Friday, March 30, 2007

cinema obscura: Stanley Donen's "Staircase" (1969)



Given its pedigree and subject matter, it's a bit of a surprise that "Staircase" has all but disappeared. Never a truly great movie, it is exactly what you'd think - a filmed play, adapted from the stage by the playwright, Charles Dyer, himself. On stage, it starred Eli Wallach and Milo O'Shea as a long-time, aging gay couple, now given to bickering endlessly and usually about day-to-day minutia - and, presumably, it was autobiographical, as one of the two main characters is named ... Charles Dyer.

For the occasion of making it into a movie, 20th Century-Fox went all out, reuniting its "Cleopatra" stars - Richard Burton and newly-minted Oscar winner Rex Harrison - to play the couple and putting them in the hands of no less than Stanley Donen, a filmmaker who moved comfortably from musicals ("The Pajama Game") to romantic comedies ("Indiscreet") to observant social dramas ("Two for the Road"), always locating elegance and sophistication in his varied material.

Labeled an "important movie" (read: Oscar bait), "Staircase" was given an entitled Christmas '69 slot but, greeted by clearly disappointed critics, it faded quickly and was no longer remembered when the 1970 Oscarcast rolled around.

Part of the film's problem, as I remember it, is that it was in conflict with itself - an essentially small "kitchen sink" piece, mixing comedy with the requisite dreariness of British theater of the time, done up in wide screen and color and generally fit for Radio City Music Hall.

Charles Dyer and Harry Leeds (played by Harrison and Burton, respectively) have been a couple for two decades, living in London's West End and working as hairdressers at Chez Harry, Harry's establishment. Each man is still attached to his mother - Cathless Nesbitt as Burton's mother and Beatric Lehmann as Charlie's mom - a matter that interfers with an already troubled, flailing relatinship.

Harrison and Burton both play stereotypes here, with Charlie representing gay flamboyance and cynicism and Harry behaving as his disapproving auntie.

The film has its moments, thanks to the director and his stars who transform the material into something more universal, addressing the everyday evasions and deceptions that define most of our lives. Had the material been kept small, as it was conceived to be, perhaps it would still be remembered today for its modest honesty and it's genuine warmth and empathy for the human condition, instead of not being remembered at all.

Cinema Obscura is a recurring feature of The Passionate Moviegoer, devoted to those films that have been largely forgotten. Suggestions welcome.

(Artwork: Two posters for Fox's "Staircase")

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Anyone interested in perusing some 2060 of my film reviews, dating back to 1994, can do so by simply going to RottenTomatoes.Com

tashlin rocks!

My recent blog on the link between the work of Frank Tashlin and Eddie Murphy's "Norbit" elicited a note from Jim Healy, Assistant Curator of exhibitions/motion picture Ddpartment at the George Eastman House in Rochester, New York.

I'm sure he wouldn't mind if I shared it with you.

"Nice to encounter another Tashlin fan," writes Jim. "I don't know where you write from, but I've programmed a series of Frank Tashlin features and cartoons currently running here in Rochester. We're only showing one feature and two cartoons a week, but if you make the trip and give me enough advance notice, I might be able to show you more."

Jim's series is running at The Dryden Theater at the George Eastman House, 900 East Avenue, Rochester, New York 14607 (585.271.3361).

Jim also wrote a terrific essay on Tashlin worth checking out. It's titled "The Nonsense We Call Civilization: The Cartoons and Comedies of Frank Tashlin."

(Artwork: Frank Tashlin at work on one of his cartoons)

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Anyone interested in perusing some 2060 of my film reviews, dating back to 1994, can do so by simply going to RottenTomatoes.Com

Saturday, March 24, 2007

"Norbit" & Frank Tashlin


I came to Eddie Murphy's "Norbit" belatedly, put off by the dubious trailer and accompanying print ads. And, frankly, the dismissive reviews didn't help either, even though it was clear to me that "Norbit" is the kind of movie for which reviewers save all their venom and bad jokes. But the hint of the film's political incorrectness and sense of anarchy kept me vaguely interested in it, along with those curious pans which seemed just a tad too excessive and hysterical. So I gave in and went.

Nothing prepared me for the treat I encountered and I suppose that a lot of my delight in the film is that it took me totally by surprise. Given all the buzz and hype that surround films these days, how often can you go into a film innocent and untarnished by someone else's opinion? Never.

For better or worse, "Norbit" is an authentic Jerry Lewis movie, an exhilarating throwback to the kind of movies that Lewis made, specifically the ones he made with director Frank Tashlin. It is genuinely, side-splittingly funny. While Murphy's timid "Nutty Professor" twins were ostensibly inspired by Lewis, "Norbit" is the real thing, and unapologetically so.

Not only does it feature Murphy's best screen work to date (sorry, "Dreamgirls" fans) and in three fully-realized roles, but it is elevated by Rick Baker's more-impressive-as-usual make-up work. The real revelation here, however, is Brian Robbins' direction. Nothing in his skimpy filmography ("Varsity Blues," "The Perfect Score," "Good Burger") gave me any indication that Robbins knew how to handle this kind of tricky material, which involves walking a very thin line. He's like Tashlin reincarnated.

Does it sound ridiculous to wax poetic about Brian Robbins' incredible mise en scène in "Norbit"? Probably.

So what?

Regarding the critics, either they went in with preconceived notions about "Norbit" and saw the film they wanted to see, or their deadline pressures led to hasty reviews. It is also rough for white critics (which most critics are) to endorse a film that has been accused beforehand (and unfairly) of exploiting negative black stereotypes. I don't get it. I can't explain why the critics didn't "get" it,
Mick LaSalle, the ever-astute film sage of The San Francisco Chronicle, being a rare exception. Nevertheless, "Norbit" is one of the few films today that I want to see again.

And speaking of Tashlin, too many of his breezy comedies from the the 1950s and early '60s have evaded home entertainment in any form. Sure, it's relatively easy to see his two Jayne Mansfield flicks, "Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?" and "The Girl Can't Help It." But what about the many others?

Off the top of my head, I'm thinking of - and would love to see - "Susan Slept Here" (1954) with Dick Powell and Debbie Reynolds; "Artists and Models" (1955), with Martin and Lewis and Shirley MacLaine; "The Lieutenant Wore Skirts" (1956), starring the wonderful Sheree North and Tom Ewell; "Say One for Me" (1959), again with Debbie Reynolds, this time with Bing Crosby and Robert Wagner; "Bachelor Flat" (1962), with Tuesday Weld and Terry-Thomas, and "The Man from the Diner's Club" (1963) with Danny Kaye and Cara Williams.

Release them, I say!

Note in Passing: Finally, a word of gratitude to Dave Kehr for his incredibly encouraging words about this post/my stance on "Norbit" and for his support in general. It means a lot.

(Artwork: top: Publicity shot of Eddie Murphy as "Norbit" and middle: the poster art for Frank Tashlin's "The Lieutenant Wore Skirts")

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Anyone interested in perusing some 2060 of my film reviews, dating back to 1994, can do so by simply going to RottenTomatoes.Com

lemmon, kovacs & quine

Throughout most of the 1950s and '60s, Jack Lemmon was a contract player at Columbia Pictures, while Richard Quine was a young house director. At some point, Lemmon and Quine's boss, the infamous Harry Cohn, lured brilliant funnyman Ernie Kovacs into the mix. Eventually, the three got together - many times.

Much has been written about the Jack Lemmon/Walter Matthau/Billy Wilder triumverate. But first there was the Lemmon/Kovacs/Quine teaming - 1957's “Operation Madball,” 1958's “Bell, Book and Candle” and 1959's “It Happened to Jane,” all made for Columbia.

One could say that Lemmon/Kovacs/Quine anticipated Lemmon/Matthau/Wilder. So why hasn't someone resourceful at Sony Home Entertainment entertained the idea of a boxed set? Too esoteric, I suppose.

Meanwhile, Lemmon and Quine were particularly proficient, also collaborating on 1955's musical version of "My Sister Eileen" (Quine starred in the original Roz Russell version when he was a young actor) and 1962's "The Notorious Landlady. (Lemmon and Quine also made 1965's “How to Murder Your Wife," for United Artists, not Columbia.)

As I noted, during his lifetime, much was made about Lemmon's enduring relationships with Wilder and Matthau, but as you can see, he shared equally influential (and frequent) collaborations with Quine and Kovacs. Wilder was inarguably the director who put Lemmon on the map, but Quine was also an important recurring thread throughout his life and career.

Both Quine and Wilder served as Lemmon's best men when Lemmon married Felicia Farr in Paris on 17 August, 1962. "They were both my dearest friends," Lemmon once told me, "I couldn't choose between them."

And when Kovacs subsequently joined up, it was a teaming that would prefigure the Lemmon-Matthau acting relationship and serve as something of a prototype for the work Lemmon did with Matthau.

Couldn't you imagine Lemmon having done "The Fortune Cookie" and "The Odd Couple" with Kovacs?

Surprisingly, two of the Lemmon-Kovacs-Quine titles not only are not available on DVD but have never been released on video at all. Adding insult to injury, the two films - both co-written by Blake Edwards - haven't been aired on commercial televison for years. They seem to have disappeared from syndication and are virtually lost movies now.

The first is the very funny "Operation Mad Ball" (which I always think of as the '50s precursor to "M*A*S*H"), which Edwards wrote with Jed Harris and Arthur Carter (from a play by Carter) and co-starred Kovacs, Mickey Rooney and Arthur O'Connell. The second is "The Notorious Landlady," which Edwards co-wrote with Larry Gelbart (TV's "M*A*S*H" and Broadway's "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum") and which co-starred Quine's muse, Kim Novak, Fred Astaire, Estelle Winwood, Lionel Jeffries, Maxwell Reed and Phileppa Bevans.


Kovacs' work with Lemmon in both "Operation Mad Ball" and "Bell, Book and Candle" is inspired. But he outdid himself in "It Happened to Jane." While we were working on a book together, Lemmon told me that Harry Foster Malone, the villain that Kovacs plays in “It Happened to Jane,” was based directly on Columbia head, Harry Cohn, who died while the trio was making "Bell, Book and Candle" the year before.

Kovacs even affected Cohns' look, cosmetically, for his wicked impersonation, donning a bald plate for the film and reportedly gaining 40 pounds.

While it's often been rumored that Malone was modeled after the Charles Foster Kane character in Orson Welles' "Citizen Kane" (1941), only part of the character's name was borrowed from Welles. But the name Harry itself comes directly from Harry Cohn.

There's a brilliant bit of dialogue in "Jane" - written by Norman Katkov - which could have been spoken by Cohn himself...

Harry Foster Malone: “Get this, Sloan. I’m 52 years old and I was born on the lower east side in a cold-water flat. I wasn’t lucky enough to get to college or law school. I’m a slob that came up the hard way. But let me give you a chunk of information. Anybody who gives trouble to Harry Foster Malone, gets trouble, got that?

Crawford Sloan (Walter Greaza): “Have it your way, Harry.”

Harry: “I will.”

"It Happened to Jane," inspired by Frank Capra's films (and with the Capra-like working title of "Old 97 Goes to Market"), was filmed in small-town Chester, Conn, where Quine took advantage of the local populace for a memorable town-meeting sequence that revolves around Lemmon and the galvanizing speech he gives. And on a more charming note, there's the moment when Doris Day, balancing herself on a moving train coerces a proposal out of Lemmon. So, exactly why hasn't this endearing little film been more embraced? It's excellent.

Lemmon may have had more pretigeous hits in such Wilder films as "Some Like It Hot" and "The Apartment," but few of his films are as well-written as "It Happened to Jane " and "The Notorious Landlady." I know I'm in a minority here but so goes it.



While I'm at it, Kovacs is long overdue for a rediscovery. Sure his TV standup routines have been showcased on DVD but how about the other films that he made for Columbia - Sir Carol Reed's "Our Man in Havana" (1959), Mervyn LeRoy's "Wake Me When It's Over" (1960), with Dick Shawn, and Irving Brecher's "Sail a Crooked Ship" (1961)? At least, his 1960 Columbia film for Quine, "Strangers When We Meet," is available.

Finally, there's Judy Holliday - another Columbia contract player, like Lemmon and Kovacs - who deserves a boxed set of the six films she made for the studio, namely “Born Yesterday,” “The Marrying Kind,” “It Should Happen to You,” “Phffft!,” “Full of Life” and “The Solid Gold Cadillac.”

(Artwork: From top: Richard Quine with Virna Lisi on the set of United Artists' "How to Murder Your Wife," publicity shots of Doris Day, Jack lemmon and Steve Forrest in Columbia's "It Happened to Jane" and a publicity still of Ernie Kovacs)

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Anyone interested in perusing some 2060 of my film reviews, dating back to 1994, can do so by simply going to RottenTomatoes.Com

taymor versus roth

"All it takes is no talent."
-Tessie Tura in "Gypsy"

When Harvey Weinstein was running Miramax with his brother Bob, he earned the nickname Harvey Scissorhands because of his penchant for reshaping other filmmaker's movies in the editing room - his most triumphant hatchet job being Giuseppe Tornatore's "Cinema Paradiso"/"Nuovo cinema Paradiso," which was reduced from 170 minutes to 155 minutes to its final 123 minutes.

At the height of Weinstein's popularity and infamy, it was often asked what qualified him to do that to other people's films - I mean, aside from the fact that he was the boss. Well, Weinstein did make a couple films of his own - "Playing for Keeps" (1986) and "The Gnomes' Great Adventure" (1987). Never heard of them? Well, who did?

This is in preamble to asking the same question about Joe Roth, head of Revolution Studios, who reportedly has trimmed Julie Taymor's upcoming movie musical, "Across the Universe" from 128 minutes to approximately 98 minutes - much to the chagrin of Taymor, of course.

Roth's qualifications? Well, he is also an occasional filmmaker, having been responsible for "Revenge of the Nerds II: Nerds in Paradise," the atrocious "Christmas with the Kranks" and the tolerable "Freedomland." Yep, that's his personal filmography. Honest. I couldn't make that up.

Say no more.

(Artwork: Julie Taymor - director of "The Lion King" on stage and, on film, "Titus," "Frida" and the upcoming "Across the Universe" - at a Tony Awards ceremony)

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Anyone interested in perusing some 2060 of my film reviews, dating back to 1994, can do so by simply going to RottenTomatoes.Com

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Courteney Cox's "Dirt"


In her brilliant 1971 essay, "Notes on Hearts and Minds," the late Pauline Kael took on the critical establishment and its seeming willingness to become just another marketing tool of the big Hollywood studios.

She wrote: "The pressure is so strong on reviewers to do what is wanted of them that many of them give in and reserve their fire for pathetic little sex pictures - cheap porny pix - which they can safely attack because there's no big advertising money behind them."

In the 30-some years since Kael wrote that astute observation, this tendency among critics has become much worse. The thumbs-up/four-star hysteria that seems to accompany every movie opening these days (replete with requisite exclamation points, of course) is so pervasive that it's insidious and now critics seem to like so much of what Hollywood makes that they often save their "fire," to borrow Kael's word, for perfectly fine little films that they are more than willing to sacrifice. After all, you have to hate something, right?

Anyway, this trend has been extended to TV criticism, with such genuinely amusing, well-written shows as Brad Garrett's "'Til Death" (Fox), a wicked contemporary variation on "The Honeymooners," only more cynical (if that's possible), and Courteney Cox's delicious and inspired "Wicked" (FX). Both have taken immediate drubbings.

Of the two, "Dirt" has the classic contours of a cult/midnight attraction as it refreshingly exposes the other, more interesting side of "prestige journalism" and its greed for Pulitzers and its irrational fear of plagiarism - namely, torrid, sensational reportage where prizes are deservedly sneered at and fabrication is all but encouraged.

The show is hands-down, low-down fun, anchored by Cox's remarkable performance - a comedy turn played dead serious and with a straight, almost mask-like face. Cox is pitch black and pitch perfect as Lucy Spiller, an ambitious careerist high on power - an editor as editors really are, only not hiding behind the usual sanctimony.

She is matched by the invaluable British actor Ian Hart as Don Conkey, a self-described "highly functioning schizophrenic" and (wittily put) "voiceover extraordinaire" who works for Lucy as her top photographer at Dirt/Now magazine and as her loyal all-around right-hand man who relishes the dirty work. (This show proves that Cox is unmatched when it comes to having chemistry with whomever she's acting opposite.)

Among other fresh touches on the show are the adroit ways in which Don's various hallucinations are conveyed. Frankly, I can't think of anything - on the big screen or small screen - as brilliant as "Dirt," the brainchild of someone named Matthew Carnahan who, on the basis of this show, deserves a bright, bright future.

(Artwork: top and bottom: Publicity shots of Courteney Cox and Ian Hart in Matthew Carnahan's "Dirt" for FX)

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Anyone interested in perusing some 2060 of my film reviews, dating back to 1994, can do so by simply going to RottenTomatoes.Com

Thursday, March 15, 2007

stuart rosenberg, 1927-2007


Word just came in that Stuart Rosenberg died today from a heart attack. One of our more underrated directors, he didn't receive half the attention that is routinely doled out to the usual suspects - i.e., Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese and Robert Altman.

After spending most of the 1950s and early '60s directing episodic TV ("The Untouchables," "The Naked City"), Rosenberg was hand-picked by Jack Lemmon to direct Paul Newman in Lemmon's first Jalem production, "Cool Hand Luke" in 1967. Two years later, he directed Lemmon and Catherine Deneuve in the enchanting and now-forgotten, "The April Fools."

For the next fifteen years or so, Rosenberg helmed an impressive list of modestly accomplished little films and if anyone out there is considering an at-home Stuart Rosenberg Film Festival, here are some titles, in addition to "Cool Hand Luke" and "The April Fools," that should be considered:

-- The compelling "WUSA" (1970), starring Newman, Joanne Woodward and Anthony Perkins;

--"Move" (1970), a lost Elliott Gould comedy made at the actor's peak;

--"Pocket Money" (1972), with Newman again and Lee Marvin;

--"The Laughing Policeman" (1973), starring Walter Matthau in one of his best dramatic performances;

--"The Drowning Pool" (1975), with Newman reprising his Harper character;

--the all-star "Voyage of the Damed" (1976);

--"Brubaker" (1980), the compulsively watchable Robert Redford prison flick, and

--"The Pope of Greenwich Village" (1984), with both Mickey Rourke and Eric Roberts in bravura performances.

(Artwork: Poster art from Warners' "Cool Hand Luke" and Fox's "Brubaker," both directed by the underrated Staurt Rosenberg)

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Anyone interested in perusing some 2060 of my film reviews, dating back to 1994, can do so by simply going to RottenTomatoes.Com

Alert! Quine's missing "The Notorious Landlady" (1962) Sighted - Alive and Well in France!



Good news. Sort of. Inexplicably neglected by Columbia Pictures for more than 40 years now, Richard Quine's silky smooth Hitchcock farce of 1962, "The Notorious Landlady," suddenly surfaced in France on February 14 for a major revival, under its local title, "L'Inquiétante dame en noir." Here, the film has been just about impossible to see, thanks to Columbia's bizarre apprehension about putting the film on home video in any format. "The Notorious Landlady," despite its impressive credentials, has never been on Beta, VHS, Laser or DVD. I haven't been able to find a TV showing of it in years, although sources tell me that it's been shown on Encore's Mystery Channel (whatever and wherever that is).

The film is irresistible, thanks in large part to a uniquely literate script by Blake Edwards and Larry Gelbart, based on a short story by British mutmeggy Margery Sharp that ran in Colliers Magazine in 1956. Jack Lemmon and Kim Novak, Quine's muse, teamed up for the third time (following Mark Robson's smart 1954 marital comedy, "Phffft!," and 1958's "Bell, Book and Candle," also directed by Quine), but this time with a romantic payoff. Novak plays an American expatriate living in London and accused of murdering her missing husband; Lemmon plays an American diplomat who rents a flat in Novak's huge Mayfair house, much to the chagrin of his nervous boss, played by Fred Astaire.

Bosley Crowther in The New York Times wrote, "From the moment he pokes the doorbell of Kim Novak's London house and starts sparking brightly on the instant she guardedly answers it, Lemmon is full of delightful little gurgles, witty spayings, appreciate looks and all the amusing indications of a healthy fellow falling - well, in love ... Credit a clever little story and a comic performance by Lemmon that twinkles like a mischief-maker's eyes for the unexpected good humor that generally crackles and pops in Columbia's 'The Notorious Landlady,' which came to the Criterion and the Beekman yesterday."

And in The New Yorker, Edith Oliver wrote, "I don't see how anyone could help but have a good time watching Jack Lemmon, Fred Astaire and a British actor named Lionale Jeffries, all of them expert comedians in a comedy of murder called 'The Notorious Landlady.'"

The topping is a wonderful climatic chase scene along the rocky cliffs of Penzance, which ace music supervisor George Duning set to - what else? - Gilbert and Sullivan.

Aside from Jeffries, the film co-stars Estelle Winwood and Phillipa Bevans, Mrs. Pearce from the original Broadway production of "My Fair Lady."

Bottom Line: Release it on DVD already!

Cinema Obscura is a recurring feature of The Passionate Moviegoer, devoted to those films that have been largely forgotten. Suggestions welcome.

(Artwork: French ad for Columbia's "The Notorious Landlady"/"L'Inquiétante dame en noir")

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Anyone interested in perusing some 2060 of my film reviews, dating back to 1994, can do so by simply going to RottenTomatoes.Com

The Oscars, creative bankruptcy married to misguided snobbery

OK, enough time has passed so I can now comment in a relatively relaxed way. Here goes...

To paraphrase Will Rogers' quote on the weather, everybody complains about The Oscars, but nobody does anything about them. But is this annual giveaway and the vulgar show celebrating it really worth the energy that some critics and film fans invest in them every year?

No, much more offensive than the Academy’s overall lack of taste is its hilariously misguided snobbery – which really isn’t that funny. Case in point: The yearly Irving J. Thalberg Memorial, Jean Hersholt Humanitarian, Gordon E. Sawyer and Honorary awards. These awards seem to bring out the self-consciousness of the Academy’s board of directors who invariably underrate, ignore and, by extention, insult some of film’s most popular professionals. Overlooked in their lifetimes were the invaluable Robert Mitchum, Ida Lupino and Glenn Ford. Still waiting for recognition are Richard Widmark, Doris Day and Jerry Lewis, all of them more than deserving and long overdue. The Academy’s refusal to honor or at least acknowledge them smacks of a dsiturbing lack of gratitude. And that's exactly what this blog is all about.

And what’s with the annual “In Memorium” errata? How difficult is it for someone to keep a list of those film personalities who died during the calendar movie year being honored? Well, apparently, it’s a tough job because how else do you explain the fact that, every year, familiar faces are overlooked? This year, Dennis Weaver, who died on February 24, 2006, and Adrienne Shelly, who was tragically murdered on November 1, 2006, didn’t make the obit reel, while James Doohan, who died on July 20, 2005, not in 2006, inexplicably did make it. The criminally underrated Sheree North didn't make it last year. What's odd about the omission of Shelly is that the last film she directed, "Waitress," generated a lot of buzz at Sundance just as Oscar fever was raging. Anyway, this sloppiness is just another example of the Academy’s overall lack of respects for “its own.”

As for the awards themselves, how can one quibble each year with a voting system that embraces thousands of Academy members, most of whom presumably saw the films and performances for which they’re voting? The winners, as we all know, are tested by time. My hunch is that Jennifer Hudson’s absurd “Dreamgirls” victory over “Babel’s” Adriana Barraza will seem as bizarre 30 years from now as Goldie Hawn’s 1969 triumph over Susannah York does today. (How bizarre? Hawn won for “Cactus Flower”; York lost for “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?”

And the show itself ? Why waste the energy complaining? Clearly the powers behind it – which is most of Hollywood – think along the lines of “why-fix-what-isn’t-broken?” They are oblivious to the fact that as the Oscarcast grows into a bigger White Elephant each year, it is transcended by the appealing simplicity of the Golden Globes. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences must think its progress to trade in those deadly, stultifying production numbers for an endless series of montages that are at once pretentious, self-congratulatory and numbing – the worst one on this past show being Michael Mann’s seemingly pointless hodge-podge.

End of Diatribe.

Oh, one more thing... Why did Oprah exlude Alan Arkin from her post-Oscar TV extravaganza. Mirren, Whitaker, Hudson and Ellen Degenerese were all there, but no Arkin. Was he being pusnished for winning or couldn't me make it? Whatever, an explanation was necessary - but wasn't forthcoming.

(Artwork: from top: publicity shots of Richard Widmark, Adrienne Shelly and Adriana Barraza )

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Anyone interested in perusing some 2060 of my film reviews, dating back to 1994, can do so by simply going to RottenTomatoes.Com

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

shut up and act!

Belatedly, I come to a topic that has been distracting at me for a couple weeks now.

Everybody has one - an opinion, that is. Opinions are as ubiquitous as, well, you know what. Especially opinions about movies. Anyone who has ever worked for a newspaper and has had access to wire services can attest to the fact that opinions about films and filmmakers come cheap.

As someone who freely pontificated opinions for a living for longer than I care to remember, I've learned to respect those of others. But some are just too annoying and have to be addressed - and must.

This is in preamble to confronting Lily Tomlin's gratutious remarks about Alfred Hitchcock during a tribute to Robert Altman - the latest of many in recent months - at the Independent Spirt Awards ceremony, held on February 24th. (You did know that Robert Altman was remarkable, right?) Anyway, Tomlin took the stage with Robert Downey, Jr. to praise Altman's famed indulgence of actors, needlessly and unfavorably contrasting Hitchcock with him. Hitch, of course, was infamously more demanding of actors.

Yes, she even hauled out that old Hitchcock analogy that actors are - gasp! - cattle. Heaven forbid.

William H.Macy pretty much recited the same spiel - needless digs at Hitch, a man he never met - when he was doing PR for Gus Van Sant's unnecessary remake of "Psycho" several years ago. (Hey, I have a message myself: I've seen Gus Van Sant movies and, believe me, he's no Hitchcock.)

Look. I liked Altman. I especially liked him during my formative years as a critic in the 1970s, but I grew up and, hopefully, grew wiser. "Nashville," which was my reason for living in 1975, slowly became less illustrious over the years and, yes - dare I say it? - even boring. Altman was of his time, and many of his titles are starting seem like weird artifacts of a brief, fleeting period in Hollywood that, for better or worse, was creatively fertile. I should note here that, as a working critic, I did not believe in or practice blind loyalty. There's no place for it in criticism.

Hitchcock isn't here to defend himself (not that he necessarily would), so I will. His work, unlike Altman's, has proven to transcend time and place. It defies age, even those titles hastily dismissed in their time. The delectable "Marnie" has improved with age; Altman's "Images" hasn't. I'd also wager that, arguably - arguably - there are better, richer performances in Hitchcock's films than in any of Altman's. He was a great, if limited, filmmaker. Hitchcock, on the other hand, was simply great, whether he liked actors or not. I'm sure he disliked critics, too.

So what?

My problem with Tomlin's remarks is based on the fact that I wholly disapprove of denigrating one filmmaker in order to celebrate another, and I hope that I didn't do that here today. Oh, and for what it's worth, I think Tomlin has been quite remarkable on screen.

And not just in Robert Altman movies.

(Artwork: Master filmmakers top: Robert Altman and bottom: Alfred Hitchcock)

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Anyone interested in perusing some 2060 of my film reviews, dating back to 1994, can do so by simply going to RottenTomatoes.Com

façade: Heather Graham


Now is the time to praise Heather Graham.

The reason for the praise is because, well, Heather Graham simply isn't praised enough. She's been on the fringes of genuine stardom for about 20 years now, flourishing mostly in the indie market. Like her art-house cohort, Parker Posey, Graham rightfully should have made a smooth transition into major mainstream stardom years ago. She has the right looks, she has the talent, and that slightly loopy personality that she's carefully honed is always a pleasure to behold.

It could be that Graham - who made her movie debut at age 14 in an uncredited bit in Gilliam Armstrong's "Mrs. Soffel" (1984) and hit her stride a few years later in such films as "Drugstore Cowboy," "Shout" and "Diggstown" - is simply happy remaining on the fringes in the indie world. Either that or Hollywood hasn't been smart enough to snap her up. In the days of the studio system, moguls such as Jack Warner and Harry Cohn would have carefully groomed her for big things. The last actress to receive such hands-on treatment was Goldie Hawn, who was taken under wing by Mike Frankovich.

But I guess even I have taken Graham for granted. It wasn't until I saw her in Sue Kramer's "Gray Matters," playing a seemingly uncomplicated young woman who suddenly realizes she might be a latent homosexual, that I realized just how great she can be, effortlessly so. She gives a major comedy performance in a charming little film that will be forgotten way too soon. Sad.

(Artwork: Movie queen publicity shot of Heather Graham)

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Anyone interested in perusing some 2060 of my film reviews, dating back to 1994, can do so by simply going to RottenTomatoes.Com

Three Times the Fun with Doris Day

Doris Day - one of Hollywood's "misunderstood commodities," as Molly Haskell once put it - has finally become a person of interest in terms of DVD releases. Warners has released two richly deserved boxed sets of her work there and at MGM (one set actually due in April), Columbia made one of its rare decision to do the right thing and commit Richard Quine's super "It Happened to Jane" to DVD and Universal has honored her with home-entertainment editions of the fluff comedies she made there with Rock Hudson, James Garner and producer Ross Hunter.

But where, oh, where is "Midnight Lace," the compulsively watchable mystery-thriller that she made for the estimable David Miller and Universal in 1960?
Now - finally - Fox has saw fit to release three comedies she made there in the mid-to-late 60s - Michael Gordon's "Move Over, Darling" (1963), Ralph Levy's "Do Not Disturb" (1965) and Frank Tashlin's "Caprice" (1967), with Garner, Rod Taylor and Richard Harris as her hunky co-stars, respectively. (Day also worked with Tashlin and Taylor on 1966's antic "The Glass-Bottom Boat" for MGM.)

Now, I'm realistic enough to realize that Day was winding down when she made these three Fox comedies. But one has only to look at the state of the rom-com today to realize that Molly Haskell was right. Just thinking about Doris Day makes me feel better. No contemporary star brings me such unadulterated joy. One complaint: Why didn't Fox box these three titles? Curious.

Now, come on, Universal, bring on "Midnight Lace."

(Artwork: Dust jacket cover for the DVD of Fox's "Move Over, Darling")

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Anyone interested in perusing some 2060 of my film reviews, dating back to 1994, can do so by simply going to RottenTomatoes.Com

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Bong Joon-ho's "The Host"/"Gwoemul"

The ability to discover a movie is rare in these days of endless and relentless buzz and hype. We're essentially told what whe should look forward to. So it's a distinct treat - and privilege - when a movie sneaks up on us. And that's the exact case with South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho's "The Host"/"Gwoemul," a nifty, old-fashioned monster flick about, well, the unspeakable. To get to the point, "The Host" is a drop-dead hit.

Made with B-movie cunning and a keen appreciation of every natural-and-unnatural thriller that came before it - from Spielberg's "Jaws" to Honda's "Gojira" ("Godzilla") - Joon-ho's "The Host" doesn't play fair but rather confronts us with primal moments, both queasily comical and cruelly frightening, involving something hellish from the deep, a mutant tadpole or whatever. And the film, like its beast, explodes on screen with the vigor and brightness of a Jovian meteor. Made with extraordinary intelligence and style and surprising flashes of humor, "The Host" in the end is spellbinding, a sneaky celebration of what movies are supposed to be all about. By all means, treat yourself.

(Artwork: Bae Doo-na faces the worst in a scene from Magnolia Picture's "The Host"/"Gwoemul")

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Anyone interested in perusing some 2060 of my film reviews, dating back to 1994, can do so by simply going to RottenTomatoes.Com

betty hutton, 1921-2007



Betty Hutton, 1921-2007


What a broad, what a delightful broad. And naturally so. It never seemed to be an affectation for the camera. Perhaps that's why she was so habitually underrated, especially by the MGM stable of players and craftsmen who allegedly were openly rude to her during the filming of George Sidney's "Annie Get Your Gun" (1950). They wanted their little Judy in the role. Well, frankly, I always preferred Betty Hutton's unpretentious perkiness to Garland's naked neediness.

And, let's face it. Anyone could have played Annie Oakley, but no one could have given as much as Hutton did to Trudy Kockenlocker in Preston Sturges' classic knockabout farce, "The Miracle of Morgan's Creek" (1944).

I just wish she had worked more, especially in musicals. I mean, she would have made a great Nellie Forbush in "South Pacific" (1958). And as much as I love Doris Day and Roz Russell in the roles, I still have fantasy flashes of Hutton as Babe Williams in "The Pajama Game" (1957) and as Madam Rose Hovick in "Gypsy" (1962).

In the end, she was right when she sang in "Annie"... "Anything you can do, I can do better!"

You sure could, Betty. Now, rest in peace, you little kewpie doll.

(Artwork: Betty in her prime)

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Anyone interested in perusing some 2060 of my film reviews, dating back to 1994, can do so by simply going to RottenTomatoes.Com

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

cinema obscura: George Sidney's "Pepe" (1960), Columbia and Turner Classics



It was a missed opportunity that left a lot of die-hard movie buffs scratching their heads. Turner Classics had quietly scheduled the difficult-to-see, full-length, 195-minute roadshow version of George Sidney's "Pepe" in a made-to-fit three-hour-and-fifteen-minute slot, set for February 19th - starting at 9:45 a.m. (6:45 a.m., pst), running until 1 p.m. (10 a.m.)

Actually, originally, the movie was listed on the Turner web site in a 10-to-1 slot. However, when that was changed to 9:45 on Turner's site, that pretty much assured everyone that the uncut version would indeed be presented.

But when the film opened sans the usual roadshow overture, matters did not look hopeful. Things grew even less promising when the intermission break, following a dance number to "Tequila" featuring star Cantinflas and guest star Debbie Reynolds was elminated. This was not what was promised but the usual truncated 157-minute version of the Columbia movie, albeit in wide screen (a TV first). It was a video/DVD-alert moment that never happened.

OK, I should have noted at the outset that I doubt if anyone thinks of "Pepe" as an even remotely good movie. I'm not sure it could be called a movie at all. What it is in an amiable, shambling hodge-podge of cameo appearances - with co-star Dan Dailey bumping into a lot of celebs, mostly the stars of Columbia's TV shows at the time, such as Donna Reed and Jay "Dennis the Menace" North. The strained dialogue in such moments had Dailey congratulating Reed on her family-oriented show and wishing her family his best. "Which one?," she coyly asks.

The ostensible star of the film is the remarkable Mexican clown Cantinflas, but he had been encouraged by Sidney to (1) behave like child, (2) agree to be shunted aside and insulted by Dailey in scene after scene and (3) be generally condescended to by the array of guest stars, most of whom call him Poncho - as in Poncho Villa. You know - good, old, harmless, all-American racist fun. Sidney was a hit-or-miss filmmaker if there every was one, just as capable of ruining "Bye, Bye Birdie" for the sake of showcasing the grotesquely miscast Ann-Margret as he was of making a perfect film version of Cole Porter's "Kiss Me, Kate" or a good melodrama like "The Eddie Duchin Story." Here is squanders the talents of a star who he clearly wanted to celebrate.

That was the general feeling when the film premiered as a roadshow attraction in New York, Los Angeles and Miami during the Christmas 1960 holiday, as evidenced the The New York Times' scathing review by Bosley Crowther. (Click once and then again to read archive review.) By the time the film got to other cities, "Pepe" had been trimmed from 195 minutes back to 157 minutes, which seemed to be the only version in existence.

Among the trimmed bits was a much-publicized animated "Don Quixote" dream sequence, prepared by William Hanna and Joseph Barbera, in which the title character dreams that he is Quixote. Vicki Trickett, a popular Columbia starlet at the time, played Lupita, Pepe's girlfriend in the sequence. Even though she was cut entirely out of the film, her name still remains in the credits.

"Pepe" is a likable bad film which may explain why so many film buffs have been obsessed with seeing the long-lost full version. Needless to say, when Turner aired the usual short version, the disappointment was palpable.

Turner apologized for the mix-up, running the following explanation: "We requested the longer version, and Sony originally told us they had it (in fact they said that was the only version they had). However, last week they told us that the longer version was in bad condition and hadn't yet been trasnferred to video. So we ended up with the shorter one."

This is probably true, although the long version of "Pepe" was part of a 4-track mag stereo festival, put together by film restorer/historian Jeff Joseph, for Los Angeless' Egyptian Theater in November and December of 2002. "Pepe" was screened at 5 p.m. on Sunday, December 8 of that year and was listed as: "'PEPE,' 1960, Columbia, 195 min. Dir. George Sidney. Uncut Technicolor print!"

Joseph is pretty fastidious, so I can only assume that what he screened looked fine, but there's always the possibility that he took advantage of the opportunity to show a rare print of "Pepe," regardless of its condition.

Finally, the Turner web site offers the following notes about that long version of "Pepe": "Although various reviews list the film's length as 190 or 195 minutes, studio records reveal that the actual running time was 180 minutes 29 seconds. It is possible that the running time in the reviews included the film's intermission."

Oh, well, maybe another time...

Cinema Obscura is a recurring feature of The Passionate Moviegoer, devoted to those films that have been largely forgotten. Suggestions welcome.

(Artwork: Still shot of Cantinflas in the missing animated sequence prepared by William Hanna and Joseph Barbera for Columbia's "Pepe")

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Anyone interested in perusing some 2060 of my film reviews, dating back to 1994, can do so by simply going to RottenTomatoes.Com

McKay's “Talladega Nights: The Legend of Ricky Bobby”

“Talladega Nights: The Legend of Ricky Bobby” has become my cinematic cause celebre for the moment. Full Disclosure: I'm a sucker for any film that surprises me, something which rarely, if ever, happens these days.

So-called “deep think films" - works with messages, movies that came on the scene with the word IMPORTANT stamped on them - tend be the least interesting films to review or analyze. That’s because, in most serious films, the seriousness is all over their surface. There is nothing to really dig into because, surprisingly, most of these films have precious few layers. I’m thinking of titles such as “A Beautiful Mind” and “The Hours.” They are what they are, without anything hidden. There's nothing to search for, nothing underneath. It's all exposed.


Much more interesting are those mainstream-escapist movies that have subtle subterranean messages couched in their seemingly disposable plotlines. A lot of them are allegories that never bother to announce that they are allegories – and an excellent case in point is Adam McKay’s “Talladega Nights: The Legend of Ricky Bobby,” which utterly took me by surprise when I saw it last summer and has turned out to be – dare I say it? – one of the year’s very best films. Certainly, it is one of the year’s most deliciously subversive flicks.

As much as the film caught me unguarded, I was equally surprised (1) that its target audience accepted it, despite what I saw as an obvious agenda and (2) that so many critics didn't "get it," hastily dismissing it as just another silly summer escapist entertainment for guys (read: yahoos). Personally, I went just to kill some time and ended up being blown away.

“Talladega Nights” is a brilliant satire, a very shrewd and crafty – and highly original – political allegory. It would be easy to say it was an "accident" but, no, I actually think that some serious, barbed thought went into this film.

Will Ferrell essentially does a wicked buffoon impersonation of President George W. Bush, playing his NASCAR driver Ricky Bobby with equal amounts of arrogance, willful ignorance and delusions. He is totally sold on himself – the perfect narcissist – and totally oblivious and clueless about who he is and how he comes across.


Anyway, Ricky meets his match - and is immediately threatened by - Jean Girard (Sasha Baron Cohen, in a truly eccentric and restrained performance), an openly gay French driver out to defeat (and humble) Ricky Bobby.

Cohen has a few monologues in the film, directed at Ricky Bobby, pointing out exactly how limited Ricky is and how he hates anything he doesn't understand or anything that's different. To which Ricky Bobby routinely responds (with Ferrell brilliantly affecting President Bush’s vocal inflections), "America is the greatest country in the world!"

There's a great saloon showdown, in which Cohen defeats Ferrell and demands, "Say it! Say, 'I.. love... crepes.'" Ricky finally agrees to say it when his buddy Cal (John C. Reilly) explains that crepes are "skinny pancakes."

In one scene, Cohen is shown racing around the track while effortlessly reading Camus' "L'Etranger"! While the film was out, there was some nonsensical press about Bush's summer reading being "The Stranger." Think this notion came from a White House staffer/provocateur who saw the film? It's too much of a coincidence.

The movie works as a wonderful take on the clash of red-state-mentality with blue-state thinking. The film isn't really that subtle but if you dig deep enough, you'll find some amazingly political references. I personally thought it was kind of obvious, so it surprised that most people looked right through it and saw what they wanted to see – namely, a Will Ferrell frat-house comedy.

And the fact is, the movie does play on two distinctly different levels - and works on those levels. This is especially evident by the fact that the audience is never invited or encouraged to dislike or laugh at Cohen's gay French character. They actually sit there and accept the fact that the Frenchman is inarguably superior to Ricky Bobby – and, by extention, also an inspiration to him. Ricky spends the rest of the film trying to rehabilitate himself.


The high point has Jean Girard challenging Ricky Bobby to kiss him on the lips – a shot that McKay lets linger and that the audience fully accepts. No wincing here. And after the kiss, Cohen says to Ferrell, "You taste like an American." I've seen the film three times and was amazed by how much anti-American subversiveness that it dishes out.

There’s also an extended dinner-table sequence devotedly mostly to a prayer of grace to "the Baby Jesus." The sequence's gleefully unrestrained irreverence is better – and more outspoken – than anything in the many indie films that come on the scene announcing themselves as "biting social comedies" but that actually dare or risk little.

And this exchange is a keeper:

Ricky Bobby: "OK, exactly what have the French given the world?"

Jean Girard: "Democracy, existentialism and the menage-a-trois."

Cal (missing one perfect beat): "They're three pretty good things."

When Jean Girard asks Ricky and Cal what Americans have contributed to the world, all they can come up with is Pizza (from Italy actually), Chinese food (from China) and ... taquitos. Priceless.

One last thing: Moviegoers go into films in specific states of mind, depending on the film in question. We're more on the ball at serious films. When one goes to see a serious film with a message – again, such as “The Hours” – one is geared up to learn something. You sit erect and take in the lesson.

But we're more vulnerable, almost childlike, when we go to see a film that's strictly escapist/entertainment. Less on guard, we let down our defenses. We're not there to learn anything – just be entertainment - and are more likely to be seduced in the dark. A film like “Talladega Nights” invites audiences to kick back and relax and let the film flow over them. We're unaware that we're being fed anything but entertainment, unware of the possible messages coming at us subliminally. When this happens, "entertainment" films have the potential to be much more potent (and sometimes more dangerous) than a film hyped as having a Big Message.

"Talladega Nights: The Legend of Ricky Bobby" becomes available on DVD today, December 12th.

(Artwork: from top: Still shots of Will Ferrell, John C. Reilly and Sasha Baron Cohen in Columbia Pictures' "Talladega Nights: The Legend of Ricky Bobby")

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Anyone interested in perusing some 2060 of my film reviews, dating back to 1994, can do so by simply going to RottenTomatoes.Com

turner this month - bravo!

Have a pencil handy? OK, mark these Turner Classics showings down as "Must Sees" in March:

Thursday, March 8 at 8 p.m. (5 p.m., pst) – “I Know Where I’m Going,” with a resplendent Wendy Hiller as a resilient British woman, directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger;

Friday, March 9 at 1:15 a.m. (10:15 p.m., pst) – “Goodbye, Again,” Anatole Litvak directs Ingrid Bergman, Yves Montand and Anthony Perkins in an effective version of Francoise Sagan's "Aimez-vous Brahms?"(repeated on Sunday, March 25 at noon, 9 a.m., pst);

Sunday, March 11 at 8 p.m. (5 p.m., pst) - “The Benny Goodman Story,” with Steven Allen and Donna Reed (followed by "The Glenn Miller Story");

Sunday, March 18th noon (9 a.m., pst) - “Night of the Hunter," with Charles Laughton directing Robert Mitchum (say no more); at 2 p.m. (11 a.m., pst) – “Barefoot in the Park," and at 4 p.m. (1 p.m., pst) - “The Mating Game";

Monday, March 19 at 8:30 a.m. (5:30 a.m., pst) – “So Big,” featuring a terrific Barbara Stanwyck and Bette Davis;

Wednesday, March 21 6:30 p.m. (3:30 p.m., pst) – “Pushover,” a Quine-Novak noir;

Friday , March 23 11:15 a.m. (8:15 a.m., pst) - Karel Reisz's “Saturday Night and Sunday Morning,” British "kitchen sink" classic; at 1 p.m. (10 a.m., pst) - Richard Lester's "The Knack (and How to Get It)"; at 2:30 p.m. (11:30 a.m., pst) - Samuel Fuller's “The Naked Kiss”; at 6:15 p.m. (3:15 p.m., pst) - Hal Ashby's “Harold and Maude”;

Tuesday, March 27 2:15 p.m. (11:15 a.m., pst) - “Experiment in Terror," top-notch Blake Edwards ; at 8 p.m. (5 p.m., pst) - "Shamus," with Burt Reynolds and at 10 p.m. (8 p.m., pst) - "Marlowe," with James Garner;

Saturday, March 31 at 2 a.m. (11 p.m., pst) – “Sisters,” Brian DePalma par excellence.

Again, Turner Classics remains a veritible college education in film.

Note: This will be a regular monthly feature, highlighting, well, the highlights on Turner Classics' schedule.

(Artwork: Poster art for United Artists' "Goodbye, Again")

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Anyone interested in perusing some 2060 of my film reviews, dating back to 1994, can do so by simply going to RottenTomatoes.Com