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.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Friday, July 17, 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.

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.

Wednesday, July 01, 2015

"les demoiselles de rochefort"

What:  An Outdoor Screening of “The Young Girls of Rochefort,” by Jacques Demy. (Presented by the Cultural Services of the French Embassy, The Battery Conservancy, NYC Parks and the Poitou-Charentes Region as part of the Hermione Cultural Program in the USA - Summer 2015)

Who:  Catherine Deneuve, Françoise Dorléac, Gene Kelly, George Chakiris, Grover Dale, Jacques Perrin, Michel Piccoli and Danielle Darrieux  

When:  Friday July 3, 2015, at 8.30pm

Where:  The Battery, Castle Clinton Plaza

Cost:   Free


Sunday, June 28, 2015

indelible moment: "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes"

Howard Hawks' "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" (1953) is a musical comedy with the accent on comedy, thanks largely to the skills of Marilyn Monroe, Charles Coburn and the child actor George "Foghorn" Winslow.

Cast as a millionaire named Henry Spofford III who's much younger than Monroe's golddigging Lorelei Lee had expected, the seven-year-old, preternaturally deep-voiced Winslow effectively steals the two shipboard scenes he shares with Monroe.  The second scene is a comic encounter with Monroe hilariously stuck in a porthole and in desperate need of help.

Their banter:

Henry: "Hello."
Lorelei: "Oh, Mr Spofford. Would you please give me a hand? I'm sort of stuck!"
Henry: "Are you a burglar?"
Lorelei: "Heaven's no! The steward locked me in. I was waiting for a friend."
Henry: "Why didn't you ring for him?"
Lorelei: "I didn't think of it. Isn't that silly?"
Henry: "If you were a burglar, and I helped you escape..."
Lorelei: "Please help me before somebody comes along."
Henry: "I'm thinking. All right. I'll help you. I'll help you for two reasons."
Lorelei: "Never mind the reasons. Just help me."
Henry: "The first reason is I'm too young to be sent to jail. The second reason is you got a lot of animal magnetism."

Winslow died two weeks ago - on June 13 - at age 69.  According to the obit by William Grimes in  The New York Times, Winslow was discovered by Cary Grant who had him cast in his first film, Norman Taurog's "Room for One More" (1952).

This unusual, memorable little boy worked in film for only six years, until 1958, and made a scant 10 features. He claimed that never enjoyed acting.

But audiences certainly enjoyed Foghorn.

Monday, June 22, 2015

inside out/uʍop ǝpᴉsdn

"Inside Out" is something of a crash course in the development and working of the human brain, specifically the evolving brain of a child and, for the sake of simplicity, its focus is limited to only five emotions - joy, sadness, fear, anger and disgust - that may dictate the child's given mood.

It has the soothing feel of one parent (the filmmaker) reassuring other parents (his target audience) that it's perfectly fine for their children to experience sadness - and, by extension, for everyone to feel sad occasionally, children and adults alike.  Being sad, in fact, can be constructive. Given the unfortunate societal trend of expected instant gratification, this bit of wisdom is much-needed, if not necessarily new.

But it's a long slog before this message becomes clear.  Much of the film is about the custody battle for sole dominion of a child named Riley fought by two emotions, personified as adorable cartoon creatures  - Joy, a text-book control freak, and Sadness, a text-book passive aggressive.

Joy, who flat-out states, "I just want Riley to be happy," initially has the audience on her side, but when the two warring emotions are sidelined away from the control panel that motivates Riley's swinging moods and they have to find a way to get back (in road film fashion), it is Sadness who saves the day. Riley's problem, see, is that her parents moved her from her birthplace to San Francisco and she learns it's perfectly fine to mourn the change and cry over her loss. She feels better when she does.

"Inside Out" and its championing of sadness would make more sense if Riley's parents spent most of the film trying to cheer her up and nudge her towards forced fun, insisting on happiness.  But they never do that.  Her father is preoccupied with work-related problems and her mom is distracted because the truck carrying all their furniture hasn't arrived.

There would be a point to the film if Riley's folks were like other modern parents who are obsessed with their children being happy all the time.

But more problematic is that the movie's concept and its execution don't match.  The film is clearly speaking to an adult audience with dialogue that incorporates a veritable glossary of  psychological jargon ("core memories," "abstract thought" and more).  It's very clever and glib, particularly when Joy comes upon a board game whose individual pieces read either "fact" or "opinion" and she quips, "I don't see the difference."

But, visually, especially the way the control-room emotions are drawn in bright primary and pastel colors (and those emotions do dominate the film), "Inside Out" looks like something packaged for pre-school children.

Much like Joy and Sadness, these two factions are at war with each other.

Note in Passing: "Inside Out" opens with an on-screen introduction by one of its makers, Pete Docter, who lauds the audience for being there and for supporting movies which are so important to life.  The conceit is a tad condescending and self-important and I thought to myself, "Uh-oh!"

Thursday, June 18, 2015

"caddyshack" (still) rules!

happy 35th anniversary to bill murray, the gopher and company

This curious email came in from

 "I remember your review of Caddy shack in the daily news 35 yrs ago trashing it. Calling men's room humor and giving it 1 star. Then at the end of the year (after all the success) you said it was one of your best movies of the year. If you're going to trash a movie. Have the guts to stick by your review. I've never respected your reviews ever since.  I am and always been a Caddy shack fan."  Sent from my iPhone

That would be incorrect.  I don't know about a movie titled "Caddy shack."  I did see - and appreciate - a Harold Ramis' looney-tune masterpiece from 1980 called "Caddyshack."  However, I did not award it one star.  Actually, I gave it no stars - because, at that time, the zippy Philadelphia tabloid where I reviewed didn't have a star system in place.

Still, it's a kick to know that, after all these years, I can still rankle people.

Even if it's incidental.

my review / click on image to enlarge and read  

Thursday, June 11, 2015

the last movie musical

Good news.  The recent Twilight Time Blu-ray release of Michael Ritchie's "The Fantasticks" includes not only the truncated 86-minute release version of the movie musical but also Ritchie's original 109-minutes cut, as edited by William Scharf, in standard definition. And it's terrific.

Twenty years later, we can see now see Ritchie's vision - an immaculate film most likely doomed because of its loving fidelity to the original Tom Jones-Harvey Schmidt 1960 stage production.  The landmark musical started life as a small off-Broadway effort that subsequently ran for a whopping 17,162 performances - that's 42 record-breaking years.

Ritchie kept matters intimate, despite his film's open-air settings, and even though movie musicals had virtually no audience interest in 1995, the filmmaker probably thought - and rightfully so - that those 42 years in New York meant that the show had an obsessively loyal following.

But those people (plus those who had performed the show in school and in community productions) never got a chance to see the film. United Artists test-screened "The Fantasticks" for audiences no longer familiar with film musicals.  The scores were predictably low, the film was shelved.

For five years.

MGM Home Entertainment was preparing a direct-to-video release of Ritchie's cut in 2000 when Francis Ford Coppola reportedly stepped forward and offered to re-edit the film for a theatrical release.

Twenty-three minutes were taken out of "The Fantasticks" and it was given a "limited release" in only four markets - New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Sacramento.  The film played a week and then went away until it materialized on home entertainment in Coppola's cut, not Ritchie's.

Ritchie supported Coppola's cut. He died in 2001. "The Fantasticks" was not his last movie, as widely reported. (That would be "A Simple Wish" in 1997.)  Now it's 2015. Twenty long years have passed and Ritchie is gone but "The Fantasticks" has somehow, miraculously, survived. The fastidious attention that Michael Ritchie devoted his movie is, well, humbling.

His film is not an adaptation of "The Fantasticks."  It is "The Fantasticks."  Ritchie retained the show's original graphic (as seen in the frame from the opening credits above), as well as the show's overture - arguably the second most famous musical overture after Jules Styne's "Gypsy."

Now, about the Coppola cut... It is just another example of what studios traditionally have done when confronted with tightening movie musicals.  For some bizarre reason, the customary mentality has always been to trim the very elements that define a musical - the songs.  In the case of "The Fantasticks," some songs were routinely trimmed, while two were cut altogether - "Plant a Radish" and, unbelievably, the opening rendition of the show's most emblematic song, the achingly beautiful "Try to Remember." (That's Jonathon Morris pictured above singing the song).

It's ironic that when it comes to his own films, Coppola adds footage (see "Apocalypse Now Redux"), but then it's unclear if Coppola personally re-edited "The Fantasticks" himself (see Note in Passing below).

That said, many thanks to Craig Spaulding, Ed Dennis and their gang at Twilight Time for believing in Ritchie's film and presenting its Blu-ray incarnation as something of an event - a circumstance that I could have never imagined. And thanks to Julie Kirgo for astute liner notes that express thoughts about the film that the critics missed.  And the topping, of course, is the privileged experience of seeing Ritchie's original cut - a straightforward, no-frills, no-nonsense, old-fashioned movie musical.

This is not a modern aberration, along the lines of Baz Luhrmann's "Moulin Rouge."  No, it's a real musical. The last real movie musical.
Ritchie's cast assembled for a curtain call
An element that's available on the MGM Home Entertainment DVD of the film, but not included on the new Blu-ray, is a rough filming of "It Depends on What You Pay (The Rape Song)" as written for the original '60 stage production of "The Fantasticks."  The roughness is evident in the frame pictured above.  Ritchie must have filmed it as a test or perhaps a favor to the composers.  The song was eventually re-filmed and used in the movie but as "The Seduction Song," reworked by Jones and Schmidt.
Note in Passing: Much was made about Francis Ford Coppola being brought in and using his American Zoetrope facilities to re-edit the film, reducing it from 109 minutes to 86 minutes.  But an end title on the release version of "The Fantasticks" credits Melissa Kent with the "additional editing."  Hmmm.  That title card, incidentally, replaced one in the end credits of the Ritchie version that announced that the film's soundtrack album would be available on Telrac Records.

Of course, a soundtrack album never materialized.

Finally, The Hallmark Hall of Fame aired a one-hour adaptation of "The Fantasticks" in 1964, starring Ricardo Montalban as El Greco, Stanely Holloway and Bert Lahr as the fathers, John Davidson as Matt and Susan Watson as Luisa. Watson, who created the role of Kim MacAfee in the original 1960 Broadway production of "Bye Bye Birdie," created the role in the inaugural Barnard College production of "The Fantasticks."