Daffy Duck

Ms. J. K. Rowling has given us the the idea of the Patronus: the ghostly animal that comes jumping out to protect you when you’re in trouble.

I have never had any doubt about mine.

My spirit animal, my Patronus, is an angry greedy little black duck who often gets his beak shot off.

I grew up with Warner Brothers cartoons; I couldn’t get enough of them. Since many of them were made in the 1930s and 1940s, I was often puzzled by the cultural references (and still haven’t worked some of them out), but I could tell that they were smart and witty and clever – in an adult way – far more than their competitors at Disney or Hanna-Barbera or MGM.

I loved Bugs Bunny, of course. I had a stuffed Bugs Bunny that talked when you pulled his string. He said things like “I like you!” and “I’m sleepy” and (naturally) “What’s up, doc?” I cherished him and took him to bed with me every night.

But my favorite cartoons were the ones with Daffy Duck.

Daffy is lazy, and not very honest. He is vindictive. He goes into futile rages. Sometimes he’s so angry that he’s speechless. He schemes, but his schemes aren’t very well constructed. He tries very hard to be sophisticated, and he fails every time. He almost always says the wrong thing. He is easily defeated.

But he always comes popping back up. He’s indefatigable. He might close his eyes for a moment and take a deep breath, but he always comes back for more. He fails, but he keeps trying.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is me in a nutshell.

I’m a greedy little coward, and I often fail, but I just keep going and going.

Movie review: “Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted”


Partner and both like animated movies, so long as they’re clever and well-made. For this reason, we don’t see many of them. 



But we both wanted to see “Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted.”



If you’re unfamiliar with the franchise: the stars are four animals from the Central Park Zoo – Alex the shy/showoff lion (Ben Stiller); Gloria the sentimental hippo (Jada Pinkett Smith); Melman the hypochondriac giraffe (David Schwimmer); and Marty the hyperactive zebra (Chris Rock). The first movie took them (and a group of four paramilitary penguins) from New York to Madagascar, where they met a surreal band of lemurs led by the sublimely self-absorbed King Julien (Sacha Baron Cohen); the second movie got them as far as Africa, where they dealt with their various back-to-nature issues, and in which Alex met his birth parents.



The third movie is as freewheeling and joyous as the first two, and maybe more so. Our heroes end up (don’t ask) in Monte Carlo, where they tangle with a vicious over-lipsticked ninja assassin animal control officer named Chantel DuBois (Frances McDormand). They escape by hiding out with the animals of the Circus Zaragoza: a goofy sea lion (Martin Short), a broodingly angry tiger (Bryan Cranston), and a sweetly matter-of-fact jaguar (Jessica Chastain). The animals bond, and triumph over their various adversities.



But I didn’t need to tell you that, did I?



The fun of the movie is in the details. The dialogue is blazingly fast and funny. (Near the beginning of the movie, Alex the lion is romping through a model version of Manhattan. “Look!” he crows. “A street with eight Duane Reades!”) The plot twists are sharp and cleverly planned. (King Julien, the insane lemur, falls in love while in Rome, and needs a ring to seal his love. And, if you’re in Rome and want to steal a ring, who has the biggest and best ring of all?) The character development is surprisingly deep. (Vitaly, the Russian tiger, has a wonderful story arc, and his final redemption is brought about by hair conditioner. That’s a spoiler, but you’ll never figure it out in a million years without seeing the movie.) Some of the jokes are actually sophisticated. (DuBois the animal-control officer does a killer rendition of Piaf’s “Je ne regrette rien” to inspire her fellow animal-control officers, and I would love to know if that’s really Frances McDormand singing, because – if so – she’s terrific.) The animation is beautiful: there’s a chase through the streets of Monte Carlo that is spectacularly gorgeous, and I’m convinced they must have taken the animators there to get the details right.



And – I never thought I’d say this – I wish we’d seen this movie in 3D. You could see it in every scene: stuff popping out at you, characters flying through the air, sudden vertiginous angles. Maybe another time.



And here’s another spoiler-without-being-a-spoiler: there is a wonderful circus scene – all of the circus acts taking place around each other, in midair, in bright colors, dancing and doing trapeze routines, set to Katy Perry’s “Firework,” that is truly entrancing and joyful.



Can you tell I enjoyed this movie?



Go. Take the kids, and grandma, and tell your friends. Forget your troubles and spend a pleasant ninety minutes.



You won’t regret it.


Margaret Dumont


 TCM recently ran a Marx Brothers marathon.  I caught bits of “Horse Feathers,” and afterward my very favorite, “Duck Soup.”



I like so many things about the Marx Brothers’ movies: the freedom, the cleverness of the dialogue, the stupid obviousness of the slapstick bits, the bizarre/surreal quality of many of the gags, even the sudden lapses into sentimentality when they stop to sing a song.



And I am always thankful when Margaret Dumont shows up.



She is the grand dame who reigns over seven of the Marx Brothers’ movies: the hostess, the millionairess, the unlikely love-interest.  She is handsome and stately, like an ocean liner.  She has a rich plummy voice, slipping from reedy alto to fluting soprano.  She is not at all physical; she generally stands in one place and lets the Marx Brothers run around her like squirrels around an oak tree.  She was with the brothers on Broadway in “Cocoanuts” in the 1920s; when they made it into a movie a few years later, she and the brothers reprised their stage roles.  This is how Groucho described the action in 1930, in a letter to his friend Arthur Sheekman:



“I arise in the morning and before I have had my clothes on ten minutes, I am over at the theater doing the ordering scene.  Then follows thirty minutes of Harpo climbing up Dumont’s leg, and the shirt scene, and then to the dressing room for what I imagine is going to be a good long rest.  I am no more than seated with the Morning World, when the buzzer rings and I am downstairs again doing the ordering scene, and Harpo is back again at Dumont’s leg.”



Dumont is queenly and oblivious, the perfect foil.  She does reaction shots, seemingly unaware of what she’s reacting to.  Groucho later said that, after filming the “Duck Soup” scene in which Groucho shouts “We’re fighting for this woman’s honor, which is more than she ever did!”, Dumont came over to him and said: “Julie [his real name was Julius], what does that line mean?”  



(I think Dumont was smarter than this.  She’d been on stage for years, after all, and she was no dummy.  Here’s one of her quotes from IMDB: “I’m not a stooge, I’m the best straight woman in Hollywood. There’s an art to playing it straight. You must build up your man, but never top him, never steal the laughs from him.”)



Film critic Cecelia Ager said it best: “Somebody somewhere should erect a statue to Margaret Dumont, with a plaque reading: “Dedicated to the woman who took an awful lot of guff from the Marx Brothers through the years, and answered it with courage and steadfastness.”



Dumont passed away in 1965, just days after doing a television reenactment (with Groucho!) of their big musical number from 1930’s “Animal Crackers”: “Hooray for Captain Spaulding.” 



Her real name was Daisy Baker.



Rest in peace, Daisy.


Woody Allen


Ike Barinholtz, the very cute comedian who used to be on Mad TV, recently tweeted: “’Midnight in Paris’ is Woody Allen’s 15th best movie.”



I haven’t seen the movie, but I have no reason to doubt him.



I came of age during the Golden Age of Woody Allen. He’d emerged from his early experimental period – “Bananas,” “Take The Money and Run,” “Sleeper” – to create one of the most perfect comedies of all time: “Annie Hall.”



If you don’t agree with me on this point one hundred percent, watch it again. And then again.



Back in the 1990s, a friend of mine would call me, and instead of saying “Hello,” she’d give me a line of “Annie Hall” dialogue. I was expected to respond with the following line. I don’t think I can do it anymore, but I could do it instantly back then. “I don’t get a period! I’m a cartoon character!” “We use a large vibrating egg.” “Love fades.”



After “Annie Hall,” Woody made “Manhattan,” which I liked, but which felt – artsy. Artificial. And it still does.



Then he made “Interiors,” his first drama. I have seen it dozens of times. I love it, but I cannot recommend it to you, unless you like beige décor and Mary Beth Hurt. It is not a comedy. It is full of angst and stiff dialogue and homages to Ingmar Bergman. Unfortunately, it is also full of uncomfortable echoes of Woody’s own (very funny) Bergman parody, “Love and Death.” Sometimes I think “Interiors” is one of Woody’s funniest comedies. I’d never say it to his face, though.



I am fond of “Stardust Memories,” which came next, but I’ll tell you why later.



After “Stardust Memories,” he made many duds. Many, many, many duds. “The Curse of the Jade Scorpion.” “Mighty Aphrodite.” “Hollywood Ending.” “Celebrity.” Some were supposed to be serious, or at least tragicomic. Oh, dear god, “September”!



But there were still moments of glory. “Broadway Danny Rose” is a thing of beauty, and go see it please, it is too funny. The first time I saw it, I did not realize it was Mia Farrow behind those big dark glasses. Woody and Mia were still together then, and (the story goes) they were in a restaurant, and Woody said, “What do you want your next role to be?”, and Mia pointed at an Italian woman in the next booth, with dark glasses and a floppy hat, and said: “I want to play her.”



And she does. And she is wonderful.



Oh, that’s right, I need to tell you about why I love “Stardust Memories” so much.



In it, Woody fantasizes that he’s talking to aliens, about how he wants to communicate something important – something lasting – to the human race. And all he can do is make these stupid comedies.



And the alien says: “But we like your movies. Especially the earlier funnier ones.”




Flag Day blog: Flags Of The World


I really have nothing to add about the following video.



Except that it involves flags.



Happy Flag Day!







Chelsea Handler


An old friend wrote me a note recently to tell me how much he enjoys reading this blog. “You are the web version of Chelsea Handler,” he wrote. “You two should write a book together.”



First of all, I love this, because flattery makes me go all mooshy inside.



Second of all, this will never happen for two reasons. Firstly, I am not worthy to buckle the little shiny thingies on Chelsea’s expensive shoes. Secondly, she scares the bejeezus out of me.



If you’re not familiar with Chelsea, you should watch her show. (It’s on too late for sedate oldsters like Partner and me, but we DVR it.) She has a uniquely dry delivery, and is unimpressed with pretty much everything. She has elevated the word “stupid” to new heights; she pronounces the word with such heavy ironic ferocity. The show’s on the E! network, which also comes in for a heavy dose of her mockery, especially when she’s forced to have guests from some of the other E! shows, like the dreaded Michael Yo, or Kendra. She also produces and stars in yet another show on E!, though only a weekly one. She has written four books, all of which have made it to the Times best-seller list. (One’s up there right now.) She sponsors a stable of writers and comedians, who appear regularly on her show, and who all seem to be doing pretty well under her tutelage.



She’s smart and funny and unapologetic. You should read the recent New York Times article about her!



All this despite the fact that women aren’t funny.



Go figure.



Go Chelsea!



(All kidding aside, I know I’d never be able to go up against her one-on-one. She’s pretty fierce.)




Valentine’s Day blog: Stefon tells you where to go

We keep recording and watching SNL, even though it’s a sucker’s game sometimes. Why, we ask ourselves while pounding our heads against the floor, do the writers and performers keep repeating unfunny sketches? (I’m looking most especially at you, Kristen Wiig and Fred Armisen.)



But sometimes a repeating character turns into something special.



Here’s Bill Hader as Stefon, who knows just where to go on Valentine’s Day.



See you at Booooooooof.











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