Friday, January 20, 2017

01-20-2017 / what to watch on TV today

If you're like me and you are trying to avoid turning on your television any time today, terrorized by what you'll see, fear not!  There's always Turner Classic Movies whose resourceful programmers have booked a screening of "A Face in the Crowd," Elia Kazan's dark and quite prescient political satire of 1957, starring Andy Griffith in a career high as a shameless huckster/opportunist/attention addict who accumulates a frightening amount of power.  Budd Schulberg's taut, astute script says all there is to say about 2017 - and, yes, its searing message was delivered 60 years ago. "A Face in the Crowd," much needed, airs today at 5:45 p.m. (est).

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

joe's dreaded genre - part 2

Credit: Walt Disney Productions (1941) ©
This was a week of good news and bad news for both movie buffs and animal activists. Count me in as a member of both unappreciated groups.

The good news is that the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey's Circus, which has delighted little children for decades with its crass exploitation and shameful abuse of animals, is finally - at long last - folding its tent.

Not surprisingly, the plasticized anchors who host the local evening news (seemingly the same people in every market) bowed their heads in unison and lamented the passing of such a "beloved institution."

All of this is in preamble to a reminiscence.  It was my first week on the job as a movie critic in Philadelphia and things were rather slow.  There were no screenings.  As is the wont of newspaper editors, they wanted to get my byline in the paper, even if it wasn't attached to a new film.  Well,
the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey's Circus was opening that night in Philadelphia and my editor thought it would be "groovy" (his word, not mine) if I reviewed it. Dutifully, I went and sat through the ordeal.

But I wrote my review of it not as an all-purpose critic but as an animal activist.  Not good.  You probably know where I am going with this.  The paper never ran my review.  Too radical.  This was not an auspicious start.

Yes, my first professional review was scrapped.

Now for the bad news for the movie buff/animal activist that defines me.  It has to do with footage unearthed by TMZ and turned into a cause célèbre by PETA . But first, I have to double back.

Back in 2015, I wrote an essay titled "joe's dreaded genre." It explained that, even though I love animals, I don't like movies about animals because movies about animals are always sad. Always. If you've noticed, terrible things tend to happen to animals in movies about animals.

What I failed to reveal in that piece is that I also have serious reservations about what is required to get animal to "act" in a movie, particularly a sad one full of one hardship after another. Yes, the "abuse" played out on screen may be simulated, but exactly what is the animal put through to complete the scene? What discomfort does it experience and withstand?

And beyond sequences depicting danger, even the most innocuous moment can be trying, stressful, for an animal. It is not natural for an animal to perform, any animal - not an elephant, not a dog and certainly not a cat.

Nor a horse.

Case in point.  My wife adores the film "Giant."  Me, not so much.  Yes, it's a great movie in most ways.  But for me, I can't get past the sequence in which Mercedes McCambridge abuses Elizabeth Taylor's beloved horse by driving her spurs into its sides.  It's a disturbing scene and the horse is clearly in agony. But was the horse "acting"?  Later, after the horse throws McCambridge, killing her (justice served), it limps back to the ranch - shot in silhouette, against a nighttime sky. An evocative, disturbing moment.

But also an ugly one.

For decades, I've wondered how the filmmakers got that horse to limp on cue.  Was it "acting" or real?  It's important to remember that "Giant" was made in less enlightened times when it was routine to trip horses (often crippling them) for action scenes. My guess is that the horse being bludgeoned with spurs and later limping wasn't "acting." It was abused, tortured, for the good of the movie.  The damn movie. And that's all that matters to filmmakers, even talented, reputable ones like George Stevens who directed "Giant."

Making that particular moment in "Giant' even more deplorable to contemplate (let alone watch)  is that, once the men in the film realize that McCambridge died after the horse threw her, they shoot the poor animal.

Which brings me to a film that is unlikely to become as iconic as "Giant."

The film is "A Dog's Purpose," based on a book by a W. Bruce Cameron that was apparently very popular. I wouldn't know. This movie was made by the estimable Lasse Hallstrom and stars Dennis Quaid (among other humans) and several dog actors as reincarnated versions of one dog.

It was one canine "actor," named Hercules (left), who was reportedly abused by the film's second-unit crew and forced into mechanically-charged torrents of water. The dog is clearly distressed in the footage unearthed by TMZ and, adding insult, the crew working for Universal Pictures and Amblin Entertainment is heard laughing at the plight of the frightened creature.

Filmmakers like Hallstrom are usually too busy directing scenes involving actors to know exactly how their second unit is operating.

That's part of the problem.

Hercules' situation is not unique.  I've a hunch that situations like this happen all the time and are not just restricted to second-unit crews.  The difference here is that it was caught on tape. And one has to wonder about the whereabouts of the American Humane Association in such cases, given that the AHA ostensibly monitors the treatment of animals on film sets.

Of course, it's a movie designed to delight little children but mostly to make an obscene amount of money for Universal and Amblin.  And that's all that matters. Given that so much can be easily accomplished these days with CGI, why use real animals at all in potentially dangerous or stressful situations?  Of course, that would put their opportunistic trainers out of work. Slavery, alas, is still alive in America, folks. These animals don't volunteer to participate in silly movies. They have no choice.

"A Dog's Purpose" is not unique.  It's just another example where the movie is more important than the unlucky animals forced to perform in it.

And the fact that a dog was abused for the purpose of making a movie that supposedly celebrates dogs is mind-blowing - simply put, sick.

Yes, yet another animal film to be avoided.

Note in Passing: I always wanted to interview Doris Day, largely because I think she's terrific.  But I've also wanted to ask her about a film she made in 1962, "Jumbo," a musical named after its elephant star.  Jumbo is forced to do silly routines that are humiliating for a creature as magnificent and sentient as an elephant.  Was cruelty involved?  Doris is a vocal animal activist and this is one area of her career that I would love to discuss with her. Bosley Crowther

Saturday, January 14, 2017

façade: dick gautier

Dick Gautier, the one and only Conrad Birdie, at the 1960 recording of the Broadway cast album

Anyone who keeps up with this site is familiar with my disdain for George Sidney's 1963 movie version of the terrific Broadway musical, "Bye Bye Birdie."  Columbia approved so many unnecessary changes that one wonders why the studio even purchased the film rights to the show in the first place. And don't get me started (again) on the casting of Ann-Margret.

To his credit, Gene Saks honored the show with his excellent 1995 TV version of the show which, apart from the original stage production itself, remains the definitive "Bye Bye Birdie."  I shudder to think what NBC will do with its planned "live" version of "Birdie" threatened for later this year.

But back to the truncated '63 film... Among the innumerable mistakes made by Sidney and Columbia was the decision not to cast the actor who created Conrad Birdie on stage in 1960.  That would be Dick Gautier.

Instead the role went to Jesse Pearson, who played Birdie in one of its touring productions and brought a distinct smarminess to the character.

I would like to believe that Gautier was passed over because he simply was too old for the role when the movie was filmed.  (The camera never lies when it comes to someone's age.)  All I know is that I missed the sly humor that Gautier brought to the role, for which he was Tony-nominated.

The comedic touch that Gautier brought to Birdie was no accident.  When he was spotted by director Gower Champion and cast in the role, Gautier was doing stand-up at The Blue Angel, opening for singer Margaret Whiting..  He was reportedly surprised when Champion offered him the role because he claimed he wasn't all that familiar with Elvis (on whom Birdie is based) or his music.  He said that he preferred Gershwin.

The idea of Dick Gautier being a stand-up comic is one difficult to grasp because, well, he didn't look like a stand-up comic.  He had the looks of a movie star.  But after "Birdie," he went back to comedy, working with Mel Brooks and Buck Henry on "Get Smart" and with Brooks again on the promising but short-lived Robin Hood satire, "When Things Were Rotten."

Movie-wise, it is interesting to note that Gautier had roles in two films that reunited him with former "Birdie" cast members.

In his film debut in 1964 in Joshua Logan's "Ensign Pulver," he played the seabee Stefanowski among a crew that included Tommy Sands, James Coco, Jerry Orbach, James Farentino, Larry Hagman, Peter Marshall, Gerald O'Laughlin and, yes, Jack Nicholson. Kay Medford, who played Dick Van Dyke's mother in "Birdie" on stage, played a head nurse who gives Walter Matthau a difficult time while flirting with him. Given that "Pulver" was a released a year after the "Birdie" film, I've often wondered if Logan hired Gautier and Medford because both had been overlooked by Sydney and Columbia.

And in Bud Yorkins' "Divorce American Style," released in 1967, Gautier played Dick Van Dyke's attorney, handling his divorce from Debbie Reynolds. Van Dyke also has a history with the actor who played Reynolds' lawyer - Shelley Berman.  The two had starred in the musical revue, "The Girls Against the Boys," which was toplined by Bert Lahr and Nancy Walker and opened in 1959, a year before "Bye Bye Birdie."

The sequence in "Divorce American Style" in which all four actors appear, hashing out the details of the divorce, is a comic high point of the film.

Dick Gautier died on  January13th.  He was 85.  Long live Conrad Birdie.

Monday, January 09, 2017

Meryl vs.The Donald, or America's Premiere Actress Deflates The Clown Prince of Vulgaria

Credit: Paul Zimmerman/Getty Images ©
Streep doing The Donald at a Delacorte Theater event on June 6

God bless the Golden Globes. Where else would one experience the unexpurgated joy of witnessing a serious, intelligent person putting our much-dreaded President-Elect in his place? And for giving a "bad performance," no less. Yes, we expect more even from reality stars.

Perfectly worded and immaculately spoken, with just the right vocal inflections and facial expressions, Streep's monologue did an exemplary job humbling someone who is unlikely to know the meaning of the word.

His first impulse, of course, was to dismiss her as an "overrated actress" - a frankly hilarious and clueless opinion given the mind-blowing montage of Streep film clips shown prior to her masterly on-stage performance.

This bizarre observation comes less than two - count 'em - two years after he praised Streep as "an excellent actress" and  "a fine person, too." But then, it wasn't so long ago that he cheered the Clintons. Fickle or forgetful?

Or perhaps it's simply a matter of veracity.

It reminds me of my late, much-missed father-in-law's take on the subject: "He's such a liar that I wouldn't believe him even if he swore that he was lying."

Note in Passing:  For those purists out there who think that only certain people are qualified to give political opinions and viewpoints, I ask, "Since when?"  Does Sean Hannity or Rachel Maddow really know more about our political culture than Meryl Streep - or me or you?  (Meryl Streep is as qualified to talk politics as The Donald is to be president.)  As a critic, I've spent decades having average people come at me with critiques of movies.  (One guy recently went on about the "editing problems" of "Manchester by the Sea"!  Huh?)  I've had to get used to it.  I suggest that our politicians also learn to adapt.  With the 24/7 non-stop news cycle ever in our face, people will have opinions. And we won't be silenced.

We won't, I tell you!

Thursday, January 05, 2017

on the fence

Credit: David Lee/Paramount ©
Davis and Washington impress and confound in the film of Wilson's "Fences"
                                
I admire Denzel Washington's film version of the legendary 1983 August Wilson play, "Fences," but not for the reasons that critics and audiences (mostly theater-goers) have been applauding for the past 30-plus years.

Frankly, initially, the film repelled me which was a surprise, given that I'm inarguably part of the liberal demographic for which both the play and film were designed. Wilson, who died in 2005, was deservedly revered for providing a voice for the downtrodden and neglected, and "Fences," considered by many to be his masterwork, is a piece of a ten-part mosaic titled "The Pittsburgh Cycle," an ambitious project that examines, in-depth, both the progress and the stasis of the African-American experience.

The full- and two-page display ads splashed with euphoric quotes about the film made me question my own opinion of the film, which is decidedly less enthusiastic.  Thinking about it, it became clear that it wasn't the film or material that repelled me but the central character, Troy Maxson, which Washington bravely decided to play himself.  Troy is 53-years-old and embittered.  He works collecting garbage in Pittsburgh and is hounded by both the highs and lows of his life - the one high point being a flirtation with major league baseball (but while there was still a color barrier) and the main low point being a prison sentence (for an accidental murder).

Wilson achieved something truly daring with Troy.  He created a politically incorrect character with almost no redeeming value.  Troy's arrogant, destructive behavior makes empathy or sympathy almost impossible.  He's repellent.  Here's a man who screws over his brain-damaged veteran brother, Gabe (Mykelti Williamson), screws over his disregarded older son, Lyons, from a previous relaltionship (a very good Russell Hornsby), screws over his seemingly despised younger son, Corey (Jovan Adepo) - and in an especially petty and vindictive manner - and who, worst of all, screws over his loyal wife, Rose (Viola Davis), with a jaw-dropping lack of regard.

Troy has a very curious sense of entitlement.

Exacerbating matters is the man's penchant for relentless pontificating and grandstanding, non-stop monologues of self-regard that remind us that "Fences" is very much a filmed play. We could pity Troy - he's a tragic figure - if he just wasn't so awful. And Washington ferociously tears into the role as if it were a raw slab of meat, refusing to lighten it or finesse us.

It's tough to watch.  Several people have complained to me recently about Kenneth Lonergan's "Manchester by the Sea" being "depressing."  Well, frankly, I found this film much more daunting and depleting.

Watching the actor go at it, I wondered if Denzel Washington, Movie Star, was a distraction - if audiences are able to see past his prevailing image as a good guy and take Troy for what he is.  Like James Earl Jones, who created the role on stage, Washington's image is one of intense integrity.  It makes me wonder if the casting of a Jones or a Washington is crucial to "Fences.  Does the "right" actor makes Troy more tolerable for audiences?

Also problematic but less so is Rose who (by my count) has at least three moments in "Fences" during which she describes all that she gave up for Troy, the dreams that she denied.  And she speaks with authority - and with an articulate quality that belies her situation.  She comes across as such a strong, independent and eloquent woman - or at least her words do - that one wonders exactly why she would put up with Troy for 18 years.

Would a real-life Rose be like this Rose?

It's these reservations that made "Fences" fascinating to me.  It's like I saw another film, not the one being raved about in those lavish ads.

Note in Passing:  Although it's been noted that Wilson produced the movie script for "Fences" just before his death in '05, there have also been rumors that playwright Tony Kushner was brought in to do some ghostwriting.  Wilson receives sole screen credit for the screenplay adaptation, but Kushner's "co-executive producer" credit is rather telling.

Sunday, January 01, 2017

twenty-sixteen

Credit: Ben King/Broad Green Pictures ©
Liam Hemsworth and Kate Winslet in 2016's best unseen movie

Now to deal with the naval-gazing critical ritual of analyzing the quality (or lack thereof) of the previous year's movie output. Unlike most of my peers, I had an aversion to this exercise (and to movie lists in general) when I was a working critic and do it now only for contrarian reasons.

You won't find me rhapsodizing about "Manchester by the Sea," "La La Land" or "Hidden Figures" (all titles that I admire) or any of the other usual suspects of what the experts call "the awards season."  In the spirit of this site, today is devoted to movies ... "neglected and mostly misunderstood."

And, so, my marginalized perspective of 2016...
  • "The Dressmaker" ~ Jocelyn Moorhouse's eccentric ensemble comedy - black and bleak and thoroughly delightful - headed by a frighteningly clear-eyed and focused Kate Winslet is my favorite film of the year, the only movie that I've seen more than once.  It's a loopy revenge farce. Boiling mad, Winslet's Tilly Dunnage returns to Dungatar, the dusty Aussie town and the scene of her terrible childhood. She is out to even the score with the creepy townspeople who tormented her in her youth and levels the entire unpleasant town in a finale that tops DePalma's "Carrie."  The supporting cast includes the invaluable Judy Davis as Winslet's decrepit crone of a mother; Liam Hemsworth as a strapping hunk who moons over Rodgers and Hammerstein's "South Pacific" (and Tilly, of course); Hugo Weaving as a police chief with a fondness for women's clothing; an unrecognizable Kerry Fox as the schoolteacher who was Tilly's chief tormentor; Caroline Goodall as a woman with pretensions who returns to Dungatar to find a suitable wife for her son, and Barry Otto as the evil town pharmacist with posture so bad that it has to be seen to be appreciated.  "The Dressmaker," adapted by Moorhouse and her husband, filmmaker P.J. Hogan ("Muriel's Wedding" and "My Best Friend's Wedding"), from a novel by Rosalie Ham, was developed in 2000 but didn't go into production until 2014.  It played a few film festivals in 2015, attracting little interest, and opened to bizarrely dismissive reviews.  When the dominant gorilla (read: The New York Times) dismisses a film, all the subservient apes usually follow suit.
  •  
  • Nine other unlucky or forgotten titles worthy of praise ~  Woody Allen's "Café Society," Matt Ross's "Captain Fantastic," Yorgos Lanthimos's "The Lobster," The Coen Bros.' "Hail, Caesar," Luca Guadagnino's "A Bigger Splash," Susanna White's "Our Kind of Traitor," Derek Cianfrance's "The Light Between Oceans," Max Showalter's "Hello, My Name Is Doris" and Greg Tiernan and Conrad Vernon's "Sausage Party." That adds up to 10, right?
  •  
  • Hero reduction has become a popular blood sport among critics and, this year, two solid films inspired by modern history were shrugged off, largely because their makers (both masters) are no long trendy.  Oliver Stone's "Snowden" and Clint Eastwood's "Sully" both present rare, fresh insight into stories that have been covered to death by our relentless 24/7 news cycle.  Refreshingly old-fashioned in their storytelling, both are compulsively watchable.
  •  
  • And now ~ ta-da ~ for the actors you won't find at this year's Oscarcast.  Best actor Hugh Grant / "Florence Foster Jenkins." Best actress Sally Field / "Hello, My Name Is Doris."  Supporting Actor Stellan Skarsgård / "Our Kind of Traitor." Supporting Actress Margo Martindale / "The Hollars." Bravo to them all.

Friday, December 30, 2016

a postscript

I've been remiss. I forgot to mention among the references to Jacques Demy's "The Young Girls of Rochfort" in my essay on Damien Chazelle's ”La La Land” that there is a wonderful documentary made by Demy's widow, filmmaker Agnès Varda - "Les demoiselles ont eu 25 ans" ("The Young Girls Turn 25").  The film, which I saw back in 1993 at the Mill Valley Film Festival, details the return of some of the film's stars, including Catherine Deneuve, and crew to the town of Rochfort to celebrate their movie 25 years later. It's an especially poignant documentary, given that three principals involved in the film - Demy, Gene Kelly and Deneuve's sister, Françoise Dorléac - were all long gone by the time of the tribute.

Monday, December 26, 2016

an "occasional musical" and its clueless admirers

Credit: Dale Robinette/Lionsgate ©
 Stars Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling perform for Damien Chazelle's camera

Damien Chazelle's "La La Land" is an odd film of significant charm and flashes of brilliance. It is being sold, rather bravely, as a musical and I reference its courage because the musical genre hasn't been appreciated, understood or desired, for several decades now, by the moviegoing public or even critics (who one would expect to have open, adventurous minds).

Actually, it should be noted that "La La Land" is a musical occasionally.  Sometimes, it remembers that it's a song-and-dance film and, at other times, it seems to forget.  That's part of its laid-back, unrushed, fizzy charm. And this curious quality - seemingly both deliberate and dreamy - is what makes it uncommon among modern films, musical or otherwise.

Chazelle works with only six songs here - which seems like barely enough to carry a self-promoted "musical" - but he's creative with them, playfully extending two or three into lengthy productions while limiting others with a scratch-pad casualness and brevity. Sometimes, only a few bars are sung.

His film has been embraced almost unanimously by the critics, deservedly so, but for reasons that have little to do with the movie itself.  It's been compared by more than one reviewer to "Singin' in the Rain," which is odd given that the two films have little in common apart from the fact that they both contain song and dance performed against a movietown backdrop.

"Singin' in the Rain," co-directed by Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly and released by MGM in 1952, has become the easy, rather convenient go-to musical for contemporary critics, even though one suspects that these same critics probably would have dismissed it as inconsequential in '52.

Also: "La La Land" can't be realistically compared to any American musical because, well, it isn't really American.  It's French (although spoken and sung in English, of course).  It's inspiration is the work of the late French filmmaker Jacques Demy, its specific template clearly being Demy's 1967 creamy sundae-of-a-musical, "The Young Girls of Rochefort" ("Les demoiselles de Rochefort"), featuring songs by Michel Legrand. Both move to a light, lilting jazz score, and "La La Land" also pays homage to Legrand with orchestrations that are lush with violins, flutes, accordians, concertinas and xzylophones.

The music (even the background mood music) in Chazelle's film swirls, unlike that of any other American movie musical within memory. Justin Hurwitz composed the Legrand-like music for "La La Land" and Ben Pasek and Justin Paul contributed the film's quick, clever conversational lyrics.

The French musical is something of an acquired taste, not always easy to consume and enjoy. "The Young Girls of Rochfort," a rare exception, goes down relatively easy, but I always found Demy's much-admired 1964 film, "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg" ("Les parapluies de Cherbourg"), a challenge to sit through.  Although "La La Land" follows the contours of its inspirations, it has none of the archness of its French counterparts.

Somehow, Chazelle manages to surmount that problem (although certain moviegoers, especially non-fans of the musical, may still be annoyed). 

His sprawling opening number, "Another Day of Sun," choreographed by Mandy Moore on the Los Angeles I-405 Freeway and performed by an ensemble of 100 singers and dancers, seems gratuitous and unrelated to the film that follows, but it is absolutely crucial to setting its tone:

We're not in Los Angeles anymore, Toto.  We're in Rochfort.

The plot that kicks in is about two show-business careerists who meet cute (well, sort of) on the 405, and the film then seesaws back and forth between the ambitions of the girl, a hopeful actress named Mia (Emma Stone), and those of the boy, a frustrated musician named Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), while also fooling around with chronology as it also goes back and forth in time.

To make ends meet, Mia works as a barista in the café on the Warner Bros. backlot, where one the buildings has the word "Parapluies" written on it, a reference of course to "Les parapluies de Cherbourg," whose plot is echoed in Mia and Sebastian's knotty relationship.

Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling complement each other perfectly, with Stone playing it hyper with raw nerves showing and Gosling shielding his character's insecurities with self-aware cool. And so, given these character dynamics, it makes sense musically that Mia nervously flirts with a song or belts it out, as in her showstopper "Audition" ("The Fools Who Dream"), while Sebastian simply croons, lightly and quietly, flirting with his songs in a different way, as he does with "City of Stars," the reprise of which is sort of a musical doodle. Both songs are sung live; others are lip-synced.

"La La Land" doesn't completely ignore the American film musical, memorably quoting two. Sebastian's scenes performing in various small, dimly-lighted, smokey clubs subtly evoke the moment when Judy Garland sings "The Man That Got Away" in George Cukor's "A Star Is Born" (Warner Bros., 1955), while an elaborate, painterly fantasy sequence late in the movie reimagines what can only be the dream ballet in the Vincente Minnelli-Gene Kelly collaboration, "An American in Paris" (MGM, 1951).


All of the film, but especially the fantasy sequence, has been given a luscious glow by cinematographer Linus Sandgrew. In his New Yorker review, Anthony Lane commented, "It looks so delicious that I genuinely couldn’t decide whether to watch it or lick it." Sandgrew employed the old CinemaScope process for this oaccasion and Los Angeles has never looked more inviting. I feel precisely the same way about the movie itself.

FYI: Catherine Deneuve stars in three of Jacques Demy's musicals.  In addition to the aforementioned  "Les parapluies de Cherbourg" and "Les demoiselles de Rochefort" (which also starred Deneuve's late sister, Françoise Dorléac, and Gene Kelly), there's 1970's "Donkey Skin" ("Peau d'âne").  Demy also directed Yves Montand in 1988's marvelously titled backstage musical, "Three Tickets for the 26th" ("Trois places pour le 26").


Notes in Passing: Given the role that Warner Bros. plays in the film (Nicholas Ray's 1955 "Rebel Without a Cause" is also referenced), it's a bit of a surprise that Warners didn't snap up the film's distribution rights.

Lionsgate is releasing "La La Land."

Also, two - count 'em - two soundtrack albums from "La La Land" have been released - one devoted to the film's song score and one to its background music.  This isn't a first, however. David Byrne's new-style film musical from three decades ago, ”True Stories” (Warner Bros., 1986), also had an album of mood music and another with songs.

The latter, however, was not from the soundtrack. All the songs on it are performed by Byrne and The Talking Heads. The actor-singers in the film included John Goodman and Annie McEnroe. Byrne's film remains new-style even 30 years later.  It's terrific and worth seeking out.  That said,  I'm still waiting for an authentic soundtrack album from it.

Well, one can hope, right?

Finally, a delayed added postscript: I've been remiss. I forgot to mention the wonderful documentary made by Jacques Demy's widow, filmmaker Agnès Varda - "Les demoiselles ont eu 25 ans" ("The Young Girls Turn 25") - which details the remaining cast (including Deneuve) and crew of "The Young Girls of Rochfort" returning to the town of Rochfort to celebrate their movie 25 years later.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

indelible moment: "Scrooge" (1970)

One of the most delightfully perverse moments in movie-musical history is performed early on in "Scrooge," Ronald Neame's 1970 adaptation of Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol," with songs by Leslie Bricusse.

In it, Albert Finney, so obviously relishing the role of Ebenezer, lurches through the streets of London, scowling at passersby and declaring in rhyme (courtesy of Bricusse's intricate, socially incorrect wordplay): 

"Scavengers and sycophants and flatterers and fools
Pharisees and parasites and hypocrites and ghouls
Calculating swindlers, prevaricating frauds
Perpetrating evil as they roam the earth in hordes
Feeding on their fellow men
Reaping rich rewards
Contaminating everything they see
Corrupting honest men like me!"

"Humbug! Poppycock! Balderdash! Bah!," Finney/Scrooge declares before breaking into Bricusse's marvelously demented song, "I Hate People," whose lyric sounds even more deranged when seen on paper. Or in this case, on computer screen.  Happy Holidays?  Indeed. Here goes...

"I hate people!
I hate people!
People are despicable creatures
Loathesome, inexplicable creatures
Good-for-nothing, kickable creatures
I hate people!
I abhor them!
When I see the indolent classes
Sitting on their indolent asses
Gulping ale from indolent glasses
I hate people!
I detest them!
I deplore them!
Fools who have no money but spend it
Get in debt, then try to end it
Beg me on their knees to befriend them
Knowing I have cash to lend them
Soft-hearted me! Hard-working me!
Clean-living, thrifty and kind as can be!
Situations like this are of no interest to me
I hate people!
I loathe people!
I despise and abominate people!
Life is full of cretinous wretches
Earning what their sweatiness fetches
Empty minds whose pettiness stretches
Further than I can see
Little wonder I hate people
And I don't care if they hate ... me!"

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Philly's Own!

Did you know that Bradley Cooper was born in Philadelphia and grew up nearby in Jenkintown and Rydal?  Or that Tina Fey is from Upper Darby? Or that Kevin Bacon's name should always be prefaced by ... Philly's Own?

Well, you would if you live in Philadelphia or anywhere close to the place because the paper of record, The Philadelphia Inquirer, has become obsessed with pointing out such information, ad infinitum, in reviews, interviews or any other pieces of scintillating journalism involving a celebrity with a local connection, even if the connection is tenuous. Aubrey Plaza is from Wilmington. Taylor Swift is from Wyomissing.  And Will Smith and Lee Daniels and David Lynch and Seth Green are all ... Philly's Own!

Why, I'm sure Meryl Streep even crossed the Ben Franklin Bridge once. That counts, right? I mean, she would qualify even though she's from, well, Summit, New Jersey. Jersey is a suburb of Philadelphia, isn't it?

I know, I know - I'm being snarky.  But I just don't understand this brand of unbridled pride. Do the paper's readers really care and do they have to be informed, over and over again, that Cooper was born in Philadelphia?

Lately, the Inky (as it is know locally) has been especially keen on promoting the local connection of "Ardmore's (and Friends Central's) own Benj Pasek" who penned the lyrics with his writing partner Justin Paul for the six songs in Damien Chazelle's "La La Land," yet the latest attempt to revive that eternally misunderstood genre, the movie musical.

Every piece - and there have been several of them - have referenced this.  The connection has been shoehorned even into wire stories written by non-Inquirer reporters. And exacerbating this rather tacky bit of hometown chauvinism is the fact that the person who wrote the music for "La La Land" is never mentioned.  That would be Justin Hurwitz who (no surprise) isn't from Philadelphia and who attended Harvard (with his friend Chazelle), rather than the University of Pennsylvania. Bad form.

For the sake of full disclosure, I hasten to note that my second newspaper job was in Philadelphia.  It is more than 30 years since I worked there but even then, there was this outsized pride in the place.  Case in point: When Grace Kelly died, it wasn't enough to run an obit or an appreciation.  No, there had to be a separate pullout - about a dozen pages celebrating a movie star who made only a handful of films, half of them negligible, and who was competent at best as an actress. But she was Philly royalty, see?

And then there's "Rocky," a solid little film that has been transformed locally into a work of art as significant as Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel.

An editor - a carpetbagger brought in from out of town to tweak the features section - once theorized that the incessant bragging was probably the result of Philadelphia being situated between Washington, D.C. and New York in more ways than one - that there was this desperate need to either call attention to itself or forever live in the shadows of N.Y. and D.C.

So, is this kind of horn-blowing a part of New Journalism or is Philly unique?  I'm not sure.  It may be routine in other cities as well.  I don't regularly access the sites to papers in Boston or Chicago, for example.  However, I do know I've never seen "hometown references" in either The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times or The Washington Post.  And when I worked in Northern California, I certainly was not expected to mention that Tom Hanks was a local boy in any of my reviews of his films.

But I am more than aware that Kat Dennings is from Bryn Mawr, and that Alan Goldberg (creator of TV's "The Goldbergs") is from Jenkintown and that, yes, Blythe Danner and Bob Saget are also two of  ... Philly's Own!

Compulsively so.