S3E7:In general, this week’s Modern Family is stacked with high highs and low lows, and balances out to a slight step up from the series’ recent output. It offers a better-than-average Jay/Gloria story and a worse-than-average Claire/Haley story. As always, Phil and Luke are gold. But the thing that resonates most in “Treehouse” is the show’s insistence on using Cam’s homosexuality as a punchline.
“If you let me keep that hang glider, those geese would have followed me to the wetlands.” – Phil
“You would have died.” – Claire
“A hero.” – Phil
Claire starts out the episode in her normal state of frustration with her family. Phil is up to very Philish hijinks: building a treehouse as a (very) thinly veiled attempt to recapture his lost youth. But the main problem: Haley is having trouble with her college essay (a running theme in the series). Haley’s dilemma stems from a lack of hardship in her life. Instead of employing introspection or anything else that Haley has probably never heard of, she complains about how easy her life has been and blames this lack of real experience on her mother. Claire responds by tricking Haley into taking a car ride with her somewhere outside of the neighborhood and then leaving her without a phone or money to get home on her own (the perfect fodder for her essay). The problem with this storyline is: we don’t actually see Haley getting home. In between her abandonment and her frazzled storming through the front door, we see or hear nothing from Haley or Claire. This could have been a comic goldmine, and possibly some interesting character development (okay, maybe just a comic goldmine). But instead, the episode opts for some catty remarks between the Dunphy women that make the whole plot seem useless.
“I could totally be a womanizer.” – Cam
“Or you could be someone who just stepped out of a machine called The Womanizer.” – Mitchell
The plot complexity is at least a step above the Lucy-Ricky squabbles that Cam and Mitchell were having for a few weeks: Cam wants to prove himself capable of “passing for straight,” so he hits on a woman at a bar (Leslie Mann), but worries that he has taken it too far when she wants to see him again. My issues with this storyline are detailed in my introduction. Throughout the episode, as you might imagine, there are a ton of jokes about Cam’s sexuality, many of which structured around what his being a gay man “must” indicate about him. Now, I’m not certain whether or not I’m being too sensitive here. Cam’s homosexuality is not being treated with malice—this is something of which the show is never guilty. But when Mitchell, a character we’re supposed to consider intelligent and likeable, attributes Cam’s supposed fragility to his being gay, it seems harmful. Especially since, as a gay man himself, Mitchell acts as sort of an authority on what it is “okay” to think about gay men. Of course, no one individual can be an authority on what it is okay to say about any group of people, whether he belongs to said group or not, but television characters do assume these roles in the eyes of their viewers. Thus, I think it a little irresponsible to have Mitchell tossing around stereotypes in such a generalizing fashion. I won’t say a few of the more clever jokes didn’t work, primarily thanks to Jesse Tyler Ferguson’s delivery. But this is something with which the show needs to be careful.
“Honey! The dude in the tree is cool!” – Andre
The Jay/Gloria storyline is both benign and forgettable, so I’ll gloss over it for the most part: Gloria thinks Jay is boring and passionless because he won’t take her out salsa dancing like returning character Shorty (Chazz Palminteri) does with his ladyfriend Darlene (Jennifer Tilly, who is as Jennifer Tilly as ever in this role). The truth is: Jay can’t dance, and is self-conscious about this. First, he asks Manny to teach him, but this amounts to naught. So, he takes a “drug” offered to him by Mitchell to loosen up—success. Of course, the drug is a placebo (Baby Aspirin), but anyone who knows Mitchell should guess this right away. Moving right along to what is, unsurprisingly, my favorite part of the episode: the Phil/Luke story.
The magic duo has both minimal screen time and a lack of particularly memorable lines, but their characters are so much more rich than anything else on the show. Phil forces a vacant Luke into the exploit of building a treehouse. In truth, Phil is feeling like he has lost his youth and no longer has the sort of friendships he did when he was a child who could just call to the other neighborhood kids to run out and play. It’s actually legitimately sad when Phil begins to reveal his true intentions. Eventually, Luke bails on Phil out of frustration—and a sense of doom surrounding the project—leaving his dad stuck up in the tree. But Phil catches the eye of a neighbor, Andre (Kevin Hart), who, despite having lived right over the fence for eight years, has never met Phil. It’s a somewhat touching moment when Phil realizes he is not actually the man-without-a-country he assumed himself to be. Andre is in the same boat: he immediately jumps onboard with the treehouse project, channeling the same sensibilities Phil had when he pioneered it. The episode closes with a promise of Phil/Andre storylines to come, which seems like good material for comedy. Two adult Phils is even more destructive than one, and this might free Luke up to spread some of his glory to another pairing. Manny perhaps? I’ve always appreciated the two of them working together.
I am still a bit torn on the Cam/Mitchell issue. Am I missing the point of all these gay jokes? Are they simply there to illustrate affable characters with human flaws, living a funny but normal lifestyle? I’m not unwilling to accept that I might be simply not getting it, but it seems to be that the show is just taking the easy route to comedy, at the expense of a value it claims to embrace.
This smart remake/update of a 70 year-old play and movie may not win any Oscars but it turns out to be as gorgeously entertaining as its title indicates. Based on the play and 1939 movie of the same name that skewered upper society women of the era writer/director Diane English has kept the bones intact but updated it all to include women of various places in life. Women who are still trying to find love and happiness and above all else female friendship. In their world life seems to revolve around Tanya (Debi Mazar) the gossipy manicurist at the Saks Fifth Avenue Beauty Salon who spills the beans to magazine editor Sylvie (Annette Bening) that her best friend Mary’s (Meg Ryan) Wall Street tycoon husband has been catting around with voluptuous perfume “spritzer girl” Crystal Allen (Eva Mendes). Deciding in tandem with Mary’s other pals--the housewife Edie (Debra Messing) and writer Alex (Jada Pinkett Smith)--to tell Mary Sylvie sparks an incident that sets off fireworks in all their lives with betrayals career crises pregnancy retreats revenge and forgiveness all figuring into the male-less proceedings. The Women’s entire ensemble cast is pure pleasure and it’s exclusively made up of some of the best comedic actresses around. Even all the extras are women but then that’s sort of the joke of the whole premise. Estrogen flows freely in this group led by Meg Ryan as the victimized wife and mother whose husband plays around on her and whose own father fires her from her job. Talk about a tough week! With money lines like her declaration of sexual prowess “I can suck the nails out of a board ” Ryan has some of her best moments in recent years playing nicely off co-star Bening. As Mary’s best friend she’s the workaholic but aging editor of a women’s magazine that’s on the edge of change she can’t seem to keep up with. Bening beautifully reflects the quandary of a career woman who has to watch her back at every moment. Messing and Pinkett Smith round out the fearsome foursome and each gets some choice comic material to play particularly Messing’s histrionics as the pregnant Edie. Suffice to say the inevitable but riotously funny delivery scene is well worth waiting for. Mendes plays the vamp bit for all it’s worth stunning in all her cunning. Mazar though is a bit too laid back as the manicurist with all the secrets. Cloris Leachman delivers some prize one-liners as Mary’s loyal housekeeper and Tilly Scott Peterson is very funny as the Uta the nanny. Carrie Fisher as a gossip columnist and Bette Midler as a tough-talking Hollywood agent make the most of their brief screen time as well but it’s English's Murphy Brown star Candice Bergen who steals the show as Mary’s wise but plastic surgery-addicted mother. A post face-lift scene with Bergen counseling Ryan is priceless stuff. Writer/director Diane English says she spent 14 frustrating years trying to bring this sassy update of Claire Booth Luce’s creation to the screen. Timing is everything and now with female bonding films all the rage The Women circa 2008 could be just the ticket. Certainly it’s strength is the comic savvy of English who spent several seasons on Murphy Brown honing her skills. It pays off here with a talented cast delivering her snappy lines with expert comic timing. Sure even updated as it is The Women still has the creakiness of a vehicle that peaked in 1939 but for whatever reason the old-fashioned craftsmanship still works even in an era where women have gone on to achievements not dreamed about when Luce wrote the play. As a director English is all about protecting her script and it’s the tight pacing of one amusing sequence after another that makes this little trifle sail by right down to the final sight gag. See it.
Not nearly as good as Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl but still infinitely better than The Country Bears this third Disney theme park ride to come to life finally explains all those ghosts haunting that moss-covered wrought iron-gated mansion you've stood in a three-hour line to visit. Haunted Mansion starts off with the attraction's familiar ghoulish music and classic line "Welcome foolish mortals!" and quickly gets into how the now-decrepit house was once a thriving and stately antebellum palace that hosted 19th century New Orleans' wealthiest (aha the dancing ghosts in the Great Hall!). Its owner Master Gracey (Nathaniel Parker) was the consummate Southern gentleman but had fallen in love with Elizabeth a beautiful woman who unfortunately was considered beneath Gracey's stature. Disregarding the advice from his trusted confidante and butler Ramsley (Terence Stamp) Gracey planned to marry his beloved Elizabeth anyway but tragedy intervened. Apparently Elizabeth could not face ruining the life of her one true love and rather than live without him she committed suicide--or so it seemed (ominous enough for you?). Utterly heartbroken Gracey hanged himself from the observatory tower thus cursing the house and trapping all who had dwelled there or in the sprawling graveyard behind the house (999 ghosts to be exact) forever. Cool.
Then suddenly Eddie Murphy appears showing off his trademark pearly whites and trying to sell said mansion to a married couple. Wait what's going on here? Oh right that's the other part of the movie. Jumping ahead to the present Murphy plays Jim Evers a workaholic real estate agent whose lovely wife Sara (Marsha Thomason) wants him to spend more quality time with his family. When she convinces Jim to take a weekend vacation with their two kids he agrees--but first they have to make one quick stop to check out an eerie old mansion as a possible house to sell. That's when it all goes to hell. Unbeknownst to the Evers Sara is the spitting image of Elizabeth--and Gracey's ghost is determined to keep her with him at the mansion. To be fair it's the script's fault not Murphy's that he has to run around like an idiot chased by any number of poltergeists yelling "Don't you let no dark spirits out!" and "There are dead people in the backyard!" while trying to save his wife and break the curse. But let's just say he's no Johnny Depp and can't quite carry the film past its innate silliness. At least the funnyman gets a little help from the kids played by an unfazed Aree Davis and arachnophobic Marc John Jefferies as well as the hilarious Jennifer Tilly who portrays the psychic Madame Leota (you know the floating head inside the crystal ball from the ride who spouts gloomy predictions in rhymes. Love her). Of the apparitions Stamp seems to enjoy playing his ghoulish Ramsley the most while friendly ghosts Wallace Shawn as a manservant and Dina Waters as a maid add some levity to the already madcap proceedings.
The promise of The Haunted Mansion comes from its source. Opening in 1969 the Haunted Mansion attraction was considered very innovative for its time as Disney Imagineers toyed with all manner of visual effects and animatronics. Even to this day it's a perennial favorite. Director Rob Minkoff (Stuart Little) wants to make sure fans experience the thrill of it again this time through the machinations of modern-day special effects and the art of filmmaking. The film's look and feel aptly captures the spirit of the Disney attraction. Evers walks down the very same hall as in the attraction past the pastoral pictures on the wall that change into sinister images as the eyes of unsmiling stone heads follow him. He and the kids take a ghostly coach ride through the graveyard where all the wacky spirits are doing their thing including those wayward spirits ready to hitch a ride with them. Even the singing busts are there now a barbershop quartet that riffs off whatever anyone says. It's just a shame screenwriter David Berenbaum's story couldn't have been a little less contrived. While the fascinating back story cleverly answers some of those questions enthusiasts may have had about the ride the present-day scenario starts to fall apart once Evers sets out to break the curse and things get really looney. Even when the family finds out about Master Gracey's sad tale the film doesn't really live up to the imagination the theme park attraction inspires; instead figuring the "insider"-isms will go over the young heads in the audience the film sticks with trite dialogue and over-the-top shenanigans to please the tykes.