Even more humiliating for Dennis is that Therese, hoping to shelter her daughter (Tatyana Richaud) from the unpleasant truth about her father, has told her that Dennis is dead so as to bar him from having any place in his daughter’s life. Out of work, at loose ends, and nearly at the end of his tether, Dennis bullies Rene into taking him along on his annual trip to New York to hawk exotic Canadian tannenbaums.

Offering nary a likable character, All Is Bright may strain the patience of audiences in search of something funny but basically wholesome, uplifting, and appropriate to view at Christmastime. A “criminal with a small dick”, Dennis Girard is ultimately too flawed, thorny, and unpersonable a character, his choices and outlook too glum, sordid, nasty, and unrepentant, for the film to be terribly entertaining or morally rewarding. All Is Bright is marginally amusing at best, and Giamatti’s grouch card may be maxed out, so the actor is advised to seek opportunities for expanding his range beyond the apoplectic curmudgeon that made him famous.

3 out of 5 stars. Ideological Content Analysis indicates that All Is Bright is:

9. Anti-American. A U.S. border patrol agent is unfriendly, and Dennis and Rene affect a stereotypical Doug and Bob McKenzie Canadian accent to impress gullible American tree shoppers (cf. no. 2).

8. Green. “They still don’t have stars here,” Rene says on arrival in the United States, probably with reference to air pollution.

7. Anti-drug. “You should keep lungs, yeah?”

6. Pro-slut. The viewer is presumably expected to consider the casual attitude of Russian eccentric Olga (Sally Hawkins) toward what she terms “the thing” an endearment.

5. Anti-Putin. “You have heart like Putin,” Olga says insultingly.

4. Anti-marriage, with infidelity and divorce the norm.

3. Barely Christian. Rene gives his adopted daughter an Advent calendar, but little or no other mention is made of the religious significance of Christmas. An irreverent, vulgar attitude toward the holiday prevails (“If you want to throw up, do it in the tree stand”). “There’s money in holidays.”

2. Multiculturalist, pro-immigration, and pro-wigger. All Is Bright is set in that bizarro Hollywood version of the world in which whites beg and receive cigarettes from blacks. The characters generally interact postracially. And Emory Cohen, apparently typecast as wiggers after his turn as AJ in The Place Beyond the Pines, receives a cameo as dopey but sympathetic dude “Lou, who comes to buy a tree”. (cf. no. 9)

1. Egalitarian/anti-capitalistic. Olga suggests charging more for trees bought by “haves”. While Dennis and Rene represent small-scale enterprise in a relatively positive manner, more successful entrepreneurs are vilified. Dennis, in one unfunny scene, physically intimidates a more professionally operated Christmas tree business into relocating. In an even more unlikely moment, Dennis is physically ejected from the men’s room of a restaurant by its petty proprietor for not being a paying customer. The self-pitying protagonist never abandons his thieving ways (“I will not get caught twice,” he vows), and steals a piano (among other things) from a successful dentist (cf. The Possession) as a gift for his daughter. Criminal redistribution of wealth, All Is Bright appears to argue, is fine and commendable as long as it is perpetrated for a good and heartwarming cause.

Sofia Coppola’s latest effort is very much her own. Bright, punchy, or ambient music, an elegant eye, and a sardonic sense of humor imbue yet another examination of rampant girldom with Coppola’s trademark sensibility. Unlike Lost in Translation or Marie Antoinette, however, The Bling Ring features no strong or particularly likable central protagonist, and is consequently a much more detached and ironic study than its predecessors.

The Bling Ring opens with shots of the Facebook pages of characters Marc (Israel Broussard), Chloe (Claire Julien), and Rebecca (Katie Chang) – an appropriate means of introduction in this true crime story set in an amoral teenage order founded on trendiness and popularity. All attending a high school for affluent problem kids, these are the more sophisticated and fashionable counterparts to the hedonistic nihilists in Larry Clark’s Bully, operating out of the sinister psychological intersection of thug chic and a privileged entitlement mentality.  Along with like-minded recruits Nicki (Emma Watson) and Sam (adorable Taissa Farmiga), the group combines its vapid interests in celebrity, pop criminality, and haute couture by committing a series of casual burglaries of the homes of Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, and others.

An odd feature of these young people’s lives is how little concerned with love they appear to be. Tawdry apparel, dirty dancing, sex, and group acceptance interest them plenty, but these new teen creatures bear almost no resemblance to their grandmothers, the malt shop loiterers of old, with their puppy love crushes and idealism. The new teen queen is a kind of ravenous beast sustained by a constant regimen of dope, dainty baubles, irresponsible escapades, and protected from introspection by forbidding walls of abrasive music preoccupied with self-determined fabulousness.

It is difficult to watch The Bling Ring and not be reminded of another group of young Californians who targeted celebrity victims – namely, the Manson Family. In both cases, pathological fascination with the rich and famous, coupled with peer pressure, drugs, and an unhealthily violent cultural diet, result in celebrities being simultaneously venerated as idols and dehumanized as potential victims. Marc, reflecting on the meaning of his acts in the aftermath of his arrest, confides that after the story of his involvement hit the news, he received over 800 Facebook friend requests, suggesting that it is criminality itself as much as fame that attracts the adulation of the unsavory masses.

If The Bling Ring has any discernible shortcoming, it may be the dearth of surprising event, as the film proceeds along a fairly straight, predictable line as far as the plot. Apart from the signature Sofia Coppola seal in terms of color, design, and atmosphere, the film’s most attractive strength must be its delightful cast. Israel Broussard, featured in what, for lack of any real hero, is The Bling Ring‘s lead role, has a Byronic look and an enigmatic vulnerability that complements the Coppola aesthetic nicely; and all of the damsels in dissipation, from Katie Chang to Claire Julien, Taissa Farmiga, and Emma Watson, are irresistibly vile, divine, and luscious.

4.5 stars.  Ideological Content Analysis kisses Sofia Coppola’s ring and indicates that her most recent flourish as a dependable writer-director is:

11. Multiculturalist/pro-miscegenation.  People of different races interact as without the least consciousness of their physiological or cultural differences. One of the girls has a thug Latino boyfriend. The camera lingers longingly over untouchable Katie Chang.

10. Anti-wigger.  Pop veneration of the ghetto mentality goes hand in hand with nihilism, crime, and self-destruction.

9. Pro-police.  Authorities conduct their investigation and effect the necessary arrests professionally and without inflicting unnecessary harm.

8. Anti-religion.  Modern woman’s faith is junk spirituality, “the philosophy of the Secret”, a kooky, relativistic melange in which words like “Lord” rub shoulders indiscriminately with new age talk of “karma”.

7. Anti-gun.  Privately owned guns, this film appears to want to convince viewers in one very frightening scene, make homes less safe and endanger the mentally deficient.  However, the fact that one of the girls steals a gun and gives it to her thug boyfriend demonstrates that criminals are not above obtaining their guns illegally and that gun control legislation is therefore futile.

6. Philanthropy-skeptical.  One suburban family claims a commitment to charitable causes in Africa, but cannot identify the specific country where they are active.  This pretended philanthropy is played as a sympathy card after the girls are caught by the police.

5. Statist.  The pitiable demonstration of home schooling as practiced by one ditzy mother (Leslie Mann) is an implicit endorsement of public education.

4. Anti-drug.  Drinking and driving results in a non-fatal accident, which, however, fails to prevent the girls from going out and behaving just as carelessly as before. Accelerating substance abuse parallels the girls’ increasingly poor judgment and carelessness in their criminal endeavor.

3. Pro-gay.  Sexually ambiguous Marc shares his girlfriends’ interest in fashion (including high heel shoes) and refers to a male schoolmate as “hot”.

2. Class-conscious.  Coppola (perhaps responding to the criticism that Marie Antoinette depicted a self-absorbed aristocrat sympathetically without taking into consideration the economic plight of the French peasantry?) depicts moral decay as in part deriving from wealth and privilege (cf. Billy Madison).

1. Pro-family.  The horror wrought by permissive or absentee parenting is the unstressed theme that haunts The Bling Ring.

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