Friday, August 21, 2015

i'm sick of it already

CBS's relentless promotion of its "Modern Family" wannabe personifies the adage, "Familiarity breeds contempt."

Sunday, August 16, 2015

the summer of '62

credit © 1962 Bert Stern
Marilyn Monroe in late June 1962, six weeks before her death, as photographed by Bert Stern for Vogue magazine

Forgive me, but I plan to traipse down memory lane today (and seriously date myself).

Every year, as the summer movie season begins to wind down in August, I become nostalgic for the bittersweet season of 1962.  Ah, yes, 1962...

I vividly remember my father driving me to Mass on Sunday, August 5th in '62 and picking me up an hour later with the announcement that Marilyn Monroe had died.  Marilyn.  MM. My first movie crush. Dead.

A profound loss that was very personal to me.

That summer, my parents enrolled me at Steelman's Business School to learn typing (because the Catholic school that I attended allowed only girls to take typing classes) and also signed me up at a Rick's Gym (because I was a skinny movie nerd).  I went to Steelman's at 8 a.m., the gym at 10 and then I'd have lunch at a cozy little place called Calico Kitchen.

My lunch was always the same - a Texas Tommy and a black-&-white milk shake. I believe that the Texas Tommy sandwich no longer exists, but it was fab-u-lous - a hot dog, split down the center with a strip of pickle and cheese tucked in, and then wrapped in bacon and stuffed inside a bun.

Plus fries.

I'm amazed that I survived puberty.

Then I'd go to a noon movie at one of two theaters in downtown Camden, New Jersey - the Stanley, a sprawling palace, or the art-deco Savar (which was conveniently next-door to Calico Kitchen).

On August 6th, the day after Marilyn passed, instead of working out at Rick's, I spent most of my time there reading about her in all the local papers - The Philadelphia Bulletin, The Philadelphia Inquire, The Daily News and the Camden Courier-Post.  I clipped out the articles to keep.

I was heartbroken and reluctant to see a movie that day. I felt guilty. It seemed wrong. But the Savar was showing a Jack Lemmon comedy, "The Notorious Landlady," and, given that I loved Lemmon, I couldn't resist.  So I had my Texas Tommy and fries and spent the next two hours with Jack.

"The Notorious Landlady" remains one of my all-time favorite films, not just because it's a terrific, clever comedy but largely because of the situation, the time and the place, that embrace it.  It's a special movie that perhaps no one else views - or can appreciate - quite the way I do.

I binged-watched it that summer, seeing it multiple times.

But the summer of '62 also holds a special place in my heart because of the rich array of films that moved in and out of the local theaters - "The Music Man" ... "Lolita" ... "Advise and Consent" ... "Hatari" ... "Lonely Are the Brave" ... "Five Finger Exercise" ... "The Counterfeit Traitor" ... "That Touch of Mink" ... "My Geisha" ... "Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation" ... "David and Lisa" ... "Birdman of Alcatraz" ... "The Interns" ... Cinerama's "The Wonderful World of the Brother Grimm" ... the Hope-Crosby reunion comeback, "The Road to Hong Kong" ... Elvis' version of "Kid Galahad."

And Kim Novak had two films released within the same month - "Boys' Night Out," which her company Kimco produced, and a comedy directed by her then-significant other, Richard Quine, and co-starring her frequent screen partner, Jack Lemmon ... "The Notorious Landlady."

It's a film that I watch every August 6th.

Note in Passing: The movie year 1962, in general, is arguably the greatest in film history, surpassing (yes) even 1939 - something which I addressed back in 2012 in this essay.

The Marilyn Artwork: Photographer Bert Stern had three sessions with Marilyn Monroe for Vogue magazine in late June 1962, six weeks before her death. These sessions, as evidenced here, produced extraordinarily beautiful and unique images of Marilyn.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

façade: gary cooper (and his brothers)

It's a given.  Extroverts have always been well-liked, admired, even celebrated, while introverts remain unpopular and, quite often, suspect.  And social media has only exaggerated these extremes by simple virtue of the fact that it is more compatible with narcissism than with modesty.

I bring up the extroversion/introversion contrast because, to a degree, it applies to actors. Much like show "American Idol," whose participants predictably belt, shout and scream unmemorable songs to the rafters, acting in modern American movies has become a matter of overkill.

More is not enough.

For years now, whenever actors speak of what performer from the past they most admire, the usual suspect is invoked - that master of overacting, Marlon Brando. Every actor has delusions of being the next Brando or his itchy protégé, James Dean - men you can see "acting."

This is my roundabout way of honoring Gary Cooper, an actor often described as "laid-back," meaning that he largely underacted, never so effectively than in his 1941 Oscar winner, Howard Hawks' compulsively watchable, "Sergeant York." Given the heated acting climate today, where actors underline and italicize everything, it's difficult to image this particular Cooper performance commanding any respect from people who should know better (read: other actors and, yes, movie critics).

Cooper's quiet acting style represented an ineffable brand of manhood that's also gone missing: He effortlessly projected strong innocence and innocent strength. Yes, innocence - now an undesirable trait for men/actors to embody (as evident in the dubious acting choices of Tom Cruise, Liam Neeson, Robert Downey, Jr. and - well, I could go on).

Gary Cooper has had his on-screen heirs but they've also been largely underrated and dismissed. I'm thinking of Kevin Costner and his appealingly casual acting style (as well as his penchant for socially-conscious material), and Steve McQueen, who found stillness in his tough-guy roles and was even better in his atypical parts ("Baby, The Rain Must Fall," "Love with the Proper Stranger" and "The Reivers").

These are men you can't catch "acting."  Not for a second. Coop's boys.

Note in Passing: My friend and colleague, Carrie Rickey, wrote a compelling essay on this subject for her Flickgrrl site on 26 January, 2011 when she was reviewing for The Philadelphia Inquirer. In the piece, Carrie questioned, "Is the Oscar for Best Acting or Most Acting?," anchoring her query to the over-the-top, Oscar-winning work of Christian Bale and Melissa Leo in David O. Russell's "The Fighter."  It's an astute question, given that Mark Wahlberg's quiet title-role performance is actually the most satisfying one in that entertaining, if somewhat chaotic, film.

But few people acknowledged Wahlberg's work back in '11 - or his subtly comic performance in Russell's "I ♥ Huckabee" which, for my money, was arguably the best male performance of 2004.  Again, no-frills acting.

Wednesday, August 05, 2015

cinema obscura: The Director's Cut of Colin Higgins' "Best Little Whorehouse..." (1982)

Back in the day, I interviewed Burt Reynolds on the Charlotte, N.C. set of what would become (arguably) one of his lesser films, "Stroker Ace."

It was 1982 and Burt's "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas" had just opened. He was very high on it and, after the interview in his trailer, he put on a cassette of "Whorehouse" outtakes - all musical stuff, including a different song written for the opening credits by Dolly Parton- "Chick-Chick-Chicken Ranch" - in lieu of  the song that subsequently opened the movie, "20 Fans" (by Carol Hall who wrote all the songs for the original Broadway production) - and a soulful solo by Burt called "(Where) Stallions Run" which never made it into the truncated theatrical release. I've never quite grasped why studios "tweak" their musicals by editing out ... music.

You know, the reason musicals are made - the song and dance numbers.

Anyway, way back in 2002, when Universal released Colin Higgins' film on DVD, advertising "outtakes" among the bonus features, I fully expected those outtakes to be the amazing stuff that filled Burt's VHS tape. Wrong. The outtakes were the kind of blooper reels that Burt regularly screened for Johnny Carson's and Mike Douglas' TV audiences during the 1970s and '80s - you know, stuff of Charles Durning flubbing his lines, Dolly coming on like Mae West and Burt breaking up over some Dom DeLuise gaff. Strictly mundane. What the heck happened to all the missing musical goodies?

Surprisingly, not even "(Where) Stallions Run" made the disc - surprising because the song was reinstated for the film's TV broadcasts, presumably to fill it out after the more randy material was excised by the TV censors.

In his comments on the film on, Greg M. Pasqua reports that "over 30 minutes of film was cut from the Director's print" prior to its release in '82. (The release print of the film clocks in at 115 minutes.)

Among the missing numbers noted by Pasqua are two written for the film by Parton - "A Gamble Either Way" and "Stallions' Ways," both of which appear on Parton's "Burlap and Satin" album. Actually, the title of the song on Parton's album isn't
"Stallions' Ways," but "A Cowboy's Ways,"
which, it turns out, is an alternative title for the aforementioned "(Where) Stallions Run," which was reworked for Reynolds by Parton. (Got that?)

Pasqua reports that an entire subplot from the play, involving the hiring of a shy girl (Andrea Pike) who grows into a woman during the course of the storyline, was elminated, along with one of the better-known songs from the stage production, "Girl, You're a Woman," inspired by that subplot.  

Other songs from Carol Hall's stage score that were eliminated from the film include "Watch Dog," "Doatsy Mae," "No Lies," "Good Old Girl," "Twenty Four Hours of Lovin'" and "The Bus From Amarillo."


"Also," writes Pasqua, "smaller roles from the Broadway show were cut, including the abbreviated role of Angel (played by Valerie Leigh Bilxer), the (prostitute) who wants to see her little boy for Christmas, and other scenes involving Dolly and the (ranch) girls. Longer cuts of the big musical numbers also exist ('The Aggie Song,' '20 Fans' and 'Little Bitty Pissant Country Place'). All of these would make for a pretty good Special Edition."

Agreed.  And, for the record, I like the film, always did - even at the time of its release when it was unfashionable for any critic to admit so.

And now that the 2002 DVD is out-of-print, it would be great if Universal finally releases the director's cut on Blu-ray - or at least include the deleted and unused musical numbers as outtakes.

My advice: Just call Burt.  He has them. Or once did.
Note in Passing:  Becoming a film was not easy for “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.”  Universal was reportedly so enthusiastic about the property that it rather hastily agreed that the movie version would be co-directed by two men who oversaw the Broadway production, actor Peter Masterson and song-and dance wiz, Tommy Tune (who also choreographed the stage show).  Burt Reynolds, the first star to be cast, was apparently fine with the idea, but matters seemed to change when Dolly Parton signed on as its leading lady and I guess Burt backed her up.

“Whorehouse” was Parton’s second film, following her debut in “Nine to Five” (1980), which was Colin Higgins's second film as a director (after having written the screenplay for Hal Ashby’s “Harold and Maude” of 1971 and directed Goldie Hawn and Chevy Chase in “Foul Play” in 1978.)

My hunch is that Parton felt connected to Higgins and preferred him to guide her in her second film, given that she did such memorable work for him in “Nine to Five.”  So, Higgins came on board as director. He would direct only three films, "Best Little Whorehouse" being his third and last.

Colin Higgins died in 1988 of AIDS.

Sunday, August 02, 2015

indelible moment: "Strangers on a Train"

Hitchcock, working without the benefit of CGI

Friday, July 24, 2015

façade: steve m. & steve c.

credit © 2015 Jim Ruymen/UPI 
Steve Carell and his wife Nancy at the American Film Institute's 43rd Life Achievement Award tribute to Steve Martin at the Dolby Theatre on June 4, 2015

I call them The Two Steves.

Steve Martin and Steve Carell.

Although they are a good generation apart, they have a lot in common.  Both are good actors and sly comics, with a certain sophistication that sets them apart.  And the career trajectory of each man is noticeably similar.  I guess what I'm saying is that Steve Carell is the new millennium's Steve Martin.

Ah, yes, Steve Martin in the 1980s-early '90s.  Mr. Reliable.  One of the few reasons to go to a movie a couple decades ago.

There were such inventive, savvy screen comedies (listed in no particular order) as ... “Roxanne” ... “Planes, Trains & Automobiles” ... "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels" ... "HouseSitter" ... “Parenthood” ... “L.A. Story” ... "All of Me" ... “Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid” ... “The Man with Two Brains” ... “Grand Canyon” and ... most audacious of all, a couple of screen musicals, “Little Shop of Horrors” and the singular “Pennies from Heaven."

Heck, I even love such underrated, little-seen Martin titles as “Movers and Shakers," “My Blue Heaven,” “Leap of Faith,” “The Lonely Guy” and "Mixed Nuts" - especially “The Lonely Guy” and "Mixed Nuts," both of which I'm convinced are primed for major rediscoveries/reëvaluations.

And these were all made when he was appearing regularly on television, as a recurring guest host on "Saturday Night Live," its resident "wild and crazy guy."

He was once on a roll.  But the good times rarely last.  Unexpectedly, during the 1990s, Martin segued into what I call his "toxic family-friendly" period - appearing in the wince-producing “Father of the Bride” duo and the unwatchable “Cheaper by the Dozens” twins.  Nothing seemed the same. I mean, need I mention “Sgt. Bilko” or the unnecessary remakes of "The Out-of-Towners" and “The Pink Panther (1 & 2)"?

Everyone eventually makes painful compromises for their jobs.  You go along to get along, as the saying goes, and actors probably know this better than anyone else.  As movie audiences have dumbed down, filmmakers have had to lower their standards.  (Movie critics have certainly given in, endorsing films that, a decade or two ago, they would have squarely dismissed - compromising so that their readers or, more to the point, their editors don't think of them as impossible-to-please elitists.)

But as the '90s closed, Martin bounced back.  The Oughts brought another string of stylish Steve Martin films, starting with "Bowfinger": "Joe Gould's Secret" ... "Novocaine"...  "The Spanish Prisoner" ... "It's Complicated" ...  and, even though they were major disappointments, "The Big Year" and the (Woody) Allen-esque“Shopgirl” (based on Martin's slim novel). "Bringing Down the House," on paper, seemed like it would be an embarrassment, but in performance, it somehow worked.

Carell, much like Martin, originally honed his talents on television, popping up as a guest player in assorted sitcoms. There were occasional bits in movies ("Curly Sue," his first film, "Bewitched" and Woody Allen's "Melinda and Melinda") and, then in rapid succession, came "The Office" on television and the movie “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy,” leading breathlessly to a smooth team-player turn in “Little Miss Sunshine” and a bravura star turn in “The 40-Year-Old Virgin.”

His subsequent choices have been interesting - "Dan in Real Life" ... "Date Night" ... "Dinner for Schmucks" ... "Crazy Stupid Love" ... "Seeking a Friend for the End of the World" ... "The Way Way Back" ... "The Incredible Burt Wonderstone" ... "Hope Springs" and, of course, "Foxcatcher."

Carell hasn't quite yet hit the dry period of his movie career, although there was one 12-month time frame that included the groaners "Evan Almighty" and ... "Get Smart." Yes, Like Martin, he has his own dubious remake.

I’m hoping that these two represent only a blip, just a couple passing aberrations.

Note in Passing: Right now, matters look good for these farceurs extraordinaire. Carell has something called "Freeheld" coming up (with Ellen Page and Julianne Moore, his playmate from "Crazy Stupid Love"), and Martin has "Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk," an Ang Lee film (with Kristin Stewart). In the meantime, the American Film Institute's tribute to Steve Martin will be televised by Turner Classic Movies @ 8 p.m. (est) and 11:30 p.m. (est) on Thursday, July 30.

Monday, July 20, 2015

in praise of nicolle

ABC has it all wrong.

Instead of playing musical chairs with the hosts of its disintegrating daytime talk show, "The View," the network should be questioning the executives who are overpaid to apparently make dubious decisions.

Case in point: The show's latest fatality, Nicolle Wallace who, according to Variety, has been shown the door because, as its resident Republican, she failed to offer "enough dissent about political issues" and was "continually voicing her lack of knowledge about celebrities," such as the Kardashians.

She also failed to "generate buzz on social media."

And she wasn't shrill enough, a la Elizabeth Hasselbeck. But as Fox 411 so aptly put it, "being a not-shrill conservative is kind of Wallace’s thing."

And let's face it: Wallace was out of her league on the show.  She's way too good for "The View" - intelligent, reasonable, restrained, charming and comfortably attractive. She's dignified, not shrill. Wallace brought style and reserve to a show that's been in desperate need of both for nearly a decade now.  And she exhibited the enthusiasm of a team player, a rare quality that can't be easily applied to any of the other rotating hosts.

And I say this as a died-hard Democrat.

But it's not surprising that ABC was concerned about Kardashian trivia. This is the network responsible for two reality-show embarrassments - the "Dancing with the Stars" and "The Bachelor/Bachlorette" franchises.

Watching "The View" expire has not been easy.  It's been painful actually.

Barbara Walters debuted it originally as an affable homage to Virginia Graham's "Girl Talk" of the 1960s, with diverse women discussing diverse topics.  As its popularity grew, it became more politicized and ultimately more strident, hitting a few unpleasant peaks from which it has never fully recovered.  CBS, meanwhile, unveiled its own version, "The Talk," which is lighter, more companionable and less confrontational. Daytime perfect.

Given that "The View" is way beyond saving, being one of its hosts has become a thankless, futile job. But Nicolle Wallace gave it a try, providing it with a shot of smarts, an elusive quality no longer in demand at ABC.

It's anyone's guess who will replace Nicolle Wallace on "The View."  But I hear that Michelle Duggar is currently available.  That should certainly satisfy ABC's need for dissent and social media buzz.  Daytime imperfect.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Wednesday, July 08, 2015

cinema obscura: Karel Reisz's "Isadora" (1968)

Redgrave's Isadora Duncan entertains herself while her distracted lover James Fox concentrates on his art in Karel Reisz's lost masterwork "Isadora" (1968)

The general personality profile of a lost movie is that it is small and that its original release came with little fanfare. Such films usually come in under the radar. Invisibility is the trademark of a lost movie.

What's difficult to grasp is a major movie that seems to fall off the map.

A prime example is Karel Reisz's brilliant, messy Isadora Duncan biopic, "Isadora," which provided star Vanessa Redgrave with her most emblematic, self-defining role. Duncan, a solopistic, sexually uninhibited artist who experimented with dance, liberating it, was also a defiant free-thinker, and the like-minded Redgrave tore into the role as if it were a raw piece of meat and she was starving. It's something to behold.

Unfortunately, the film was undermined by its studio even before anyone, critics included, got to see it. Universal, with Oscars in its eyes, rushed the 168-minute art film into a single Los Angeles theatre for one week in December of 1968 to qualify for that year's Academy Awards.

Misunderstood, it was promptly panned by The Los Angeles Times (shades of Alfred Hitchcock's "Vertigo" here), although Vanessa Redgrave did get her Oscar nomination, losing - unbelievably - to Katherine Hepburn and Barbra Streisand (oy!) who won in a tie vote that year. Anyway, based on this one review, Universal panicked, recalled the film and deleted some 40 minutes (shade of Terry Gilliam's "Brazil," a future Universal victim here).

By the time it opened in New York on April 27, 1969, it had a new title - the generic, TV-movie-sounding "The Loves of Isadora" - and, according to Vincent Canby's dismissive review in The New York Times, it ran 128 minutes. (This conflicts with reports that put the edited version at 131 minutes but, really, what's three minutes when 40 have been cut?)

Despite its already troubled history, Universal gave Reisz permission to screen the film in competition for the Golden Palm at The 22nd Cannes Film Festival (held May 8-23, 1969), where Redgrave took home the best actress award. Presumably, the original version was screened at Cannes, given that it played there as "Isadora," not "The Loves of Isadora."

The film then disappeared from the landscape until it was incarnated, briefly, in the 1990s when a "director's cut," running 153 minutes, was released on VHS (a version which was televised by the Bravo cable channel, with some minor editing of nudity) and then it disappeared again.

The final nail in "Isadora's" coffin came at The Orange British Academy Film Awards in February of 2010, when Redgrave was awarded its highest accolade, the Academy Fellowship, to an approving crowd at London's Royal Opera House. Voluminous clips from just about all of Redgrave's important films preceded the award itself. It went on forever.

But, inexplicably, not "Isadora." The film that, arguably, contains her single greatest screen performance was absent.  Unfair!

"Great movies are rarely perfect movies."

-Pauline Kael  on "Isadora"

And that sums up Reisz's film.


Friday, July 03, 2015

the magic is gone

Steven Soderbergh's "Magic Mike" of 2012 remains an unexpected, disarming film, a modest movie shot on a shoestring budget and something of a labor of love for its star, Channing Taum, who turned a part of his fascinating past into a charming male fantasy.

Soderbergh built the film around his star’s easy-going personality and laid-back acting style.  It has the appeal of a 1970s Burt Reynolds lark (hence, the clever use of the Warner Bros. logo from the ‘70s), only it’s not about a trucker or a moonshiner but about a male stripper.

The inevitable sequel, unfortunately titled “Magic Mike XXL” and directed by Soderbergh’s long-time assistant director Gregory Jacobs, makes the mistake of disposing of the very elements that make the original irresistible, most jarringly the film’s anchor – Matthew McConaughey, so mesermizing as the incorrigible strip-club entrepreneur and player, Dallas.

But also missing, and equally important, are Alex Pettyfer, who (shades of "All About Eve" here) played Eve Harrington to Tatum's Margo Channing, and the soothing Cody Horn, much missed as Tatum's love interest and the one recognizable character with whom audiences could easily identify.

All that remains is Tatum’s improvisational-style acting, which becomes tiresome this time around. “Magic Mike XXL,” which chronicles a weekend road trip by Tatum and company to an expansive “male entertainment” conference in Myrtle Beach, Florida, consists of little else but the guys hanging out, making non-stop (and amusingly self-important) small talk.

And this small talk (very small) goes on and on and on, ad infinitum.

It ... never ... stops.


The actors who were merely in the background of the original film are now front and center and none of them is interesting. They talk about their long-delayed plans for a different life (who cares?) and how their work as “male entertainers” empowers women.  They “heal” the poor ladies, see?

The dances in the original film, all staged in a club setting, were indeed dances.  In “Magic Mike XXL,” there are no dances, per se, just choreographed sex acts in which the guys interact with willing fans, simulating intercourse.  It’s porno set to hip-hop sounds.

And it's staged not in clubs, but in living rooms, kitchens and even convenience stores - wherever the boys can find a panting fan.

It makes sense that none of these routines is a dance in the strict sense of the word because, except for Tatum, none of the actors playing dancers in the film can actually dance.  They merely undulate, thrusting their pelvic regions occasionally and flailing their arms.  They "dance" mostly with their arms. The best that Big Dickie Rich (Joe Manganiello) can do, for example, is to conjure up an erection and an exploding ejaculation with the help of a bottle of sparkling water. You know, high school stuff. (One clueless scribe called "Magic Mike XXL" a "musical" in his review. Huh?)

And all of this is interactive, with obliging women (too many of them stereotypically, tellingly overweight) invited to have chocolate syrup smeared over and licked off their inner thighs and to literally have a buff guy’s asshole pushed against their noses. All of which is too grotesque to be even remotely sexy. One has to wonder if these "dances" are more uncomfortable for the performer or the fan being happily mauled.

The women in the audiences, meanwhile - and there are seemingly thousands of them - are presented as desperate, pathetic, sex-starved morons.  And of the “name” actresses here - among them, Andie McDowell, Elizabeth Banks and Amber Herd - only Jada Pinkett Smith seems to be having fun with her leering, Barry White-style elocutions.

It's a bit illogical and amazing that, given the sexed-up nature of the material on hand, "Magic Mike XXL" is such a numbing bore.

Note in Passing: Soderbergh photographed the film (under his usual pseudonym "Peter Andrews") and also edited it (as "Mary Ann Bernard").  Given that he must have been on the set all the time, one has to wonder why he simply didn’t direct it as well.  Oh, right, he's retired from directing.